Why Oregon, Underdogs, and the Pac12 Need a Four-Round National Playoff

Vernon Adams at MSU.

Vernon Adams is a ringer. NFL scouts are stalking DeForest Buckner. His defense is creating turn-overs now and gets the ball back to Adams. Does anyone really think that the 2015 Ducks aren’t a top 5 team if Adams had stayed healthy? A five-fingered Adams completes the 4th-quarter pass to Byron Marshall against Michigan State. That’s a rematch Adams deserves. But he won’t get it.

College football playoff

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College Football Playoff: not as bad as the BCS.

Oregon could be the best team in college football. Or maybe not. Three losses are tough to overlook, but they are showing us what’s still wrong with the FBS: come-back stories don’t count. Coronating four teams is only slightly less offensive than the BCS, but that’s not much of a defense.

Consider that undefeated Clemson has played only two ranked teams. USC will be Oregon’s 4th. Of the current top four, only Bama has more at six (yes, Notre Dame has four, too). Yet, even the Tide ebbed for the Mississisppi Rebels, who later succumbed to Memphis, who fell to undefeated Houston.

Does anyone really think the Committee would ever leave two Power 5 conferences on the side-line? Sorry, Houston. Better luck never! Playoffs make champions prove it by playing the best there is. Last man standing. Playoffs are the American way. Division I-A college football has been hi-jacked by a cabal of intellectuals who want to debate football. No thank you.

Oscar winning comeback: Rocky.

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Oscar winning underdog: Rocky.

Talking heads now call upsets “chaos.” When did that happen? Americans love underdogs. It’s in our DNA. Comebacks are the American way. Comebacks win Superbowls. They win heavyweight belts. They win revolutions. They even win Oscars. But in 2015, they can’t win an FBS trophy.

Comeback teams should not be forced to watch from the sidelines, which the Pac-12 may be doing this year. Last year it was the Big 12. (Oh, how they howl when it is the SEC’s turn.) But real playoffs fix that.

The last Pac-12 National Champion was in 2004 largely because undefeated teams are rare on the West Coast. (Yes, Oregon had two shots, and people forget the Ducks lost by a field goal in 2010.) Some now want to water the Pac-12 down — make the schedules easier to increase playoff hopes.

How about we just fix the real problem? Tough intra-conference play should be encouraged, not avoided. Win your conference and you get your shot. Any other way is un-American and it ain’t football. Aside from being fun to watch, football is one of our few permissible masculine institutions that teach boys the value of failure: of getting knocked down and getting back up. They can watch Thomas Wayne tell it to Bruce, but it’s not the same.

Ever wonder why the FCS gets a four-round national playoff? Divisions II and III also conclude the season with playoffs and a champion. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This is not theory. It’s football.

Why do we allow this junta to deprive the players the opportunity to get back up? There is no good answer. There is not even a case to be made for not having real playoffs. Can you imagine college basketball without a real champion? No. And no one has ever argued that there shouldn’t be one.

A consolation prize for the Committee: someone has to seed the brackets. The conferences should all produce real champs; only three do not (Big 12, AAC, and Sun Belt). But of those three laggards, only the Big12 and Sun Belt need to create internal divisions necessary for championship play.

The Committee would rank each champ. Those in the power and non-power set-up bar one-half of the division from meaningful post-season competition. Let them compete to attract better talent. Either all of the 128 FBS teams are part of Division I-A or they are not. There are 10 conferences. There should be 10 champs. Each one gets a seat at the table.

Famous comebacks

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Historic comebacks are in our DNA.

You can’t bracket 10 teams, but six wild-card teams would fill out four rounds. The Committee picks from a pool of ranked independents, underdogs, and, yes, teams like the Comeback Ducks, who may get frozen out of the conference title but deserve a shot to make history.

Nor is time an issue. There are three weeks in December after championship weekend. Semi-finals can still be played on New Year’s Day. But with increased post-season exposure, conferences would be free to trim pre-season non-conference play.

The Committee’s mission statement should be four-fold:

  1. Avoid intra-conference national finals through bracketing.
  2. Reward undefeated teams and strong underdogs.
  3. Encourage more conference play, not less, through conference championships.
  4. Create a true national champion.

