Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Idea Whose Time Should Have Come Long Ago

So, Mark Cuban is envisioning a Bracket Busters-like event for college football, adding marquee regular-season games to the slate in December. I don't know if the sport needs to add games, but it does need to have TV-friendly regular-season games in December. Such a route is precisely how one can avoid the thorniness of a playoff yet enhance the value of the regular season and promote an ACTUAL "national" champion (as opposed to a merely regional one).

Is this idea new? Not if you've read the Weekly Affirmation at College Football News.

Sherman, the Wayback Machine, please...

 Week Ten: November 5, 2007

Short-Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast Track Gold Club
We begin this week's column with a creative idea that, due to its eminently sensible nature, won't ever be adopted by the powers that be in college football. Nevertheless, it's worth considering.

At a time in our sport's evolution when arguments (BCS or no BCS? Plus-one or playoff system? Four, eight, or 16 teams in a playoff?) are becoming calcified and stale, we need to inject some fresh thinking into the discussion. After spending the past few seasons without an original thought on this subject--due to the need to bash the BCS into the ground--I've emerged from something of a cave and can offer a new proposal that should satisfy college football's various warring factions.

Let's call this the "College Football Flex Plan."

If you follow pro football, you almost surely know that last year witnessed the beginning of the NFL's thoughtful and market-friendly decision to provide a "flex plan" in terms of Sunday Night game selection for NBC's season-long package. The concept is simple and smart: if a given matchup is a stinker, relegate it from Sunday night to Sunday afternoon, where FOX or CBS can pick up the game and assign it to the No. 5 broadcast crew. Since NBC pays big bucks for its primetime-only package, the Peacock is able to select a showcase game for late-season inclusion into its broadcast schedule. This kind of creative and nimble thinking illustrates why the NFL can be so incredibly profitable even while possessing a generally unwatchable product. (Side note: have you ever stopped to consider why an early November regular-season game, Patriots-Colts, was so thoroughly hyped? Could it be because every other NFL team suffers so substantially by comparison?) College football--in terms of satisfying its fans while also adding more integrity to the (still-mythical) national championship selection process--should learn from the NFL and adopt its own kind of flex plan.

Instead of explaining the plan and then laying it out, let's just describe the plan and then explain it.

The "College Football Flex Plan" (CFFP) would involve the playing of ten regular-season games from Labor Day weekend through the second weekend of November, with one bye included for every team. Conference games and established non-conference rivalries would comprise these ten contests. On the third weekend of November, everyone would get a week off. On the fourth weekend of November--usually Thanksgiving weekend--the teams in conferences that play a championship game (ACC, Big XII, SEC) could play their eleventh game. On the first weekend of December, the Big Ten, Big East, and Pac-10 could play their eleventh game, while the SEC, ACC and Big XII stage their title tilts.

Why the vague, cryptic and murky reference to the "eleventh game"? Glad you asked. The eleventh game forms the core of the CFFP, and it addresses the kinds of tensions that are emerging in the 2007 college football season (not to mention most seasons).

If you're a college football fan, you obviously want the two best teams to play for the national title. But in order to get to that point, you also want the deadwood to be cleared away first. You want the best teams in each conference to knock heads before the bowl selection show (or perhaps, in future years, a Final Four and/or plus one system). In other words, you would love for Kansas to play Oregon. You would love for Connecticut to play Oklahoma. The bowl games usually provide the sexy matchups, but in order to determine college football's best teams, you first need to identify--and, if at all possible, succeed in creating--the not-so-sexy matchups that emerge in a given season. The rise of previously unheralded schools such as Kansas, UConn, Virginia, Arizona State, Illinois, Kentucky, Boston College, Hawaii and Missouri (last year, the list included Rutgers, Wake Forest, Arkansas and BYU, but not as many upper-tier schools as is the case in 2007) demands that these teams play each other to separate the pretenders from the contenders. More specifically, these teams need to meet late in the season, when identities have been formed and early-season rust (think of Appalachian State over Michigan, South Florida over Auburn, and Washington over Boise State) is not an issue.

These kinds of games--a college football equivalent of college basketball's "Bracket Buster Saturday"--would occur in late November and early December under the CFFP. The mechanism used to decide the home team in these games could be arrived at in a number of different ways. Perhaps there would be an open drawing; perhaps certain conference matchups would be decided in advance; perhaps TV would carry most of the weight in creating these matchups. At any rate, you'd have late-season matchups involving teams coming off bye weeks. You'd have non-conference games that would be part of the 11-game regular season, but they'd acquire a playoff-like feel. The arrangement would be friendly to television, but it would also be friendly to the fans of the participating schools because they wouldn't be staged at neutral locations. All in all, the CFFP would settle a whole round of arguments at the end of the regular season, which would then make the conference title games and bowl games that much more interesting as well. Moreover, the CFFP--by providing relevant, freshly-arranged matchups at the end of the regular season, would almost certainly create a scenario in which remaining unbeatens would either fall or rise to the top. With this kind of a plan in place, the bowl system could be retained but still produce a more deserving national champion if a plus-one was inserted.

Let's summarize the "College Football Flex Plan" in a simple way: the CFFP shortens the regular season but adds playoff-style excitement; it provides compelling non-conference matchups, but within the regular season and, moreover, at the season's end; it's friendly to TV and fans; it enables teams to compete after a bye week, but not with a ridiculously long (51-day, Ohio State-style) layoff; it keeps the bowl system in place, but it also requires a plus one at the end. All in all, the CFFP provides something for everyone. It's worth looking at... even if the workings of the world suggest that sensible things just don't happen very often in life.