Commentary

The plus-one playoff problem

An unseeded format would preserve the bowls, but this model has too many flaws

Updated: December 27, 2011, 12:55 PM ET
By Brad Edwards | ESPN Insider
TBDAP PhotoAn unseeded plus-one model could have created an Oklahoma State-Alabama bowl matchup.

Since the end of the regular season, there has been a lot of speculation that support may be growing among athletic directors and conference commissioners for an expanded postseason format in college football.

The hope of most fans is that this summer's BCS meetings will lead to agreement on a four-team playoff structure that will satisfy the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Rose Bowl, which want to protect the tradition of those two conference champions meeting in that game. Whether all three of those parties would even consider such a conversation is uncertain.

Some administrators refer to a four-team playoff as a "plus-one" or a "seeded plus-one," presumably because the word "playoff" has a negative connotation to those who consider themselves defenders of the sport's history and traditions. The bowls are a big part of that history and tradition, and even the staunchest playoff proponents acknowledge that any new postseason format will have to include the bowls rather than operate independently of them.

For that reason, it had been assumed until very recently that the "unseeded plus-one" would be the next step for college football's postseason. In this model, conference champions would be assigned to their designated bowl spots (Big Ten and Pac-12 to Rose, SEC to Sugar, Big 12 to Fiesta, ACC to Orange); the remaining spots would be filled through a selection process; all bowl games would be played; then the final BCS standings would be run after the bowls. The top two teams would play in the national championship game a week later.

There are a few reasons this might be an improvement over the current system. In a season like 2011, if the Fiesta chose the Alabama Crimson Tide as the opponent for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, it would set up a true national semifinal game and ultimately lead to a title game that everyone could feel much better about. At the very least, this format would return us to the days of more than one bowl game having national championship impact.

Imagine a season when the top three teams ended up in different bowl games. It's possible that as many as five teams could enter the postseason with a realistic chance to play for the national title. And if computers were still part of the formula to decide the top two teams, the effect of wins and losses by opponents (and even opponents' opponents) of the top teams would make almost every single game of the bowl season meaningful to the national championship race.

Therefore, an unseeded plus-one would completely change the face of the bowl games. They wouldn't necessarily be more meaningful to most of the teams playing in them, but their importance to the general fan (and the fans of the top teams) would increase drastically.

That's also one of the problems with the unseeded plus-one model. Games that don't have great importance to the teams playing in them shouldn't have a significant impact on deciding the national championship matchup. (Think about it: That would be as ridiculous as asking 59 FBS head coaches to rank the top teams after not having seen most of them play all season. Oh, wait a minute ...)

Here are three other reasons the fortunes of title contenders shouldn't be influenced by what happens in other bowl games.

• Analyzes college football and the BCS as part of ESPN's Stats & Information Group
• Analyst for both College GameDay on ESPN Radio and the ESPN College Football app