A real FBS playoff  would be the biggest sporting event in history, but I’m biased. I really just want to watch the Ducks play a little more every year. Give them a shot and they will make us proud.

Top photo by Tom Corno

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Matt Bryant

Matt Bryant

Matt grew up in Oregon, graduated UO in 1998, and tried to impress a young lady (not from Oregon) by going to law a fancy law school on the East Coast. He did pretty well in law school but never saw the young lady again. Matt is now a lawyer in New York where he bores everyone around him with tales of how much better life can be in the Pacific NW usually carrying on about the biking, the coast, the salmon, the complete lack of humidity, Reubens from The Goose Hollow Inn, and Ducks football. When Matt is not litigating high-stakes, important, commercial disputes for important people, arguing important points, or writing important things, he is likely either reading, on his bike, or (from late August through February) watching football. He lives with his family on North Shore of Long Island because the coast overlooking the Sound almost has a real shoreline but still can’t hold a candle to Oregon’s coast.

  • Mark Lawton

    If we can’t get a larger playoff maybe find a decent back up qb to fill in when starter gets hurt. just glad they found Adams or ducks could have had worst season ever. hope eagles can get Adams he reminds me of Russell Wilson

    • levraicanard

      Thanks for reading. Interesting idea. I was wondering if anyone would be brave enough to give Adams a shot at the NFL. Chip Kelly just may.

  • Dylan

    OK, all this nonsense about the Big 12 not producing a real champion is just stupid. The Big 12’s champion is just as real as the Pac 10’s was for all the years it didn’t have divisions or a title game. Even if teams finish with identical records, tiebreakers exist for a reason. Baylor was the Big 12 champ last year. Just stop with this analytically weak criticism of the Big 12.

    Further, I firmly believe that this singleminded focus on crowning one “champion” is doing more harm to the game of college football than anything else. There are too many bowl games and most of them don’t have any larger impact nationally. But damn, just let these kids have a fun postseason experience. That’s a lot of what’s made college football so unique as a sport unto itself. Why can’t people just enjoy it for what it is? Why can’t people just be excited to win a Rose Bowl or a Fiesta Bowl? Let’s not try to turn college football into the NFL.

    And are you seriously suggesting that teams cut their nonconference schedules in anticipation of increased exposure in the postseason? So basically, you’re cutting the season by 25-33% for all but 16 teams.

    Your analysis is seriously lacking.

    • levraicanard

      Thanks for reading – and commenting. I am suggesting all the constituent pieces are in place to have a real playoffs. I love inter-conference play – UO -MSU. Next year we have Nebraska – I don’t want to see it go anywhere nor should it. I would be willing to trade it for real playoffs but the point is there is time to do both. (That said, I am not very fond of top level teams, be it UO or Alabama mopping up on FCS squads).
      And I do prefer the new divisional approach the Pac12. It beats hands down voting on who is the best. To be sure, there is no perfect way but I find that figuring it on the field is the best approach.
      Keep reading and watching. Big12 is stacked this year!

  • Mark Lawton

    Baylor barely beat tcu at home last year in a game TCU almost won. TCU and Baylor should have played at a neutral site to see who the real champion would be. It was not clear who was better

  • buffhole

    I like the four team playoff; no need for expanding and certainly no need for wildcard teams. However, I think the NCAA should remove the division requirement for conference championship games. This would allow the Big XII to play one in the event of a tie (like last year — tie breakers are BS, BTW, both TCU and Baylor had a conference loss and so are tied) and it would allow a conference like the PAC12 to pit its two best teams in the championship game. Because once again, Oregon and Stanford are the two best teams in the PAC12. They’re the teams that should be playing on Dec 5th.

    • levraicanard

      Thanks for reading. And commenting.
      Gotta ask Buffhole – A Buffalo fan?
      Some people prefer the status quo. Can’t argue with preference. But in my view the current 4 team format relies on discretionary interpretation of superiority which could be actually decided in play. Plus, every year it will leave at least one Power 5 conference out and all 5 non-powers out. Plus Notre Dame. If they’re in, two very good Power 5 teams are out. I respect your preference but but we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      Curiously, this system is a unique one-off deviation in sports: to my knowledge it is used no where else except in the BCS.

