Plenty of people have ranted about playoffs and bowl games and college football’s musical-chair conference realignment. Hell, I’ve ranted plenty about the subject, here and elsewhere around cyberspace. This isn’t a rant decrying the state of the game, nor is it a thinly-veiled diatribe. I come not to bicker about the system, but to offer a solution that has been welling up in my brain for some time and finally needs to pop out lest it atrophy.
What, exactly, is it that draws folks from all corners of the country to root for their local football team on Saturdays? What unites the vast American population — Midwesterners and Southerners, the hardy mountaineers of Appalachia and the Rockies and the folks on divergent coasts, lands of sun and lands of ice — in its common fanaticism?
At an early age, I was brought up to root for Wisconsin. I was born in Wisconsin, all my family was from Wisconsin, and it was a natural progression from father to son to continue the family’s rooting interest. Except my father wasn’t an alumnus of the campus in Madison, nor of any of the state system’s satellite campuses, and my mother was absent a sheepskin from the university as well. Nobody in my family had any real tie to the university, for that matter, yet for several generations the Badgers have been a team of choice.
When we moved to Wyoming, I an impressionable five-year-old ready to matriculate in kindergarten, the Cowboys of Laramie started to ingrain themselves into this budding fan’s proclivities. And when I started working for the University of Oregon, two decades later, the Ducks became another favorite for which I regularly root.
The reason college sports emanate throughout our culture is not the alumni, but because of the “subway alumni” that latch on and identify with their home state’s institution of higher learning. It is an easily-identifiable, heavily-resonant flag bearer for the state’s hopes and dreams, showcasing the best its flagship universities can offer. We latch on in a sense of regional pride, whether raised within the shadow of a campus’s old brick edifices or merely keeping touch with old roots among the diaspora.
But it is first and foremost that regional pride that has fueled the sport’s growth. More than professional sports, the lands of academia are also the battlefields where we get to pit the representatives for our state against our neighbors, or in some cases (such as here in Oregon, with the Ducks and the Beavers providing an either/or decision for its residents early and often throughout life) within those intrastate borders.
So, that said…
WHY ARE WE THROWING THIS ALL AWAY?!
No longer is a conference an identifier of a regional band of fairly-matched collegiate opponents. The Southeast Conference pushes beyond the Mississippi, the Mountain West repeats the WAC mistakes that led to the conference’s birth in the first place as it reaches beyond the Rocky Mountain foothills toward Hawaii, the Pac-12 leapt in the opposite direction into those mountains after losing out on the Longhorn/Sooner prize, and the Big East stretches from sea to shining sea in an ambitious if ludicrous attempt at maintaining relevance.
There are plenty of reports out there showing just how little schools have gained from the blowing up of football in the day-to-day consciousness of the greater society. The real winners in the realignment shuffle are athletic departments stretched just a little less, TV networks that have even bigger broadcasts to offer advertisers, and the bowl executives that strike deals with the conferences. How, though, has this really benefited the fans who buy tickets and merchandise and show up early every weekend to tailgate before and after gametime?
When rivals stop playing one another, it diminishes the potency of those classic contests. When we must relearn our favorite conference’s cast of characters every year, it weakens the bonds that have been passed down from generation to generation. When we allow our regional identity to be sold to the highest bidder for a one-time cash grab that leaves us later reeling from the realities of unfamiliar surroundings, we cede control to interests that have nothing to do with the fan, the student, the university or the history of the sport.
We cannot turn back to the past… in an age when information is instantaneous, and the desire for resolution on the field has rendered the decades-old bowl system antiquated for the purposes, we must look forward with our solutions. As the system is currently constituted, power concentrates in the hands of a select few and renders any real bracketology moot. But there is a way to rethink our conferences to provide a home for everyone and a substantive blueprint for selecting the field for a legitimate, 16-team playoff…
Look at the map a moment. Ten zones. 12-14 teams per conference, with room for expansion to 16 if necessitated by the growth of institutions within any of the regions. We’re about to see college football contract from 11 to 10 conferences as it is, with the mid-majors poaching every last viable asset of the WAC in a fire sale that will render the league obsolete within the next year. So ten seems a logical point to start.
