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Playoffs for major college football beneficial to LA

LSU’s backing into a shot at the college football national championship, at the expense of a more deserving team, might appeal to some, but if as a college football fan you want a true champion to emerge annually and if as a Louisianan you want the state’s three bowl games to bring in bigger economic boosts, only a playoff system would work to achieve both.

The way the top division of college football chooses it national championship, unlike any other sport including all other divisions of college football, is not by a playoff system. Instead, subjective criteria prone to biases and limited information determine that only two teams can play for the championship, instead of head-to-head matchups on the field leading to the final game.

The reason why this happens is that bowl games that pit teams in postseason games having no playoff implications, especially the largest – the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls – want to retain their high-profile status. The higher the profile, the more money the organization running the game receives and, from a community standpoint, the more tax revenues from fans traveling to see their teams play.

But the problems presented by this arrangement in picking a true champion are legion. Besides the obvious subjectivity, luck has way too much to do with determining the outcome. Taking the team that was more deserving on ability than LSU, Oklahoma, the only reason OU got its second loss (equaling LSU’s total) was its starting quarterback, rated the best in the nation, got injured early in a game against Texas Tech who has the nation’s most prolific passing offense. It took his backup awhile to get going, during which Tech was able to exhaust OU’s defense and rack up a lot of points. When OU’s offense got back on track in the second half, it was too late, and the game was put away by Tech with about 30 seconds left by a touchdown.

The way the playoff system works in lower divisions, the top 16 teams are picked or qualify by conference championship wins for playoffs. Under that system, that loss might drop OU’s seeding, but they could still win it all on the field instead of being left out with no chance. Bad luck in one game can be overcome by sustained excellence throughout the season and one unlucky incident doesn’t have to end a team’s chances with other potentially fortunate teams that avoided game-changing injuries to star players (or blown referee calls or whatever misfortune) being the beneficiaries.

And such a system would create economic benefits as well. Consider that LSU will take on Ohio State in New Orleans and may be favored because it is, essentially a home game – the same dynamic that allowed them to take a share of the 2004 national championship. While that may be twice lucky for LSU, it’s not so great for the New Orleans and state economies, because so many fans will not be staying in or consuming things around New Orleans, or as much, denying collection of potential revenues from out-of-state fans.

A playoff system could meld traditional bowl games into it. Currently, there are 31 such games plus the national championship game. Eliminate the latter and allow one of the major big four games to host it every four years. In two of the other three years, it would host a semifinal game, and in the other year, host a quarterfinal game. Then three of the next prominent bowl games – probably the Cotton, Outback, Gator, and Capital One – would host the other quarterfinal games, with one of them every four years hosting a first-round game. Finally, of the remaining bowls, about half would host the remaining first-round games every other year, and the other half would invite whoever did not make the playoffs for a one-off game as they do now. (Other issues such as scheduling, seeding etc. would not be difficult to work out.)

This would be an economic boost in particular to the lower-level bowls such as Louisiana’s Independence and New Orleans Bowls. Currently, bowls like this often must depend upon regional tie-ins to attract crowds. But as part of a playoff system at least every other year, interest would be heightened in these games, probably not only drawing bigger crowds but many more traveling fans to boost their cities’ and states’ economies. The largest games probably won’t see any changes in attendance or from where fans come, but would benefit because they could lower their payouts since teams getting that far already will have picked up a couple of paychecks and they won’t have to use these to induce the highest-quality teams to accept their invitations.

Louisiana’s five school presidents with teams in the top division need to lobby their governing National Collegiate Athletic Association to makes these changes – even LSU’s. While that school may have disproportionately advantaged by the current system, in the long run for fans and the state with three bowl games (only much larger California, Texas, and Florida have as many or more), a playoff system brings more benefits.

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