Friday, November 9, 2007

What If....NCAA Champions League

Given the fact that Kansas could very likely be shut out of the BCS National Championship game even if they can run the table and remembering that Boise State was held out last year with an undefeated record it is clear that most teams in the country are entirely prohibited from playing in the BCS National Championship game.

And if that is the case then I say we embrace that insular reality and play America's favorite game: let's figure out a better and more exciting way to determine a National Champ within the small pool of teams that could actually win the whole thing. If the regular season doesn't really matter as much as we say (meaning a one-loss team from the right conference can jump ahead of an undefeated team from the wrong one) then let's institute the NCAA Champions League that emulates the UEFA Champions League in Europe. This annual, extended soccer tournament pits the very best professional teams from each of the separate domestic leagues against one another in the most compelling sporting event on the earth. It is like March Madness but even better because there is more of it and the level of competition is higher. And we have nothing like it in America. Here's our chance:

The current college football season lasts approximately 18 to 20 weeks for those teams who make it to a New Year's Day bowl. These are the teams that we're talking about so let's work within that timetable and remember that no one likes the obscenely long lay off between the last regular season game and the NC game.

Each team currently in a BCS affiliated conference (since we should stop pretending that the rest factor into the NC conversation) would have 10 weeks to play a 7 to 8 game conference season. At the conclusion of this conference season the top two teams from each of the six BCS affiliated conferences would send their two best teams to participate in the NCAA Champions League just the way it works when each of Europe's top soccer leagues send their top teams to vie for the title of the Champions of Europe.

If the Champions League of College Football were to exist in lieu of the BCS bowls and other top tier bowl games (and there wasn’t any more shuffling in the conference rankings from today to the end of the season) then we would be looking at a mini-season of games between these 12 teams.

PAC 10:
Arizona State

BIG 10:
Ohio State

BIG 12:

Boston College
Virginia Tech

West Virginia


These NCAA Champions League participants would be broken into two groups for a round-robin group stage. This could be done via seeding, geographically (ACC, BIG EAST and SEC/PAC 10, BIG 10 and BIG 12, which I think actually works from a competitive standpoint) or it could be done via random drawing like the UEFA Champions League.

Each team plays every other team in their group. The top two teams from each group after the five weeks would advance to the next stage. Rankings within the group would be determined first by number of wins and losses. In the event that two teams finish with the same record the team to advance would then be decided by margin of victory over the course of all five games just as it is in soccer (goal differential). This would ensure that no team would take a single play off during any game. This also eliminates the "well if X beat Y and Z beat X but lost to Y then [insert SEC team] advances!" arguments that always crops up as the BCS rankings harden.

These games would be amazing. A week one schedule could look like this:

LSU vs. Kansas
Boston College vs. Michigan
West Virginia vs. Arizona State
Oregon vs. Virginia Tech
Oklahoma vs. UConn
Ohio State vs. Georgia

There would be five whole weeks of games like this. Fans would get to know these teams and to love and to hate them. And even if a team were outclassed in a particular matchup late in the five-week season they would know if their opponent needed to win by a specific number of points to jump up in the standings and suddenly the difference between losing by 13 or 21 becomes as exciting as a close game would have been. In effect, this would make the over/under and the point spread an actual on-field factor in every game.

After two winners emerge from each of the two separate groups then the remaining four teams would either be seeded one through four or chosen at random in the manner that it is done in soccer. Each team would then play a home-and-home series with the team they are matched with. Each team gets to sell out there stadium, showcase their fans and their atmosphere for high school recruits and the television time is sold twice over as we get two weekends of great football in which these teams have enough time to develop a rivalry. The winner of each match-up is decided first by wins and secondly, only if necessary in the case of a series split, by aggragrate point total. In the event that the points totals also match up then the team who scored more points on the road moves on. Same as with the soccer version of this event.

The incorporation of margin of victory into the decision again means that each game will be exciting and compelling. Even if a team looks certain to lose the opening game of the set you can't throw in the towel because a "garbage" time touchdown could make the difference. Every play counts.

More importantly, the home-and-home format prevents a team playing at an unexpectedly friendly or hostile “neutral” site. Every year in the NCAA basketball tournament certain teams end up playing before a home crowd for the first two weeks. In this scenario, each team plays before their home crowd and there is no possibility for an unintended advantage. The two-game format also eliminates the “any given Saturday” logic that muddies the picture and can be used to cast doubt on any winning team. In a two-game series, potentially using aggregate scoring in case of a split, the better team is far more likely to advance consistently than in any other scenario. It’s not a lock but death and taxes have the monopoly on sure things.

And, then once the two better teams advance from each semifinal pairing there is a single National Championship game between the last two standing after a seven-week mini season against the best teams from the various power conferences. At this point college football fans will be very familiar with all of the players after having watched these games over the preceeding several weeks. Every team will have a national following at that point and there will be NO boring matchup in a National Championship game. It just isn't possible because no one can be considered unworthy after making it this far and no one can claim to have been railroaded after playing a group stage and a home-and-home series. There can be no controversy.

The National Championship game will now be held at a neutral site that is selected from a pool of four sites on standby at the outset of the NCAA Champions League season. Having four potential hosts each season allows the governing body to pick a site that is as neutral as possible. While one school will always be somewhat closer this system prevents LSU from playing a national championship game in the Superdome because it was selected as host site a few years in advance of the game. And just so the people at the Superdome don’t get too upset, in the event that they are in the pool of potential host sites in a year that LSU looks like the may make the final then they will just go back into the pool for the following season.

Wherever the game is played it is simply four quarters of football between the two teams with an unimpeachable right to be there. They have survived their conference season and then played the toughest possible out-of-conference schedule possible in the form of the NCAA Champions League. To make it through, a team must have talented athletes but it also must have the fortitude and maturity to show up and perform each and every week.

And, yes, this is the most far-fetched college football scenario that I’ve ever seen. It is not even within the realm of possibility for so many reasons that it doesn’t even pay to go into all of them. But this should have provided some non-soccer fans a pretty good tutorial on how the UEFA Champions League works in Europe. And you didn't even know you were learning!

It should also convey the unbridled awesomeness that is the UEFA Champions League and the complicated and wonderful inconvenience that it presents for those teams involved. It is the best of the best playing a separate season to pit the two very best teams against each other in a match after which no one can contest the winner. That sounds simple enough, but clearly it isn't.

*In case you were wondering, this NCAA Champions League scenario would last exactly as long as the current college football season and requires the athletes to play at most (if they make it the NC game) one or two more games. Also, in this imaginary system the teams who do not qualify for the NCAA Champions League would then be able to accept invitations from all of the dozens of other bowl games that proliferate. Those folks at the Meineke Car Care Bowl could still have their party and invite the 4th best teams from whatever conferences they are nominally associated with.

No comments: