Football is highest on the perch when it comes to money and popularity in college athletics. But when it comes to crowning a champion, football has always fallen far below its competitors, namely basketball.
March Madness is the perfect blend of youthful optimism and big-time entertainment. It dominates the airwaves for a national audience, and yet it has an innocence that transcends sports. Where professional sports are littered with heated rivalries and pent-up tension, the NCAA basketball tournament thrusts all this aside to make way for the excitement. It slowly narrows a massive field filled with underdogs and misfits, but all have a fighter’s chance against the big boy programs.
College football has sought to rectify some of its championship deficiencies by creating its own playoff. By its very nature, football will never be able to replicate all of the qualities that make March Madness so uniquely exciting. Football’s physical nature necessitates a much smaller field, which eliminates the opportunity to watch a David slay a Goliath (not that such monumental upsets happen with the same regularity in football anyway). Still, there is one particular element from the college basketball system that the NCAA should consider adding to football.
As it stands, the college football playoffs contain only a plus-one format (meaning a four team bracket). But what if the NCAA applied the concept of the NIT to football? Instead of just a championship playoff bracket, the NCAA could create multiple tiers of plus-one tournaments, so that all bowl-eligible teams have a chance to fight for something more than just a single game. You could keep sponsorships, with companies sponsoring individual games as bowls and having other companies sponsoring each plus-one tier in a larger sense.
There would also be room for consolation games for the teams that lose in the first round of the plus-one format, and, at the higher levels, the final rounds of games could be hosted at the traditional bowl sites. The tier one consolation game could be the Rose Bowl, the tier two championship could be the Sugar Bowl, the tier two consolation game could be the Orange Bowl and so on.
The significance imbued in these games would go beyond traditional bowl titles. The concept of NIT-type consolation brackets holds the potential for much more significance in football than in basketball, where the sheer number of teams in the NCAA tournament robs the NIT of top quality competition. A second tier playoff involving the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth ranked teams would still represent more compelling and competitive matchups than you see in the currently uneven bowl bid alignment.
And speaking of competitiveness, one of the biggest problems with the current college football postseason has been the month-long gap from the regular season to the bigger bowl games, which creates a lull that robs some teams of top form. Having multiple games would break up the month-long gap between the end of the season and many of the bigger bowl games, allowing teams to stay in form and ensure that their preparation is consistent with what is seen throughout the season.
Lastly, having several playoff tiers offers more opportunities to ascertain the strength of conferences. So much of what goes into rating teams during the season amounts to guess work, as the limited nonconference slate makes it difficult to be sure of how each conference — other than the dominant SEC — stacks up in the grander scheme. Having multiple games to work for rewards consistent teams that can prevail regardless of a singular matchup, and thus paints a better picture of each team and the strength of each conference.
The only question that requires much debate is how to choose the teams for each tier. Four-team tiers allow time for teams to recover for their next game, but also will lead to controversy not unlike that seen during the time of the BCS, with many teams having claims to the limited spots available. However, eight-team tiers would perhaps allow undeserving teams a shot at the championship game.
The best solution would perhaps be a compromise of the two, with the championship remaining plus one, and all other tiers featuring eight teams — one from each of the five major conferences and three at-large selections. Regardless of the specifics, a tiered playoff system would create a more exciting postseason for all teams, while providing a better gauge of the relative strength of teams than singular bowl games can offer.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. THE SPORTING LIFE appears every Friday.