Bring on Austin Peay!

Undoubtedly the biggest news of this college football offseason outside of State College, PA was the implementation of a playoff system.  Starting in 2014, a four team playoff will decide the national champion. 

Looking Backward

Despite the conference’s reported resistance to a four team playoff, the model is a good thing for the Badgers and the B1G.  Projecting it into the team’s recent past, at least twice in Bret Bielema’s tenure the team would have been in the playoff discussion. 

Although 2006 would have been near impossible with both Michigan and Ohio State higher in the BCS, the head-to-head loss to Michigan, and the realities of 3 B1G teams in the playoff, 2010 could have been a year for the Badgers to be a real post season contender.  The 11-1 Badgers lost in early October on the road in East Lansing (does it seem like that’s every year?) but their momentum going into the Rose Bowl was as strong as any team in the country. 

Looking Forward

For a program like Wisconsin to be in the national championship discussion - if only on the periphery - twice in the last six years (and a third time if a hail Hail mary Mary or two gets batted down) should warm the heart of Bucky’s faithful.  While a prominent program, the Badgers still fall short of the “national powerhouse” descriptor bestowed upon the elite programs of the land.  Being in the debate every third year is a big deal.  A really big deal.

But what does this mean for 2012 and beyond?  A lot can be learned from the selection criteria laid out by the playoff committee. While critical details are still to be worked out, how the top 4 are to be determined (but not by whom) has been laid out by the NCAA as follows:

"I look like one of the officers from the Death Star?  Funny, I get that a lot."

Most striking of the four is the “emphasis” on conference champions.  To an observer this was a minor concession (along with “protecting” much of the Rose Bowl status quo) made to the B1G/Pac-12 voting block.  On the surface this appears to fall short of Jim Delany’s public positions prior to formal playoff discussions he has in reality conceded very little on this point. 

In exchange for forgoing on-campus semi-finals  (so an Alabama will not have to play in Ann Arbor, Columbus, or Madison in late December) he maintained the value of the Rose Bowl (TV money belongs to the B1G/Pac-12 in non-playoff years) in the new post season landscape while ensuring the B1G a good chance of getting a seat at the postseason table as often as possible.  Where many have said the new playoff system will hurt the B1G, this arrangement actually goes a long way in protecting its involvement in the post season.

An “emphasis” on conference champions forces any committee to balance its selections on conference membership.  More than two teams from any given conference and people start to argue that point #4 is being ignored .  This past season would have –rightly – seen the inclusion of both LSU and Alabama in the playoffs but the other four major conferences (sorry Big East) would be all but guaranteed the other two seeds. 

Schedule Upgrades?

The selection criteria have been lauded for the inclusion of a strength of schedule component.  Many hope for an RPI component akin to what college basketball has for March Madness.  Complaints have existed for years about the “4 cupcakes + conference” mentality of coaches and ADs at major universities. 

The Badgers are as guilty as anyone of this.  Remember the 70-3 thriller that was Austin Peay back in 2010?  The Governors are such football stalwarts their athletic department is promoting their upcoming matchup with “Big East” powerhouse Virginia Tech.  No, I’m not kidding.   It doesn’t say much for your opponent’s football program when they don’t know what conference their opponents play in.    

There are major forces pushing against big programs meeting outside their conference schedule.  The biggest:  money.  By scheduling cupcakes a team guarantees itself 8 games in its own stadium.  That’s a lot of tickets (about 650,000 over a season at Camp Randall).  Assuming any real opponent requires a home and home or neutral site arrangement, lost ticket sales measure in millions as at least one non conference game leaves your home stadium.

Further pressures come from teams adding a 9th conference game.  Pac-12 teams cited an already daunting conference schedule as justification for backing out of the B1G/Pac-12 scheduling alliance recently.   As conferences circle the wagons adding a 9th game to their teams’ schedules the chances of adding a tough non-conference game dwindle even more. 

Finally, the selection criteria itself (remember that emphasis on conference champions from earlier?) works against major programs meeting out of conference.  Coach Alvarez explained the effects of the selection committee succinctly:

“If we take care of our business in our league[B1G], we’ll be where we need to be…go undefeated in our league, you’re going to be in the top four in the country. You win our league championship, you’re going to be in the top four.”

Don't hate the playa, hate the game, bro!

In other words: win out in the major conferences and it’s pretty hard for you not to get invited to the playoff.

In the end playoffs will not alter the landscape of college football to any great degree.  The new system was decided largely by the major conferences and as such works largely to protect their interests.  Strength of schedule allows the Boise States of the world to be discounted as not legitimate and keep playoff participants from the pool of “elites”. 

As such a B1G team that runs the table at 13-0 will be in the playoffs.  Even a team that wins the championship at 12-1, assuming a quality loss, is in all probability in the final four.  The window of championship opportunity for the Badgers is definitely bigger but it isn’t thrown wide open.  There are more seats at the table; continued success and wins against the resurgent traditional powers in the conference (I’m looking at you Michigan and Ohio State) are the keys to major success on the national level.  The ability to win signature football games will decide the Badgers' fate in the changing college football landscape.