This week is a poor slate of games, and thanks in large part to Virginia Tech, I’ve had a poor run of picking, so this seems like a good week to look at the big picture.
The national championship race is pretty simple. The winner of the SEC Championship game, which will almost certainly be Alabama/Florida, will go. If Texas wins out, which they should, they’ll play the SEC winner. If not, we have a mess of undefeateds and one-loss teams with cases.
Now, what if my favored playoff system was in place? Instead of an eight or more team playoff, which seems excessive, or the current one, which is too restrictive, I favor a four team playoff. Since the BCS Championship game is already a week after the New Year’s Day bowls, it wouldn’t even extend the length of the season. Since all schools are off over New Year’s, there is basically no downside to this.
I would pick the four teams by the top four conference champions in the BCS standings (or independents). I think this is attractive because it allows for geographic diversity in the finals and turns conference championship games or big late season matchups into de facto playoff extensions. For instance, this year Florida and Alabama are clearly both in the top four, but that’s no reason to invite them both; if you’re not lose the SEC championship, why should you have a claim to play for the national one?
This retains the current dramatic nature and excitement of the regular season, which is one of college football’s best features, while making the postseason more inclusive, both to great major teams with an early loss as well as spectacular teams outside the big six conferences. For instance, 2004 Utah would have been in.
Let’s take a look at what the landscape would be like this year. As of right now, the SEC champion would be the one seed, Texas two, Boise State three and Cincinnati four. All are undefeated. In the current system, Boise and Cincy have almost no upward mobility; 12-0 probably won’t put either of them in the title game. But it might keep them in the top four.
Outside, teams as low as 15 in the BCS standings would feel they might break into the playoffs if they win out. Iowa and USC, currently sixth and seventh in the BCS, could pass Cincinnati on their own merits, with Ohio State and Oregon still to play (and #11 Oregon might make a similar case if they beat USC). TCU is unbeaten at #8, and still has two ranked opponents to impress voters against. #9 LSU is still in control of their own destiny; they would reach the SEC title game if they knock off Alabama, and then a win over Florida would put them through.
That’s the beauty of my system; suppose this did happen and Texas and Iowa both win out. Beating Alabama and splitting with Florida would be more impressive than sweeping the Big Ten or Big 12, but can you pick them over teams that haven’t lost and do have a couple marquee wins apiece? With an extension just to four, you never have to drop a team with a real claim on #1.
Lower teams need help, but they’re not out entirely. Cincinnati could drop the Pitt and/or West Virginia games. The USC/Oregon winner could take another loss somewhere. Ohio State, with two losses including one to Purdue, still controls their destiny in the Big Ten. Boise State and TCU could be upset. That opens doors. If any of the Miami/Georgia Tech/ Virginia Tech trio starts steamrolling teams like they should, they could benefit, especially the one-loss Canes. Penn State could climb back in, with some breaks. Even Oklahoma State has a shot, if they knock off Texas.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. However, in either case, these things probably won’t be decided this week. There isn’t much going on—when I briefly consider Georgia Tech-UVa as a big game, you know the slate is bare. Here’s the sort-of games we have:
#8 TCU at #16 BYU. Boise State and TCU may not be competing for a spot in a national playoff, but they are competing for an automatic BCS bid. Boise State is ahead, but they’ve not nowhere to go but down. TCU has BYU and Utah to impress voters and get schedule points in the computers. BYU, who was harboring serious ambitions of their own before an ugly loss to Florida State, will want to return the favor. BYU has been scoring tons of points, but TCU has the best defense they’ve faced since Oklahoma, a game that ended 14-13. TCU has had a couple of close calls on the road already, against Clemson and Air Force.
#6 Iowa at Michigan State. Michigan State is unranked, but they’re Iowa’s second-toughest opponent left. The Hawkeyes have no business dropping Indiana, Northwestern, or Minnesota games at home. This game is thus the most important precursor to Iowa-Ohio State. There is a subtler reason, too: an Iowa win all but eliminates Penn State from the Big Ten title. If Iowa can really only take a loss at Ohio State, the Nittany Lions can only tie Iowa’s conference record. They would likely have won a three-way tie if Ohio State had beaten Iowa but they had been Ohio State, but now that would push the Buckeyes to two losses.
South Florida at #20 Pitt. See what I mean about this being a bad week? We’re stuck here with a sort of important Big East game. Pitt is playing well and will get Cincinnati at home to end the season. For the Big East’s purposes, I think they’d like Pitt and Cincy to win out until then. If Cincinnati wins, they might have a shot at the national title game if things break right. If Pitt wins, Cincinnati might get the Big East an at-large bid. However, if South Florida wins at starts the conference back toward chaos, business as usual. Cincy won’t have a shot at a signature win, even if they do keep playing well.
BYU (45/55). I think these teams are about even; so far, they’ve had great games and a couple weak ones. The difference is TCU managed theirs against teams that had no shot at actually beating them, whereas BYU picked Jekyll-and-Hyde Florida State for their turn. I think for the second straight year, the home team ruins the other’s perfect season.
Iowa (46/54). The gap between these teams isn’t very big, but Iowa is better. And the Hawkeyes have had enough trouble in East Lansing to limit trap-game potential. Anytime you can take a 7-0 team as an underdog against a team with three losses to unranked teams, I think you take it.
South Florida (31/69). The Bulls had a few too many mistakes against Cincinnati, but they’ve had a long week to recover, and another loss is it for them. A desperate team with an athletic defense is a dangerous team. On the other side, Pitt has no marquee wins and a loss to NC State, who lost to Duke. That’s too few degrees of losing to Duke for football.
Last Week: 39-104
Year to Date: 369-570, .393