It has taken college football’s elite more than 100 years to be dragged toward a playoff system that will likely still only have a handful of teams.
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Smaller schools have been doing the playoffs for a long time — and they’re about to make them bigger.
The Football Championship Subdivision is on the verge of expanding its playoff system from 20 to 24 teams by 2013. The proposal would give an automatic bid to all FCS leagues that want one, seeds the top eight teams and gives them first-round byes and home games in the following round.
"The concern has been we’ve haven’t had a full tournament with automatic qualifiers for all the existing conferences. That’s a big part of making sure everybody has an opportunity for their champion to participate," said Appalachian State athletic director Charlie Cobb, the new chairman of the Division I Football Championship Committee. "The sentiment is that by seeding the top eight, it keep more to a truer sense of what a national tournament is about, and I think that’s the beauty of what we have."
The proposal goes before an NCAA championships cabinet next month and will be subject to final approval by an executive committee on Aug. 2. It is expected to pass and be in place for the 2013 playoffs, which will include three more at-large bids and one more automatic qualifier in the Pioneer League.
"It’s the next logical step in our development of the FCS championship," said Kyle Kallender, the Big South commissioner and chairman of the FCS commissioner’s committee.
For Football Bowl Subdivision fans who’ve long thought the BCS was unfair, seeing the words logic and champion in the same sentence might be strange.
But the FCS has been holding a playoff since 1978. It expanded to 20 teams with five seeds in 2010 and, according to Kallander, started considering further expansion even then as a way to more fairly accommodate a growing membership that will include 124 teams in 2012.
There was also a desire to provide an automatic bid to the Pioneer League. The Ivy League and the Southwestern Athletic Conference don’t send their champions to the FCS playoffs.
With those tenets as a starting point, FCS officials brainstormed a number of possibilities that included:
— A bracket model that seeded all 24 teams.
— A regionalization model with six teams seeded in four regions based on geography.
— A Final Four model where national semifinals and the title game would be played on sequential weekends on one site.
For reasons ranging from attendance to money to competitive fairness, none of those ideas made the final cut.
Cobb said the main problem with the bracket model was a lack of reliable data to seed more than eight teams fairly. FCS schools rarely play outside their region, making it difficult to accurately gauge strength of schedule.
The regional model, based on Division II’s playoffs, was scrapped because the FCS didn’t want teams from the same league to meet in the first round of the playoffs. Some regions would also inevitably be stronger, too, and the Final Four idea was rejected because semifinal games on a neutral site wouldn’t draw nearly as many fans as a campus game.
The FCS instead decided on a system that may spur more juicy non-conference matchups in the regular season because there would be more at-large bids and an incentive to boost strength of schedule.
Some coaches think the methodology needs to also change if the FCS selection committee is going to seed eight teams instead of just five. The committee weighs factors that include the Gridiron Power Index or GPI, a compilation of computer and human polls similar to the BCS model.
The GPI is a sore spot for Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley. The Panthers had to play at Montana in last year’s playoffs even though they were ranked higher in The Sports Network Top 25. They lost 48-10.
Farley would also like to see a win over an FBS school count more than a win over an FCS one. The Panthers will play at both Wisconsin and Iowa this season to help ease the blow of state budget cuts.
"The weight of your schedule should play a lot more into it," Farley said. "We need to weigh the difference between playing a Wisconsin and playing an (FCS) team."
There are concerns about schedules that could include up to 16 games. But any team playing a 16-game season would be finishing it in a national title game and it is unlikely anyone would complain about that.
"It’s tough," Cobb said. "But the playoffs are called the second season for a reason. Once you get to it, everybody’s got a chance. And I think if you ask any coach or any player, they’d rather be in the playoffs than not in the playoffs."