A ten-conference league, with all of the member schools affiliated based on their geography, provides enough marketable programs within each region to remain viable as TV commodities. And it provides ten legitimate conference champions to provide the backbone of a 16-team tournament, with six at-large slots available to placate the disparities of conference strength in any given season.
Too often we try to overthink things; yet simplicity provides a template by which we can return to the essence of what makes college football great. In doing so, we can also move forward beyond the uncertainty of polls and bowls to a world where a champion is truly a champion.
So let’s break down each conference individually, looking at member composition and the logic behind the boundary lines of each league.
- STATES: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: Pac-12 (6), Mountain West (5), WAC (1)
- TEAMS (12): Arizona, Arizona State, California, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State, Stanford, UCLA, UNLV, USC
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- NORTH – California, Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State, Stanford, UNLV
- SOUTH – Arizona, Arizona State, Hawaii, San Diego State, UCLA, USC
Make no mistake here, the California schools are the foundation on which this conference is erected. Formerly spread among the Pac-12, the WAC, and the Mountain West, the state’s seven I-A schools are now all tied together in athletic union. Rounding out the league are the state’s two eastern neighbors, Nevada and Arizona, whose two state schools apiece bring the membership to eleven, and Hawaii, who based on simple latitude and longitude fits best as the twelfth member of this league.
The strength of the league lies in those Pac-12 schools. USC brings the most tradition to the table, while Stanford’s recent run of dominance offers a northern anchor. The Arizona schools at various points in recent and past history have fielded strong teams, from the Frank Kush-guided Sun Devils of their old WAC days to the Mike Stoops teams that nearly wrested Rose Bowl berths away from the conference’s more established schools. And Cal, under Jeff Tedford, has quietly remained a contender season after season.
In the mid-majors that would join the league, only UNLV and San Jose State would enter the league at a major disadvantage. Fresno State, who throughout the past decade have become battle-hardened with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, will soon enough be holding their own. Nevada under Chris Ault has used its Pistol offense to challenge seemingly-stronger foes. Hawaii is one of just four non-AQ schools to bust through to the BCS, and new Warriors head coach Norm Chow is intimately familiar with the powerhouses of this Pacific Conference thanks to his time as an offensive coordinator throughout the Pac-12. And San Diego State, which in the real-life shuffling of the conference deck is headed to the Big “East” next season with Boise State, has proven itself worthy of a seat at the table.
- STATES: Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: Pac-12 (6), Mountain West (3), WAC (2), Independent (1)
- TEAMS (12): Boise State, BYU, Colorado, Colorado State, Idaho, Oregon, Oregon State, Utah, Utah State, Washington, Washington State, Wyoming
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- WEST- Boise State, Idaho, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State
- EAST - BYU, Colorado, Colorado State, Utah, Utah State, Wyoming
For a while, in another period of flux during the mid-to-late 1950s, when the Pacific Coast Conference had disbanded amid scandal and the Skyline Eight and Border Conference were both dissolving due to the accelerated growth of some member schools, it almost looked as though the nascent planning for the Western Athletic Conference would include Oregon. In that spirit, these six states are now linked in camaraderie and in natural geographic alignment to one another.
At first glance the West Division of the Northwest Conference is the killer. Featuring the defending Rose Bowl and three-time league champion Oregon Ducks along with the other Oregon and Washington schools of the Pac-12, it also introduces Chris Petersen’s Boise State Broncos into the mix. If one school can give Chip Kelly’s Ducks fits, it’s the Broncos, and with the potential powerhouse in the making in Pullman now that Mike Leach is back on the sidelines at Washington State, and the dormant power in both Seattle and Corvallis, this division might soon leave the Vandals wondering whether it might have been better to get relegated back to I-AA status.
That doesn’t mean the East Division is a walk in the park, though. Utah and Colorado, who became the newest members of the Pac-12 Conference last year in its expansion to twelve teams, are the initial anchors, but BYU also provides a strong third contender in the division. Couple that with the promising recent turn of fortune in both Laramie and Logan, and Colorado State will merely need to recapture some of the magic Sonny Lubick brought to Fort Collins to round out what should be a balanced division.
