By Stewart Mandel
June 01, 2012

Leave it to college football's power brokers to turn the seemingly simple premise of a four-team playoff into a needlessly brain-bending political stalemate.

"The four best teams have to be the four best teams," West Virginia AD Oliver Luck said at this week's Big 12 meetings in Kansas City. "That's the American way."

Silly Oliver. We all know the American Way is espousing whatever best suits the interests of one's own party. Thus, the issue of which teams should participate in a four-team playoff has become college football's equivalent of Republicans vs. Democrats. On one side, we have the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big East, all of which have endorsed incorporating a conference-champion requirement for most or all of the four teams selected. On the other side, we have the SEC and Big 12, whose leaders made it clear this week they want the top four teams, period, whether those teams are chosen via a revised BCS formula or an NCAA tournament-style selection committee.

The sides are drawn, and it's starting to get ugly, with SEC commissioner Mike Slive criticizing other conferences for trying to "gerrymander" the playoff field and Alabama coach Nick Saban calling out "self-absorbed people who are worried about how it affects their circumstance or their league rather than what's best for college football." Saban, of course, was referring to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who previously said, "I don't have a lot of regard for" a team that doesn't win its own division (cough, 2011 Alabama, cough).

On June 13 and 20 in Chicago, the commissioners will reconvene in hopes of finalizing a new format, at which point one side or the other presumably has to cave. "I don't see a compromise position," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said Thursday. There'd better be. If not, the designated fallback model is a "pure plus-one," in which a No. 1 vs. 2 matchup would be determined after the bowls. To pull such an unsatisfying bait-and-switch on the public after months and months of teasing would go over about as well as Craig James' Senate campaign.

Personally, I stand firmly in the top four camp. Those pushing for conference champions are doing so either out of petty jealousy over the SEC's recent dominance (as if it's impossible to envision Ohio State and Michigan both finishing in the top four the first year) or a misguided belief that the requirement will eliminate the inherent subjectivity of polls and rankings (they'd still need a mechanism to choose which conference champions make it). But I also realize based on e-mail and Twitter feedback that I'm in the minority on this one. And so, too, are the SEC and Big 12.

Fortunately, there is a solution that should appease all sides. It's been informally dubbed the "three-and-one" model -- as in, the three highest-rated conference champions and the highest-rated at-large team. It ensures that no conference champ in the top four would get left out and guarantees a team like No. 2 Alabama in 2011 wouldn't sit home in favor of No. 10 Wisconsin. It also provides an entry point for Notre Dame and other independents.

Most reassuringly, history indicates it wouldn't be that different from a straight-up top four.

In the 14-year BCS era, 42 of the 56 teams that finished in the top four of the BCS standings won their conference championship. That's 75 percent, which is the same exact number a three-and-one system would guarantee. Only five times in 14 years would a top four team have been left out for failing to win its conference, and all five occasions involved flipping the No. 4 and 5 teams. There would never have been a No. 3 left out or a No. 6 let in.

All in all, the three-and-one would have produced satisfying results far more often than not -- but of course, there'd still be plenty of controversy. Let's take a look at the playoff fields that might have been.

• No. 1 LSU (13-0, SEC champ)• No. 2 Alabama (11-1, at-large)• No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1, Big 12 champ)• No. 5 Oregon (11-2, Pac-12 champ)

Left out: No. 4 Stanford (11-1)

Considering the Ducks beat the Cardinal 53-30 and finished lower only because of a nonconference loss to LSU, this would certainly have been the right call.

• No. 1 Auburn (13-0, SEC champ)• No. 2 Oregon (12-0, Pac-10 champ)• No. 3 TCU (12-0, Mountain West champ)• No. 5 Wisconsin (11-1, Big Ten champ)

Left out: No. 4 Stanford (11-1)

Poor Stanford. The bigger gripe may have belonged to Michigan State, which beat Wisconsin, finished with the same 11-1 record and tied for the conference title with the Badgers and Ohio State. The issue seen here is now moot since the Big Ten has a championship game.

• No. 1 Alabama (13-0, SEC champ)• No. 2 Texas (13-0, Big 12 champ)• No. 3 Cincinnati (12-0, Big East champ)• No. 4 TCU (12-0, Mountain West champ)

This would have worked, though I'd have no problem with a selection committee instructed to emphasize schedule strength, thereby swapping 12-1 Florida -- whose sole loss came to Alabama in the SEC title game -- for the Bearcats or Horned Frogs.

• No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1, Big 12 champ)• No. 2 Florida (12-1, SEC champ)• No. 3 Texas (11-1, at-large)• No. 5 USC (11-1, Pac-10 champ)

Left out: No. 4 Alabama (12-1)

As I've said before, this is the one year in 14 where four teams still wouldn't have been enough. Alabama and 12-0 Utah had as much claim as Texas and USC.

