Making the case for non-conference tournaments in college football
Another year, another debate about which college football teams deserve the chance to play for a national championship.
This is the third season since the College Football Playoff selection committee replaced the BCS, expanding the field from a two-team title game to a four-team tournament. We continue to argue about what makes an impressive résumé, balancing wins and losses, statistical rankings, margins of victory, conference championships, strength of schedule and the ol’ “eye test.”
While I can’t tell you which factors you should value when you’re lobbying for your own desired playoff field, I can offer a suggestion that would make the college season more exciting and help give us some more information about which teams deserve a shot at the title.
This is an argument I made almost five years ago, which still holds up. It stands whether there is a BCS championship, a four-team playoff, or even if the field expands to six, eight or 16. While much energy has been focused on the very end of the college season (Did the Big Ten title game matter or not?), one way to improve the season can come with a major overhaul of the first two weeks. Let me borrow something that’s been great for college basketball and introduce you to the glory of preseason college football tournaments.
First the basics, then the rationale. The set-up is very simple: A series of four-team tournaments all over the country. Grab teams from different conferences and put them in semifinals. Replace the tune-up games and FCS cupcake games that often ring in the season with a dud for some of college football’s top teams, and replace them with meaningful action. Guarantee each entrant two games by pitting the winners of these “semifinals” against each other in one game the following week and the two losers in another.
You could do this with 32 teams, 40, 64 or as many as are interested in participating. And if the “championship” games are played in big venues with big TV audiences and sponsorships, you can bet a lot of teams would be interested in getting a slice of that pie.
Obviously there are questions and logistics to sort out with such a radical shift in the way college football’s season starts (like, say, how to decide which teams play where and against whom), but this set-up could do a lot of good for college football. Here are some of the benefits:
Pro No. 1: Fix non-conference scheduling inequity
One of the tough things about picking the playoff field under our current system is balancing the fact that some teams schedule tough non-conference games and others don’t.
Right now scheduling a tougher slate is a huge risk-reward proposition. We all agree that Ohio State was helped by the fact that it scheduled and beat Oklahoma. Penn State was hurt by the fact that it lost to Pitt. Washington reached the playoff after playing safer opponents and handling its business.
But one of the nice things about implementing preseason tournaments is that teams would be compelled to join to keep up. You’d see a sort of scheduling arms race where it would be foolish for a team to play it safe. A team like Washington wouldn’t be able to stay home against Portland State if it knew 48 or 64 other programs around the country were bolstering their resumes with games that really show us something.
Pro No. 2: One loss doesn’t kill your season
In the BCS era, with only two teams given a chance to play for the title, it increased the likelihood that multiple undefeated teams would squeeze any challengers out of those coveted spots atop the rankings.
Teams today might still be afraid to schedule a tough non-conference game, but it’s much easier to overcome an early-season loss. Each of the three College Football Playoff fields have featured one undefeated team and three teams with one loss.
An added benefit of the preseason tournaments is the fact that more teams would lose. If you have 64 teams playing 128 games (64 semifinals, 32 “championship games” and 32 in the losers bracket) it means 16 teams would go 2–0, 32 teams would go 1-1 and 16 teams would start 0–2.
So a team that wins two games in a preseason tournament has a little cushion if it trips up in the conference schedule. And a team that drops a game against a good opponent early could still run the table and recover. Three-fourths of the top teams in the country would have a loss by mid-September anyway.
Pro No. 3: Small schools get a shot to take on the big guys
While many of these tournament contestants would undoubtedly come from Power-5 conferences, they could also offer chances for good teams from non-conferences to get resume-building wins.
When I laid out this idea five years ago, I wrote about the 2010 Boise State team that beat Virginia Tech at FedEx Field but then settled for a lesser-than bowl after losing a single game in overtime. They could have benefited from a second game after dispatching of Virginia Tech.
You could make a similar case this year for Houston or Western Michigan. If a program like that (or 2010 Boise State, or 2012–2013 Northern Illinois, etc.) thinks it’s good enough, it could choose to take on top programs and prove it.
What would undefeated Western Michigan’s résumé look like if it got the chance to play in a four-team pod with Louisville, Wisconsin and West Virginia? Winning two games from that group still might not have been enough to vault them into the Playoff, but under the right circumstances maybe it could have. At the very least, it would offer schools like Western Michigan a shot to test themselves, and maybe come away with a signature win to help launch the program to more success.
Pro No. 4: Learn more about relative strength of conferences
Vitally important in a world with five major conferences and four playoff bids, the tournaments would create extra inter-conference matchups. So if we’re trying to decide the relative strength of each conference at the end of the year, we’ll have more head-to-head games between the Big 12 and Pac–12 or the Big Ten and SEC for us to consider.
Pro No. 5: Use it as a chance to renew rivalries.
Conference realignment and conference expansion have both conspired to rob us of some great traditional rivalries. This is less critical to the concept of the tournaments, but they could be used in some cases to renew old rivalries.
Could I interest you in a game between Florida and Miami? They have already agreed to kick off the season against each other in 2019. What’s stopping them from doing that more often, and pitting the winner against the winner of Oklahoma vs. Nebraska?
Even if the playoffs don’t always re-ignite old rivalries, it could still offer intriguing match-ups. You could schedule Bobby Petrino against Arkansas. You could put Alabama and Stanford on the same field for the first time since the 1935 Rose Bowl. The possibilities are endless.
Pro No. 6: Money
Straight cash, homey. Reasons 1 through 5 might mean something to you and me, but the sixth and final reason might be the only one that really matters to the folks who would be in charge of setting this up.
As I alluded to at the top, these games can rake in cash. Some would obviously be higher-profile than others. But those are the games you could put in Cowboys’ Stadium, Lucas Oil Field or University of Phoenix Stadium.
Slap on a sponsor. Put them on TV. Give out a funny trophy if you want. This would create appointment viewing in September instead of the week that featured Louisville beating Charlotte 70–14, Baylor drubbing Northwestern State 55–7, and Ohio State killing Bowling Green 77–10.
I’m not naïve enough to think that this would solve all of college football’s issues. There will always be questions about which teams most deserve to get in, no matter how many teams get in and what the structure of the preseason and regular season look like.
Plus there are logistical issues to overcome from the fact that teams schedule games far in advance, might not be as good as we expect when that season finally arrives, wouldn’t want to give up home games, and might want to schedule some easy games to ensure they’re bowl eligible.
But there are enough reasons why this crazy idea might just be worth a shot. If I told you I had a way to make resume comparisons a little closer to apples-to-apples, while also pitting good teams against each other more often, eliminating games that aren’t worth watching, bringing back together old rivals or creating new and interesting cross-conference match-ups, and printing piles of money in the process, wouldn’t that fun idea be worth a listen?