      All the best if your team is in!
      MB

      • buffhole

        Buffaloes fan. Colorado Buffaloes, that is. Haven’t had a dog in the race in more than 10 years, so you can consider my opinion completely unbiased. :-D

        My preferred format is top 4 conference champs, with the Colley Matrix deciding the 4. Colley Matrix is an entirely bias-free rating that is a virtual extrapolation of standings by W-L record — discretionary interpretation of superiority is gone. Playoff worthiness is determined by having won one’s conference. Colley Matrix is used merely to select 4 among them. Right now, that is Clemson, Alabama, Iowa, and Notre Dame, which is identical to the playoff committee.

        An undefeated group of 5 school has a strong chance of making the top 4. Scheduling some P5 schools would help boost that strength of schedule. Case in point, if Navy had beaten Notre Dame, they’d be sitting in the top 4 of conference champs right now.

        Independents are considered as a conference, with record determining champion. I might even encourage an Indy championship game on Championship Saturday, once scheduling allows.

        Personally, I think a playoff format like FCS and NCAAM is too watered-down with less-than-worthy wildcards and .600/.700 conference champs. I know it goes against your underdogs-getting-back-up argument, but a 10-loss team like ’85 Villanova is not a “true champion,” IMHO. They lost 2 of 3 games to Georgetown that season, but the last one is the only one that counted.

        With the top 4 champs format, all participants are worthy and there are no second chances.

        • levraicanard

          Love it. Some great points but including only the top 4 conference champs excludes Notre Dame by definition, no?

          Are the 2007 Giants “true” Superbowl champs? I say (a) decide it on the field and (b) there is no “good” reason to not include at a minimum each P5 champ every year; and (c) every year there are far more qualified teams than 4 worthy of a shot.

          Cheers,
          MB

          • buffhole

            I am glad that you find my opinions worthy of consideration.

            Independents could be considered as a single conference with champion determined by overall record. There is certainly nothing that prevents the independents from creating a non-binding alliance that establishes rules to determine and Indy champ. As with all conferences, only one is eligible.

            Yes, quality teams are left out with a 4-team playoff, but its best feature is that it is highly selective and unforgiving. Every team knows prior to the season what is required to earn their spot — win your conf., quality wins over strong opponents, 1 loss puts you on the bubble, and 2 means you’re likely out. But, as you expand the playoff to somewhere between 8 and all-FBS teams, you increasingly devalue those prior games. And once you start expanding, the stopping point is somewhat arbitrary — the only reason to stop is time/schedule constraints. And regarding wildcards, it would seem equally logical to me to forgive first or second round playoff losses for certain teams, and pass them through to the finals as it does to invite conference losers to a championship playoff.

            I shouldn’t have said ‘Nova wasn’t a true champion. I don’t know what a “true” champion is. I know only what is a champion by established tournament rules. The ’07 Giants won by the established rules, as did ’85 ‘Nova. But just as there are faults with the 4-team playoff format, there are faults with the NFL playoff format (as well as the NCAAM format). I disagree with the implication that the “invite everybody” format is superior simply because so many sports do it. We can choose to make the FBS playoff like those other playoffs, or we can keep it highly selective and unforgiving. You know what my vote is. (Not that it counts.)

  • Great article and discussion. I’ve wanted a 12 team playoff, with the top four seeds sitting out the first round and the other eight paring it down to a quarterfinals draw from there. A Champion will be found from the top dozen, and if we expand to so many rounds–it negates the importance of many of the season’s games.

    • levraicanard

      Thank you, Charles. I’d take 12 (or 8 in all candor) in a heartbeat. But with more than 1/2 of the FBS teams playing in a bowl game (84 this year or there abouts), the system is already supporting more than enough games in which we could insert a multi-round playoff structure. Keep the bowl games but lets put them use

      MB.

  • GoDucks

    NO WAY on 16 teams. As we used to say back in the 80s, Eight is Enough.