College Football Is Already a Mess Without Playoffs

We're in a bad mood lately for many reasons, a couple of which arise in the world of sports. One is a seasonal outrage, the lack of a true champion in college football. The other strikes a puzzle

Dec 15, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

We're in a bad mood lately for many reasons, a couple of which arise in the world of sports. One is a seasonal outrage, the lack of a true champion in college football. The other strikes a puzzle about the measures of fair play and commitment in baseball. More on that another time.

As to the more ordinary controversy, it's tiring to hear complaints about the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system, novel as each year's complaints might be. The complaints assume there must be, in some possible universe, an America in which the championship will be decided on the field. There is no such universe. The universities will never put up with football playoffs.

Imagine the hugeness of college playoffs, which could become the biggest sporting attraction in America. Where people love college football, they really love college football.

They even put up with the fact that they can't have a true championship.

The logistics for playoffs would be painful and probably not satisfying for anybody. But college playoffs would create an absolutely deafening buzz, and the big football programs would run out of places to store the money they'd make from television alone.

Fox reportedly is paying the BCS $320 million for bowl games the next four years. That's the BCS take for its biggest games — $80 million per year, mostly for the only game that matters. The bidding for playoffs would make that amount seem quaint.

With that money, which would mostly be funneled to the big programs, those programs would become more powerful relative to the other programs and to their own universities. In locations where people love college football, they really love it.

It's already common for good programs in the major conferences to spend $10 million on football for a return of about $30 million. What if that $30 million becomes $40 million or $50 million? The beast grows.

At Ohio State, football revenues were $47 million a couple years ago. What's Ohio State got? A national championship a couple years ago, but it's a little less great after all the fallout from Maurice Clarett.

Even if the NCAA finds no wrongdoing by Ohio State, the university is under a cloud for the time being. Thousands of people who love Ohio State dearly will ride it out, but they won't have answers for this until the NCAA does, if then.

If the NCAA finds nothing, people will forget about this investigation in a year or two. For now, rivals have fodder for insults and Buckeyes can't be sure their program has followed the rules.

Of course, Buckeyes already know their program doesn't follow the rules, for the same reasons anyone figures his program isn't following the rules. But Ohio State is a large example of a general problem.

When you talk about the largeness of a college football program, you're going well past the university to sponsors, boosters, fans and everyone with vested interests, including player agents and gamblers. Even universities with the best intentions, staffing for compliance, find it impossible to keep their eyes on everyone. There's always something happening off-site.

Suppose investigators find violations at Ohio State. Would that compromise the national championship? If it could be argued that Ohio State won the national championship by cheating, how does that affect the university at large? It can't be good for prestige.

Even if nothing is found, is this episode good for Ohio State? College football is so big in some places that universities live with dire consequences even when their football programs are falsely accused.

Big universities have learned they can't necessarily take it on faith that their football programs are compliant. College football already is big enough and hard enough for the universities to control. Adding playoffs, adding money and adding hype would intensify the difficulty.

If you're a university president, your problem isn't that your football team can't win a true national championship. Your problem is that your football program might go berserk, give your university a black eye and bog you down in damage control while you'd rather be moving your agenda.

If your university is a football lesser light, you're already stretched out paying for football. With playoffs, you'll stretch out more and be left further behind. The big universities want their football programs more under control, not less. From that standpoint, adding football playoffs makes absolutely no sense.

We will never see NCAA Division I football playoffs. The only chance for championship playoffs is within the framework of something like the BCS, which is separate from the NCAA. But the BCS is an alliance of its bowl games and the affiliated conferences, and none of these entities has an interest in creating football playoffs.

The BCS can't decide to have a four-team playoff, then tell the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl to play on Christmas as the semifinals next year so the Fiesta Bowl can be the championship game. The bowls are heavily tied to civic traditions and local tourism around New Year's. They won't budge.

In no season has the lack of playoffs in college football been more painful. There's little justice in this system for Auburn, which finished 12-0 and won every game in the Southeastern Conference, which has at times been a level between the rest of college football and the NFL.

Southern Cal has been on top of the polls and the BCS all year. Oklahoma has been in the top three across the board all year. Auburn moved into the top three when Miami fell out.

For the last six weeks, the BCS components have been identical, with USC leading the polls, Oklahoma leading the computers and Auburn holding third both ways. Despite its perfect record, Auburn wasn't getting a chance for the championship unless Oklahoma or USC lost.

Imagine the excitement if we had playoffs seeded 1 through 8 based on the BCS rankings. This weekend's quarterfinal round would include USC vs. Tennessee, a rematch of Texas-Oklahoma, Auburn vs. Utah and California vs. Wisconsin. Especially in a year like this, with little suspense in the NFL until its playoffs ... let's just say there'd be lots in the news media about the college football playoffs.

We'd still hear complaints. Georgia, ranked eighth by the media and fifth by the coaches, would curse the computers, which averaged a 12th ranking and knocked the Bulldogs down to ninth in the BCS, barely out of the playoffs.

But the whining wouldn't be nearly as loud or convincing. The Bulldogs would know that they're not far from the money. If they can just add a player, one guy who can really make a difference.

What's it going to take to get that player? Who decides if the price will be paid? Can the university possibly monitor all these decision makers before the pursuit of a national football championship takes it down a tortured path?

Universities have enough trouble keeping the lid on football even without playoffs. That's a pretty good reason to predict championship playoffs will never happen.