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17 October 2002  

SPORT

A modest proposal for college football. Before the advent of the Bowl Championship Series and its famous computer ranking system, Division I-A college football had a method of determining a national champion which was widely regarded as unsatisfactory. In the four seasons that the BCS has been in operation, it has improved things a little…well, slightly…maybe…oh, who are we kidding—to most college football fans (especially those who do not live in Florida) things are still unsatisfactory. Your humble Goliard, while a Burkean conservative by temperament, believes that more radical measures happen to be called for here, and suggests that college football look to Europe for inspiration.

Yes, Europe. No, they don't play much American football there, but their most popular sport, soccer, has an interesting tradition which might profitably be adapted for college football. I speak of the complete separation between "league" competition and "cup" competition, which reaches back to the earliest days of association football (that being the sport's full name, from which the shorthand "soccer" was derived).

"League" competition in its purest form is what the American and National Leagues used to do in baseball (ignoring, for the moment, the World Series, which in its infancy was a separate, inter-league competition that was more exhibition than playoff). Each team in the league played each of the other teams a prescribed number of times, and whoever had the best won-loss record at the end of the season was the winner of the league. No playoffs, no wild-cards, no nine- or seven- or five-game series between the two or four or eight best teams. In true league competition, finishing first means you win the whole shebang, not just home field advantage; and finishing second means sorry, no prize for you, thanks for playing, try again next year. Surely I am not the only one who thinks this is more in keeping with the American spirit than letting over half the league into an interminable playoff phase (see Basketball Association, National), even if some of the teams have losing records ("losing records!" exclaims the ghost of Vince Lombardi, as he spins in his grave).

"Cup" competition, on the other hand, takes the form of a knock-out competition much like the NCAA's beloved basketball tournament—but with a key difference. Unlike "March Madness", true cup competition takes place during the league season, not after it, and teams' participation in the cup is not contingent upon their performance in league play (I speak here of national cups, not European contests such as the Champions League and the UEFA Cup). The league and the cup are two concurrent but separate contests; sometimes the same team wins both (referred to as a "double"…in some countries which have more than one domestic cup tournament, a "treble" is even possible), and sometimes not.

Step one in reforming college football, then, would be to conform the "regular-season" schedules as closely as possible to the league model. In order for this to be workable, each conference should have between nine and eleven teams, preferably ten. This could be accomplished simply by adding Notre Dame to the Big East (it's long past time for the Irish to give up the dumb Independent thing) and dropping perennial doormats Baylor and Vanderbilt from the Big XII (the Big Ten has a numerically-incorrect 11 teams, why not the Big XII as well?) and the SEC respectively. A more radical reorganization would improve the quality of league play by removing additional not-very-funny jokes, such as Duke and Temple, from the football schedule of the premier conferences (such schools could remain in their current conferences for purposes of basketball and all other sports, but they should have to play their football in mid-major conferences or Division I-AA where they belong). For those of you keeping score at home, I envision the ACC shedding three teams, the Big XII and SEC each eliminating two, and the Pac-10 and Big Ten each cutting one. Then move Colorado into the vacated Pac-10 spot as the best geographic fit, move Iowa into the Big XII to join its in-state rival, put Notre Dame in the Big Ten as God intended, bring the four strongest teams from the Big East into the ACC (the remaining Big East teams could hook up with the mid-majors), and bingo!: you've got five top-tier conferences with ten teams apiece.

Each team would play each other team in its conference once per season, no exceptions (and no more of this "division" baloney, SEC and Big XII fans—waddya think you are, the NFL?). Each school would also be allowed to schedule one game per year against a favorite non-conference rival (Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Florida vs. Florida State, etc.). The rivalry game would not count towards the league title, unless some of the conferences wanted to use it as a possible tie-breaker. Whoever emerged from the conference schedule with the best record would be crowned conference champion, a worthy feat in any of these conferences.

