The Sweet Sixteen Solution


Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Every year the Bowl Championship Series recycles one or two of the controversies that illustrate its inherent contradictions. The system purports to identify the two best teams to play for the national championship, while preserving the importance of the regular season and protecting the bowl system. It accomplishes this more or less by the method used to judge figure skating: a bunch of supposed experts with nationalistic conflicts of interest — East German judge Nick Saban, for example, voted Oklahoma State No. 4 in his final poll — make subjective judgments that separate competitors by hundredths of a point.

What could possibly go wrong?

This year, the BCS logic exposed as nonsense is that “the regular season is a playoff.” For Alabama — and only Alabama — it turned out to be double-elimination. Fellow one-loss teams Oklahoma State and Stanford must now appreciate the legal and emotional stance Boise State has taken toward the BCS all these years: antitrust.

There’s a simple solution. Institute a 16-team playoff with the 11 conference champions and five at-large teams. That wouldn’t eliminate controversy, or subjectivity over seeding and excluding teams, but it would be much more fair and inclusive. And it would respect the paramount importance of the regular season more than the current system does.

In my bracket, Alabama, Stanford, Arkansas, Kansas State and South Carolina would be this season’s five at-large teams. A handful of denied teams — Boise State especially, along with Michigan, Michigan State and Virginia Tech — might have cause to holler about being left out of the last couple spots. Let them. There’s nothing wrong with controversy as long as the argument originates in the right place — at the bracket’s back door. If any of the rejected teams had won even one more game they would have made the field. In this playoff format, a second loss would leave teams, at best, scoreboard watching with fingers crossed. Regular season preserved.

There also might be some quibbling about whether Alabama deserved the No. 2 seed over Oklahoma State. That’s debatable but minor compared to a system that has no choice but to deny one of them outright. A playoff would give them the chance to advance and settle it in the semifinals.

Here’s how this season’s tournament would have worked: on December 10, the higher-seed teams would have hosted the eight first-round games. The following week — this Saturday, December 17 — there would be four quarterfinal games. After a week off for Christmas, the tournament would resume December 31 with the semifinals. Then, on January 7, the two remaining teams would play for the championship.

Although the bowls would be affected, the BCS itself and the glut of chamber of commerce boondoggles have dilapidated them enough already. Consider the Cotton Bowl, once upon a time a New Year’s Day heavyweight. This year it features probably the best non-BCS game, pairing two teams that would be in the playoff. Can you name the matchup without looking? In a tournament, both teams would host a first-round game, a much bigger opportunity than a one-off glorified exhibition against each other.

At the other end of the postseason spectrum, Arkansas State and Northern Illinois play January 8 in the Bowl. As conference champions, both teams would be in the playoff instead — Arkansas State at Oklahoma State and Northern Illinois at Alabama. I’d venture a guess that the players would prefer that chance to the Tree Falls in the Forest Bowl they have been assigned as their reward.

I think most college football fans would prefer that too.

Jason Kelly’s Sweet Sixteen Pairings

16 Louisiana Tech

8 South Carolina
9 Wisconsin

4 Oregon
13 Southern Mississippi

5 Stanford
12 West Virginia

6 Arkansas
11 TCU

3 Oklahoma State
14 Arkansas State

7 Kansas State
10 Clemson

2 Alabama
15 Northern Illinois

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at

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