- STATES: New Mexico, Texas
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: Big XII (4), C-USA (4), WAC (3), SEC (1), Mountain West (1), Sun Belt (1)
- TEAMS (14): Baylor, Houston, New Mexico, New Mexico State, North Texas, Rice, SMU, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas State, Texas Tech, UTEP, UTSA
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- NORTH: Baylor, New Mexico, North Texas, SMU, TCU, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
- SOUTH: Houston, New Mexico State, Rice, Texas, Texas State, UTEP, UTSA
Texas is a football land unto itself, and it is only fitting that it occupies its own sphere of influence in any given playoff structure. Sure, this division also encompasses the two New Mexico schools, but make no mistake — this baby is a Texas-sized affair befitting its status as the only 14-team division in the geographic realignment, with a dozen schools within the Lone Star State’s borders.
In the best efforts to split competitively, and to level out any potential travel disparities within the conference, the divisions are lined up on a North/South model. In this scenario each division absorbs one of the New Mexico schools.
The North is centered around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. SMU and TCU resume their historic rivalry for the Iron Skillet as a conference matchup once again, and the diamond is completed with North Texas in Denton and to the south with Baylor in Waco. Texas A&M provides the southeast terminus, with Texas Tech and New Mexico preventing this division from getting the full benefit of bus-distance travel.
The South provides the Longhorn-centric axis, with the power base emanating around Austin. To the east loom Houston and Rice, New Mexico State and UTEP provide the travel balance out westward and Texas State and UTSA point southward from the state capital. The division is Mack Brown’s to lose, though the increased exposure could lead to burgeoning powerhouses at the other schools as the tide lifts all ships in the Tex-Mex.
Great Plains Conference
- STATES: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: Big XII (5), Big Ten (3), SEC (2), Mountain West (1), Sun Belt (1), C-USA (1)
- TEAMS (13): Air Force, Arkansas, Arkansas State, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Tulsa
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- WEST: Air Force, Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Tulsa
- EAST: Arkansas, Arkansas State, Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Missouri
In a sea of enmity and hurt feelings, the second-oldest rivalry in the country was severed when Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC this offseason. Now that the Tigers are reunited in the Great Plains Conference with the Jayhawks, the rivalry is back in business. (And we assume that the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be able to find a more magnanimous solution to the maintenance of the nation’s oldest rivalry, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Wisconsin, now that they will no longer be united in the Big Ten.)
The only awkward thing about the entire enterprise is the unbalanced 13-team league. But given the natural divisions (the demarcation line down the Nebraska/Kansas/Oklahoma and Iowa/Missouri/Arkansas border) it isn’t that unwieldy. And, as far as Minnesota’s journey over is concerned, consider the Mississippi a natural eastern boundary for this conference. It also provides the best growth potential for both the Great Plains and Great Lakes conference, with each league still holding three open slots should any further teams wish to vault up to I-A competition.
Powerhouses abound, with Nebraska and Oklahoma teamed up once again on one side and Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri providing the big firepower on the other side. Like the Tex-Mex, this conference unites the scattered contents of six different conferences into one coherent, incredibly strong — and logically, geographically-defined — league. Even the “minnows” (Air Force, Arkansas State and Tulsa) join their new affiliation having been firmly among the strong halves of their respective previous conferences.
Great Lakes Conference
- STATES: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: Big Ten (7), MAC (5), Independent (1)
- TEAMS (13): Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Purdue, Western Michigan, Wisconsin
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- NORTH: Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan, Wisconsin
- SOUTH: Ball State, Illinois, Indiana, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Purdue
The heart of Big Ten — and its sister conference, the MAC — is firmly encapsulated in this conference. It also provides the most logical final resting home for a long-lingering independent from South Bend, where Notre Dame now has the belated responsibility of understanding the strategy and methodology of eight conference opponents annually and win a title game if they wish to reach the playoff.
The league is split in a north-south axis. The five I-A schools in Michigan now have a round-robin to determine the annual champion, with only Wisconsin’s Badgers standing in the way of that state champ becoming division champ. At least for the first few years, it is likely going to be those Badgers and the Spartans and Wolverines who are besting Western, Central and Eastern Michigans for the right to face the South champ.