• No. 1 Ohio State (11-1, Big Ten champ)• No. 2 LSU (11-2, SEC champ)• No. 3 Virginia Tech (11-2, ACC champ)• No. 4 Oklahoma (11-2, Big 12 champ)

Conference champion proponents, rejoice.

• No. 1 Ohio State (12-0, Big Ten champ)• No. 2 Florida (12-1, SEC champ)• No. 3 Michigan (11-1, at-large)• No. 5 USC (10-2, Pac-10 champ)

Left out: No. 4 LSU (10-2)

Delany recently suggested conference champions that finish in the top six should get first dibs. Had that been the case here, his third-ranked Wolverines would have been excluded in favor of No. 6 Louisville, also 11-1 but the Big East champion.

• No. 1 USC (12-0, Pac-10 champ)• No. 2 Texas (12-0, Big 12 champ)• No. 3 Penn State (10-1, Big Ten champ)• No. 4 Ohio State (9-2, at-large)

This one would not have been fun; as many as seven or eight teams, including No. 7 Georgia (10-2, SEC champ), could have laid claim to that fourth spot.

• No. 1 USC (12-0, Pac-10 champ)• No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0, Big 12 champ)• No. 3 Auburn (12-0, SEC champ)• No. 4 Texas (10-1, at-large)

Remember Mack Brown's 11th-hour lobbying to lift Texas over Cal (10-1, at-large) into the No. 4 spot and an accompanying Rose Bowl berth? Imagine if the stakes had been a playoff spot.

• No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1, at-large)• No. 2 LSU (12-1, SEC champ)• No. 3 USC (11-1, Pac-10 champ)• No. 4 Michigan (10-2, Big Ten champ)

This was the last year of the old BCS formula. Nowadays it would be impossible to lose a conference title game 35-7, as Oklahoma did, and still finish No. 1. Given the rest of the field, however, the Sooners still would have merited a spot in the top four.

• No. 1 Miami (12-0, Big East champ)• No. 2 Ohio State (13-, Big Ten champ)• No. 3 Georgia (12-1, SEC champ)• No. 4 USC (10-2, at-large)

Here's an interesting one. Most agreed Carson Palmer-led USC was one of, if not the, best team by the end of the year. Yet No. 6 Washington State also went 10-2, beat the Trojans and earned the Pac-10's AQ berth. Should it go instead?

• No. 1 Miami (11-0, Big East champ)• No. 2 Nebraska (11-1, at-large)• No. 3 Colorado (10-2, Big 12 champ)• No. 4 Oregon (10-1, Pac-10 champ)

Nebraska, which lost its last game 62-36 to Colorado and thus failed to win its division, was the original inspiration for "you should have to win your conference to play for the national title." Alas, teams five through seven didn't win their conferences this year, either.

• No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0, Big 12 champ)• No. 2 Florida State (11-1, ACC champ)• No. 3 Miami (10-1, Big East champ)• No. 4 Washington (10-1, Pac-10 champ)

Something tells me people would have been far more fired up for an FSU-Miami rematch (the 'Canes won the first one 27-24 on a last-minute touchdown drive) than they were for LSU-Alabama last year.

• No. 1 Florida State (11-0, ACC champ)• No. 2 Virginia Tech (11-0, Big East champ)• No. 3 Nebraska (11-1, Big 12 champ)• No. 4 Alabama (10-2, SEC champ)

As mentioned previously, Alabama would have made the playoff despite losing to Louisiana Tech. But it's hard to argue any other team was more deserving.

• No. 1 Tennessee (12-0, SEC champ)• No. 2 Florida State (11-1, ACC champ)• No. 3 Kansas State (11-1, at-large)• No. 5 UCLA (10-1, Pac-10 champ)

Left out: No. 4 Ohio State (10-1)

There would not have been much sympathy for the Buckeyes, whose loss came to 6-6 Michigan State. K-State, on the other hand, went 11-0 before losing to 10-2 Texas A&M in the Big 12 championship game.

I still think the commissioners are begging for trouble by putting any stipulations on the playoff participants. As has long been the case with the BCS, there are unforeseen scenarios that are sure to arise and elicit controversy. If they go strictly with the top four, people will blame the rankings. If they implement arbitrary qualification rules, people will blame the system. And that's the easiest way to ensure the four-team playoff quickly morphing into eight -- which the commissioners adamantly insist they don't want.

But I'll also admit the three-and-one model, when played out over 14 years, didn't spit out any noticeable indignities. Note that had this system been in place throughout, the biggest conference winners would have been ... the Big 12 (14 berths) and SEC (12), the two leagues most opposed to it. Of the conference champion advocates, the Pac-12 (with 11) would have earned two more berths than in a straight-up top four, but the Big Ten (8), Big East (5) and ACC (4) would not have seen a net gain.

All of which begs the obvious question: Why are we still having this debate?

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