At first, a bowl game was a reward for an exceptional season. The threshold of 6 wins wasn’t a guarantee; you could win 7 games in the 1970s and still not get a bid (what’s up 1975 Commodores). Then the proliferation of bowls began - and pretty soon, you had bowl games in attractive December locales like Boston or the Bronx or Boise, and every major bowl had at least one minor bowl appended to it (and some not-so-major bowls began doubling up as well) and pretty soon you got to the point where ESPN owned most of the bowls and created one on the spot just so that every single 6-win team could get in. Which was the height of foolishness in the face of an oncoming Omicron wave, but I digress.
At one time, the bowls were a reward. Then, they became the only way of ever getting meaningful cross-conference matchups. Then, as the BCS gave way to the CFP, they became exhibitions which it was just fine to skip out on, because they were meaningless as anything but screen-filler for ESPN (and something safe to put on TV for your relatives during Christmas that didn’t involve Lori Laughlin or Danica McKellar). With players opting out and coaches being fired right after Thanksgiving, half the teams are in disarray even before taking pandemic measures into account, and in a world where only six or seven teams matter to the sport from Week 0 onward, what significance for a throwaway game on Tuesday morning in Birmingham?
(Side note: the other thing that ruined the bowls were the mandatory tie-ins. Conference winners, sure, that was a thing, but the idea that if you finish #5 in the country and second in the Pac-10 you were absolutely locked into the Holiday Bowl rather than being able to take the other berth in the Sugar Bowl is risible in the extreme. And tying everyone into a ladder of bowl qualification meant that Vanderbilt, with 8 wins in consecutive years, got to play five miles from campus and then in Birmingham rather than have a chance to make a deal elsewhere and maybe see the world beyond Interstate 65.)
So if bowls are meaningless exhibitions and anyone who doesn’t have a losing record gets to play, and we’re stuck with the same conference pairings over and over (including at least eight or nine matchups of 6-6 teams), what can we do to make this remotely interesting in a world where it doesn’t matter at all?
You heard right. The Playoff results (see below) are announced on the night following Army-Navy, and then any P5 Conference champs go where they sort of traditionally would go: ACC to the Orange, Big [sic] 12 [sic] to the Cotton, SEC to the Sugar, Pac-12 and B1G to the Rose, but runner-ups are *not* automatically sent if a team is in the playoff. (And by the way, the Peach and the Fiesta are the permanent semi-finals for the playoff now, so never mind them.) For example: this year you have Utah in the Rose, Pitt in the Orange, Baylor in the Cotton and no one in the Sugar by default.
Then, every other team with 6 or more wins gets a ping-pong ball in a giant bowl, we stir the bowl, and Rece Davis picks them out at random in order of bowl prestige. (If you want to add some amount of fairness, you could get one ball per team win, I suppose, but when has fairness ever mattered to this sport?) If the ball bounces your way, then congratulations, 6-6 Auburn, you’re in the Rose Bowl! Sorry, Ohio State, you just missed the playoff and now you’ll get to visit scenic Montgomery, Alabama! Georgia State taking on Notre Dame in Hawaii on Christmas Eve? Damn skippy!
So what about the playoff? Well, the dirty little secret is that there are rarely four genuine contenders, and the battle is for who the other one(s) might be, and nobody wants to leave out the other ones. So instead, we will borrow from Bill James and his concept of how Hall of Fame balloting should be redone. We still have the CFP committee. We also have the coaches’ poll. We also have a panel of media members - including prominent figures outside the traditional press, like bloggers and podcasters. (Sober up, parlagi, you’re up!) We have a vote of actual players - any scholarship football player in Division I can have a vote. We bring back the computer poll aggregate. And we actually let the fans vote online for a week after Championship Saturday. All six groups pick their top-9, we assign points for order, add them all together and the top 4 totals are your seeded playoff participants.
No, we don’t “settle it on the field,” because you can’t settle it on the field. 130 teams, 12-game schedules, most P5 conferences with divisions or round-robin - we’ve already have a 10-team playoff for years as it is, and the first round is Championship Saturday, so all the people clamoring for an 8-team playoff, look behind you. Miss me with the auto-bids for conference champions, too; never mind the top 8, there’s usually at least one P5 champ who isn’t even top-12. This new way brings in six different sets of stakeholders, so that no one even has 20% of the process. The kind of dilettantes who sit on the CFP panel have proven they will set aside “settled on the field” in favor of their expectation of what should happen, so why should they be decisive? The coach’s poll and the media component were good enough for the BCS even when Mack Brown was begging his way into the top 4, so why shouldn’t they be in there - but why should they be decisive themselves? The fans are the reason for the sport, so why shouldn’t they have a vote,but the fans are dumber than hammered snot (again, what up SEC) so why should they get to decide?
This way, nobody decides. Yet everybody does. No one side gets more than 17% of the say, but in aggregate, we get what “everybody knows” - because we will have actually accumulated the view of the coaches, the players, the press, the fans, the “experts” and a dose of rational analysis that doesn’t care how good you were when its operating system was written - at that point, we’ve hacked up four teams that represent the collective judgement of the sport.
Personally, I am of the opinion that if you want to expand to 8 - or God help us, beyond - you should absolutely not allow automatic bids of any kind for any reason, and if you’re going to expand to 12 you had better do away with conference title games altogether and realign into conferences of 10 so you can play a round-robin schedule instead. The point being that if you want to “settle it on the field”, then have everyone play the same schedule amongst themselves so you have a little internal consistency rather than giving the berth in the Rose Bowl to a 7-5 team who had one hot day because the team above who owned their division all year is on probation.
Or, you know, we could always go back to 1990 conferences and bowl tie-ins, throw out the playoff altogether, and stop trying to put a veneer of science and authenticity on what has always been and will always be a thoroughly subjective process. But if the bowls aren’t going to mean anything, then why not have some fun with it? Make them formally exhibitions. Results don’t count on your season record. Turn it into a second spring game. And thanks to the randomization, give anyone a shot to go anywhere against anybody. Steer into the lunacy. Let’s have some fun.