Now to add a cup competition to the mix. The Football Cup proper would, like the NCAA basketball tournament, have a field of 64 teams, the brackets to be filled out with the objective of maximizing inter-conference encounters (to make up for the lost non-conference games in the new league schedule). The members of the five premier conferences we rearranged above would take 50 of these spots, with the other 14 places to be played for amongst the remaining 56 Division I teams (did I mention that I was demoting three MAC, two WAC, two Sun Belt, two Mountain West, and two Independent teams to Division I-AA?) in a two-round single-elimination play-in. These minnows might have to get things underway a touch earlier than they are used to, since I envision the beginning rounds of the Football Cup proper coming at the start of the major teams' seasons: the round of 64 in week one, followed by the first conference game, and then the round of 32 in week three. The round of 16 would be scheduled in the middle of the season when the non-participating teams could best use a bye week, and the quarter-finals of the Cup could be played either right before or right after the season-concluding rivalry weekend. The two Final Four games would be played on the weekend before New Year's, the winners facing each other in the Fiesta Bowl for the Cup title a few days into January.

The traditional major New Year's Day bowls would thus fall between the final two rounds of the playoffs, and they could return to their tradition of matching up conference champions (or conference runner-ups whenever the champions reach the Final Four of the Cup): Pac-10 versus Big Ten in the Rose, SEC versus ACC in the Sugar, and the Big XII versus an at-large pick in the Orange. All of the other bowls would be welcome to keep running in much the same fashion they do now (though personally, I think we could do without about a half-dozen of the sillier ones), and they should have plenty of good teams to choose from (the losing teams from the Cup quarter-finals should be available for the late-December bowls, for instance).

Whenever some sort of tournament has been talked about in the past, concerns have been raised about the possible length of the season; I think the foregoing plan manages this problem acceptably. All of the major teams would be guaranteed eleven games per season (nine conference matchups, one rivalry, and the first round of the Football Cup); a majority of them could be expected to advance to the second round and earn a twelfth game. Eleven to twelve non-bowl games is what the average team plays now, and should net even first-round losers income comparable to what they presently enjoy. Teams which advanced to the Final Four would play their fifteenth game in the national semifinals (presuming that none of them were minnows from the play-in; for those teams, keeping their conference size at nine or smaller, and/or making the rivalry game cancellable if they advance far enough in the Cup, could help ensure that they play no more games than the major teams); the Fiesta Bowl would be game number sixteen. This is more than Division I-A teams typically play nowadays, but last year's 2001 Division I-AA champion Montana Grizzlies played sixteen games in order to earn their title, including some bruising encounters with bigger schools; surely the small handful of I-A teams playing fourteen or more games in the league and cup could find a way to manage also.

Now, for a concluding question: What would all this, taken together, mean for the national championship? In some years, the winner of the Cup would also be a conference champion, making them indisputable national champions as winners of the "double". Note that such champions might not necessarily have the very best overall record in the country, which I believe would be a virtue—no longer would athletic directors nervously pad their schedules with patsies to avoid that single championship-killing loss, and no longer would teams in tough conferences have to worry about being edged out in the rankings by teams in easier conferences that slide by with one fewer defeat. Winning one's own conference, and advancing in the tournament, would be all that mattered.

But what about the times when a non-conference champion wound up lifting the Cup trophy in January? I happen to think that would be even more fun. Let's say Georgia gets knocked out of the Football Cup in the second round one year—a fluky loss to somebody like Arizona State—but then goes on to win the SEC title and the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, let's say Michigan gets edged out by Notre Dame for the Big Ten title, but goes all the way to the Fiesta Bowl and wins the Cup. Even better, let's also say that Notre Dame, as the Big Ten champion, beats up on its Pac-10 rival in the Rose Bowl a few days earlier. In years with split results like these, the "national championship" would revert to being a mythical and elusive and eminently disputable thing, and I say hooray if it happens. In my hypothetical example, the arguments between the Georgia and Michigan and Notre Dame fans would be fun and passionate and would go on forever; and without such a situation arising once every now and then, Division I-A college football just wouldn't be as great.

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