On that southern side of the league, Northern Illinois and Ball State will likely be fodder for the Illini and the Fighting Irish and the Wildcats and perhaps even the Boilermakers and Hoosiers for a few years. But…
The lands of Fielding Yost and Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne are now unified as a historic preserve of programs. While the MAC schools might be weak at first, the influx of additional monies that this configuration — with the Wolverines, Irish, Badgers and Spartans buttressing the national appeal for TV networks — can provide will help benefit the programs in DeKalb, Muncie and the trio of directional locales in Michigan and allow them to better challenge their more-established brethren for recruits and eyeballs on Saturday afternoons.
Bayou Delta Conference
- STATES: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: SEC (5), Sun Belt (5), C-USA (2), WAC (1)
- TEAMS (13): Alabama, Auburn, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Troy, Tulane, UAB
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- WEST: Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, LSU, Ole Miss, Southern Miss, Tulane
- EAST: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, South Alabama, Troy, UAB
As we drift further eastward, the confluence of multiple teams within states provides even tighter groupings among conferences. Here, spread among three states along the Gulf Coast on either side of the Mississippi River, the SEC West (minus Arkansas, transplanted to the Great Plains) unites with eight other schools to create the Bayou Delta.
With Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State on one side, Ole Miss and LSU on the other, there should be no shortage of TV money for this group. And that should mean big things for the schools joining from the Sun Belt and other mid-majors. (Compare recent TV deals between the Sun Belt and the SEC and it is a no-brainer… the fact that former mid-majors will now see their revenues bolstered by conference affiliation with four of the past five BCS champions is no small matter for their athletic departments. This is a move that stands to provide at least 20 times the real cash value for TV contract allotments of the current Sun Belt, WAC or Conference USA deals.)
The balance of power lies in the East currently, where the Alabama schools are joined by Mississippi State as the easternmost school in the Magnolia State. In the West, LSU and Ole Miss will be challenged by the rising tide of 2011 bowl teams Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. And everyone benefits from shorter conference travel distance, making that new TV deal all the more astounding for its value.
- STATES: Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: ACC (4), SEC (3), C-USA (3), Sun Belt (2), Big East (1)
- TEAMS (13): Charlotte, Duke, East Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Middle Tennessee, NC State, Tennessee, UNC, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Western Kentucky
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- WEST: Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Middle Tennessee, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky
- EAST: Charlotte, Duke, East Carolina, NC State, UNC, Wake Forest
The enmity in the ACC has largely stemmed from a feeling that the power base of the conference lies in North Carolina. The schools of Tennessee and Kentucky have regularly been overshadowed by their SEC brethren. This merger unites this three-state area through the heart of Bluegrass country, with a natural division along the Tennessee-North Carolina border for conference divisions.
The West provides a fascinating juxtaposition of blue-blood historic powerhouses (Tennessee), rising stars in the sport (Louisville), and a mix of middleweights that round out an interesting mix. The East is pure Tobacco Row, with the four ACC schools from the state joined by new I-A entrant Charlotte as well as East Carolina, which for years has been consistently among the contenders at the mid-major level.
The conference — which quickly rises to elite basketball status thanks to the ACC schools on one end, the depth of powerhouses (Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Tennessee) on the other — will have some growing pains in football, but schools like UNC and Vanderbilt can start tapping into nascent power bases that should and would be further developed if not for the stunting of their growth by their former affiliations.
Deep South Conference
- STATES: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: ACC (4), SEC (3), Sun Belt (3), C-USA (1), Big East (1)
- TEAMS (12): Clemson, FIU, Florida, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Miami, South Carolina, South Florida, UCF
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- NORTH: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, South Carolina
- SOUTH: FIU, Florida, Florida Atlantic, Miami, South Florida, UCF
Some old intraconference and interconference rivalries are solidified by this merger of five conferences into one cohesive unit. Now everything from “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” (Georgia-Georgia Tech) to the “Palmetto Bowl” (Clemson-South Carolina) to the “Sunshine Showdown” (Florida-Florida State) become conference rivalries instead of intersectional games. Retained within conference are the classic Florida State-Miami rivalry, the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” between Florida and Georgia. And recent games such as the Bowden Bowl (Clemson-Florida State), the Shula Bowl (FIU-Florida Atlantic) and the Battle of I-4 (South Florida-UCF) are all now guaranteed to exist year after year.
