After years of controvery regarding how a "national champion" would be named in Division I-FBS football (as it is the only NCAA-sanctioned sport, out of 88, to not have a tournament decide its champion), this year the much anticipated College Football Playoff will be implemented. This new system features two "semi final games", paring the #1 and #4 teams and the #2 and #3 teams, respectively. The winner of each matchup will square off in a national championship game.
The bowl system has undergone many tweaks and amendments. From 1946 to 1991 the top two collegiate football teams in the country played one another at the end of the season a mere nine times. (This was primarily because many of the bowls had "conference tie-ins," such as the Rose Bowl which traditionally featured the champions of the Big Ten and Pac-10 (now Pacific 12) conferences.) It started off with the Bowl Coalition in 1992, morphed into the Bowl Alliance in 1994, and then the Bowl Championship Series (or BCS as it came to be known) in 1998. The BCS matchups were decided by a complex algorithm that took into account "human polls" and strength of schedule.
Over the years, as "mid major" teams with undefeated records (e.g., Marshall University in 1999 and Boise State University in 2004) were shut out from the BCS party (and its incredibly lucrative payoffs) in favor of teams from powerhouse conferences that, per contract, were guaranteed bids because they were "automatic qualifiers" (some of which had 2 or 3 losses on the season), lawmakers began to take notice. Congress convened several hearings to discuss the legality of the BCS system. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice wrote to NCAA President Mark Emmert questioning why there was no football playoff.
Perhaps fearing that this could be the next antitrust challenge, the NCAA and its member institutions succumbed and approved this new playoff system (which had been rejected when suggested for many years prior). But I wonder--does this new system solve any antitrust concerns? Do the powerhouse conferences still impose a monopoly? Will it be possible for "mid major" teams to break into the top tier, like many "Cinderella teams" during March Madness have done through the democratic tournament of 64 teams? Is this the least restrictive means to achieving a national champion?
Some may argue "no." In the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff, we already have controversy. Texas Christian University, member of the Big 12 conference, was ranked #3 going into the final week. (They had only one loss--a last-minute heartbreaker to now-#5 ranked Baylor.) After a quality win against Iowa State, TCU somehow fell to #6--and out of contention for a major bowl game. Selected to play in the more prestigious New Year’s Day Orange Bowl were Mississippi State University and Georgia Tech, with two and three losses, respectively. Number 10-ranked University of Arizona, with three losses, and number 20-ranked Boise State University, member of the Mountain West Conference and with two losses for the season, were selected to play in the Fiesta Bowl.
How did this happen? Well, gone are the polls and the complex BCS algorithm. A 13-member selection committee, comprising athletic directors from the five most resourced conferences and other officials, are the sole deciders in these lucrative bowl matchups. (And as an interesting aside, Condoleeza Rice, in her capacity as former provost of Stanford University, has been invited as the sole woman on the panel.)
Instead of the CFP systeam, I propose a 16-team playoff, comprising four brackets of four teams each. The number one and four ranked teams and number two and three ranked teams in each bracket would play a quasi-semifinal; the winners would play in a deciding contest to determine the winner of that bracket. From there, the winners of each bracket would play each other in a national semifinal. The final remaining teams would play in the national championship game.This would result in a team playing a maximum of four additional games during the postseason—adding only two more than the existing system employed in the College Football Playoff.
Some might argue that this proposed playoff system would extend the season too long and expose the student-athletes to greater risk of injury. To counter that, I would also propose that the regular season be cut short by two games, to make up for these added games. As mentioned earlier, antitrust law is designed to protect consumer interests and safeguard the quality of the product (in this case, producing the best competitive matchups). Many of the nation’s best college football teams schedule games with teams from a much lower-ranked conference or even from outside of Division I-FBS in order to pad wins. In 2013 16 games featured a top 25-ranked team defeating a team by 45 or more points, such as the blowout between Ohio State University and Florida A&M 76-0 or University of Louisville and Florida International University 72-0. In 2014, the University of Alabama, ranked number 1, played Florida Atlantic University from Conference USA, which finished with a 3-9 record for the season, and the University of Southern Mississippi, also from Conference USA, which finished the season with a 3-9 record as well.
If the system cannot be fixed this way, several groups and ahtletic commentators, such as the Drake Group, propose a Congressional antitrust exemption for college football that would, in turn, negotiate greater federal oversight of the big business of college football as well as provide due process for student-athletes--which to this day is not given, as the NCAA is a private voluntary membership organization.
*Some parts of this post are excerpts from a manuscript I have under review titled "Flag on the Play: A Review of Antistrust Challenges to the NCAA. Could the New College Football Playoff Be Next?"