With Tallahassee as its southern extreme, the North Division features five schools that have all factored into the national title race in the past few decades. Georgia and South Carolina bring SEC clout. Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech all bring historical success to the division from the ACC. Only Georgia State, the freshly-minted I-A program sharing Atlanta with Georgia Tech, is a minnow… at this point.
Looking South beyond the Seminoles, the other division is bookended by former national champions in Gainesville and Coral Gables. South Florida’s ascendance from I-AA newcomer in 1997 to national-title contender within a decade demonstrates the depth in this region, with both UCF and FIU looking to make similar upward trends. Affiliation with the Gators and Hurricanes and Bulls can’t hurt that progress; more likely it will accelerate it exponentially.
Ohio Valley Conference
- STATES: Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: MAC (6), ACC (2), Big East (2), Big Ten (1), C-USA (1)
- TEAMS (12): Akron, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Kent State, Marshall, Miami, Ohio, Ohio State, Toledo, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- EAST: Akron, Kent State, Ohio, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia
- WEST: Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Marshall, Miami, Ohio State, Toledo
The cradle of MAC football is now beefed up with some high-octane programs. Joining the six MAC schools and Cincinnati in the Ohio Valley Conference are the Buckeyes of “The” Ohio State University, bringing together the state in one league for the first time ever. Joining the Buckeyes and Bearcats in this conglomeration are a quartet of West/Virginia schools led by the Hokies and Mountaineers.
The West Division presents a battle, at least initially, between Ohio State and Cincinnati for the path to the conference championship game. The Miami RedHawks and Toledo Rockets could present challenges as well — witness the Buckeyes’ near-loss to Toledo last season — with Marshall and Bowling Green solid names to round out the division. Most will likely be fodder for the Buckeyes and (occasionally) the Bearcats, though sooner or later Ohio State is sure to see its 90-year winning streak against all in-state rivals snapped given the increased exposure to games against them.
In the East, former Big East rivals West Virginia and Virginia Tech will head up the hunt for the other divisional championship. Ohio is represented by the Kent State and Akron in the north and the Bobcats in the south; the eastern terminus, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is within 500 miles of all conference opponents — by automobile.
- STATES: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia
- CURRENT AFFILIATIONS: Big East (5), MAC (2), ACC (2), Independent (2), Big Ten (1), C-USA (1)
- TEAMS (13): Army, Boston College, Buffalo, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Navy, Old Dominion, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple
- POTENTIAL DIVISIONS:
- NORTH: Army, Boston College, Buffalo, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rutgers, Syracuse
- SOUTH: Maryland, Navy, Old Dominion, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple
The Northeast Conference rounds out the realignment of the I-A schools in college football, creating the tenth and final direct berth into the 16-team tournament. Combining the disparate schools of the Northeast, this conference divides cleanly along the New York/Pennsylvania border.
In the South, Penn State and Pittsburgh bring their storied programs together in the same division for the first time ever. Temple makes the jump over after having returned to the Big East. Further south around the nation’s capital, Maryland’s gaudy uniforms and Navy’s storied independent past form a triangle with I-A neophyte Old Dominion across the border in Virginia to solidify the membership in this division.
In the North, New York’s three I-A schools — Syracuse, Buffalo and Army — will battle with UConn and Boston College along with I-A newcomer UMass for the spoils. Rutgers, the host for the first-ever American football game in 1869, and Syracuse provides the deepest history; Boston College provides the sturdiest record of the past few decades; and UConn brings a recent history that includes the most current BCS appearance among the league’s teams.
The conference wraps itself within the geographic footprint of a large number of the nation’s spectator eyeballs. From New England to the Mason-Dixon Line, from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, the schools within the Northeast Conference are all well-matched and balanced enough to provide relevancy to whichever champion emerges.
And so we come to the point where the blueprints of a 16-team seeded playoff can be sown, where we can assess which conference champions might have emerged last season were this system in place. Of course, things would have been mighty different if these teams had all been playing their new conference schedules in this alternate reality, but since we have neither the structure of those schedules nor their non-conference slates, we have only the data at hand to go from. So let’s at least test out the structure by looking back at the 2011 season and how things would have shaken out. Here would have been the conference championship-game matchups (all records from 2011, after regular season and prior to conference championship results):
- PACIFIC: USC (10-2) v. Stanford (11-1)
- NORTHWEST: BYU (9-3) v. Boise State (11-1)
- TEX-MEX: TCU (10-2) v. Houston (12-0)
- GREAT PLAINS: Arkansas (10-2) v. Oklahoma State (11-1)
- GREAT LAKES: Northern Illinois (9-3) v. Michigan State (10-2)
- BAYOU DELTA: Alabama (11-1) v. LSU (12-0)
- BLUEGRASS: NC State (7-5) v. Louisville (7-5)
- DEEP SOUTH: Florida State (8-4) v. South Carolina (10-2)
- OHIO VALLEY: Cincinnati (9-3) v. Virginia Tech (11-1)
- NORTHEAST: Rutgers (8-4) v. Penn State (9-3)
Only two of the games, the Bluegrass and Northeast championships, feature two teams who both have less than two wins. In four of the ten contests you have opponents who both sport double-digit win records; three others feature 9-win teams against opponents with double-digit victories, with the last an 8-win Florida State team against 10-win South Carolina. Assuming chalk carries, that gives us the following teams to seed into a playoff structure (based on direct results where applicable):
- Stanford (12-1)
- Boise State (12-1)
- Houston (13-0)
- Oklahoma State (12-1)
- Michigan State (11-2)
- Alabama (12-1)
- NC State (8-5)
- South Carolina (11-2)
- Virginia Tech (12-1)
- Penn State (10-3)
That leaves six slots available to other teams; here is the pool of candidates with at least 10 wins:
- USC (10-3)
- Oregon (10-2)
- TCU (10-3)
- Arkansas (10-3)
- Kansas State (10-2)
- LSU (12-1)
- Southern Miss (10-2)
- Clemson (10-2)
- Georgia (10-2)
- Michigan (10-2)
- Wisconsin (10-2)
This is where a selection committee would work its magic. LSU (12-1) would certainly make it in, as would one of the two representatives of the Great Lakes Conference (Michigan or Wisconsin; here’s guessing Michigan, on the strength of their tougher schedule and national profile, would get the nod.) Likewise Georgia or Clemson is likely to get another of those coveted spots; because their only two losses were to conference champs Boise State and South Carolina, the Bulldogs get the spot over the Tigers. Oregon, who was pipped by Boise State for the West Division slot in the Northwest title game, grabs another thanks to its tough schedule.
With two spots left, the nitpicking begins. USC, TCU and Arkansas all have three losses now thanks to their defeat in conference championships. Kansas State and Southern Miss, shut out of their conference championships, both also have potential claims. Looking at the schedule for each team, TCU and Southern Miss suffered losses to worse teams than the other three, thus dropping them out of the race. With the three contenders remaining, let’s look at their losses:
- USC: L 43-22 @ Arizona State (6-6), L 56-48 (3OT) v. Stanford, L @ Stanford (Pacific Championship)
- Arkansas: L 38-14 @ Alabama, L 41-17 @ LSU, L @ Oklahoma State (Great Plains Championship)
- Kansas State: L 51-17 v. Oklahoma (9-3), L 52-45 @ Oklahoma State
Two of the three have common losses to Great Plains champ Oklahoma State. Arkansas suffered two gaudy losses to playoff teams Alabama and LSU; the Wildcats suffered an even gaudier loss to Oklahoma, whose 9-3 record played them out of a tournament bid. USC also lost to just two opponents, suffering a triple-OT defeat against Stanford and a repeat defeat in the Pacific Conference championship game… but has the most embarassing loss of the trio, against .500 team Arizona State.
USC and Arkansas both had opportunities to reach the playoff by winning their division. The wild-card stipulation is in place as much to allow teams that played in strong divisions to have a shot at earning a berth. Thus, thanks both to having just two losses and the fact they were frozen out of a shot at the conference championship, the Wildcats get the first of those two playoff spots. USC, thanks to their close calls against Stanford, gets the final berth.
And that allows us to come to the seeding portion of the festivities. How would the bracket line up?
Sure, some of the seedings could be argued. But at face value, the playoff presents a slew of entertaining games… AND provides a fair avenue for teams from across the nation to earn their way to the crystal pigskin. Who would actually emerge from such a playoff? That’s half the fun… getting to see the champion emerge on the field.