Bo and the CFP

What could have been if Bo Schembechler, who never won a National Championship, had the benefits of the College Football Playoff during his tenure as coach?  Obviously it’s impossible to say, and given his less than stellar bowl record, he may never have won a National Championship even with the implementation of the CFP, but isn’t this why we created the CFP: to talk about it?  Let’s take a look at the history books.

Bo took over Michigan in the 1969 season, and achieved one of the greatest upsets in college football history, by beating #1 Ohio State at the Big House 24-12.  This game kept Ohio State out of the Rose Bowl, but in all likelihood, had the CFP existed, the loss would not have kept the Buckeyes out of the CFP, as they still finished the regular season #4.  Such is the charmed life of Ohio State, right Penn State?

Bo’s first real look at a National Championship was following the 1971 season.  Michigan went 11-0 in the regular season, finishing #3 in the polls behind Nebraska and Alabama, both of whom were also undefeated.  This was a tailor-made season for the CFP.  Nebraska and Alabama squared off against each other, and Michigan played Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  If Michigan wins the game, they have had an outside shot at a National Championship, but alas, Rod Garcia ended all of these hopes with a field goal at the end of the game to beat the Wolverines.  What if Michigan had played #2 Alabama instead, with the winner facing off against the Nebraska v. Oklahoma winner?  Who knows?  I look at this season as the one that got away from Bo.  He would never get closer to that elusive National Championship.

In 1972, Michigan was the #3 team in the country until they lost to Ohio State in Columbus, 14-11.  This game is famous because Bo decided to go for the win instead of the tie, which would have still sent his Wolverines to the Rose Bowl.  Ohio State made a goal-line stand on fourth and 1 to end the game.  Would Bo have made a different decision if the CFP was in place?  Again, impossible to say, but given that he left the Rose Bowl on the field to try to beat his rival, I don’t think the CFP would have been any more of a carrot.

1973 is the season every Wolverine fan wants a do-over for.  This was the year of the famous 10-10 tie with Ohio State, followed by the Big Ten selection committee choosing Ohio State to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, even though by rights it was Michigan’s year to go.  After finishing 10-0-1, Michigan was left out of everything.  The real question is whether Michigan would have made the CFP this year as well?  No doubt, it would have been controversial.  Alabama was sitting at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2 with a 10-0-1 record (they tied USC, who at the time was #1 in the country, and ended the regular season #7).  Notre Dame was #3 with a 10-0 record, and then you had Ohio State and Michigan, each with a 10-0-1 record.  This would have been a year when the committee would have been discussing the importance of a “quality tie”.  It appears either Michigan or Ohio State would be on the outside looking in, with Bo Schembechler perhaps showing the same bitterness he did with the Big Ten committee.  Despite the changes, the results appear to be the same…

1974 looked similar 2016.  #2 Michigan went to Columbus to face #3 Ohio State.  After jumping out to an early 10 point lead, Ohio State’s defense shuts down Michigan, and the Buckeyes eventually win a close game 12-10.  To end the regular season Oklahoma was ranked #1 with an 11-0 record.  They were never outside the top 3 for the season.  Alabama sat at #2, also with an 11-0 record.  Then you had 10-1 Ohio State, 10-1 Michigan, and 9-1-1 USC.  Would the CFP have let 2 Big Ten teams get in over the Pac-8 Champion?  Again it would be hard to say.

1976 is what a playoff game would have looked like for Michigan.  After ending the regular season with a win over Ohio State, the Wolverines were #2 in the country.  They would face #3 USC.  The only change today may have been the venue, since Pasadena is nearly a home game for the Trojans, who were the lower ranked team.  No matter, Michigan lost this one 14-6.  Pitt went 12-0, and was the clear National Champion.

1977 would have been intriguing as well.  After defeating the Buckeyes 14-6, the 10-1 Wolverines cracked the top 4 in the AP.  The difficult choice for the committee would have been between Michigan and Notre Dame for that #4 spot.  Both had a bad loss to an unranked team.  Texas sat at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2, with a 10-1 record – their only loss being to #1 Texas.  #3 sat Alabama, also with a 10-1 record.  If this held, Michigan would have played Texas, likely in the Cotton Bowl, while Alabama and Oklahoma squared off in the Sugar or Orange Bowl.  Since Michigan lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl, their chances did not look good against Texas.  As a side note, Notre Dame jumped from #5 to #1 after they defeated Texas.  What would you gain with a playoff, and what would you miss?  Always interesting water cooler talk.

1978 appears to be another year when Michigan would have been on the outside looking in.  Despite a 10-1 record, and beating Ohio State, the Wolverines ended up #5 in the polls.  1 through 4 were: Penn State, Alabama, USC, and Oklahoma.  Alabama defeated Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl, which may have occurred even with a playoff, but first Alabama would have had to play USC, and Penn State would have gone against Oklahoma.

1980 would have seen Michigan one away from the playoff as well.  They finished the regular season #5 in the country, after dropping 2 of their first 3 games, only to become perhaps the most dominant team in the country.  Still, with a 9-2 record, they ended the season looking up to #1 and 10-0 Georgia, #2 and 10-1 Florida State, #3 and 10-1 Pitt, and #4 and 9-2 Oklahoma.  The post-script here is that Michigan finally won their first bowl and Rose Bowl for Bo Schembechler, by defeating Washington 23-6.

Michigan would have to wait until 1985 get back in to the top 5 at season’s end.  Again, however, this would have placed them one off the playoff picture.  Michigan was 9-1-1, having lost to then #1 Iowa, and tying Illinois (!) 3-3. Iowa won the Big Ten this year, and finished the regular season #4, with a 10-1 record.  Oklahoma was ranked #3 with a 10-1 record, Miami was #2 with a 10-1 record, and Penn State was alone with an 11-0 record.  Michigan beat #7 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and ended the season #2 in the country, Bo’s highest ranking after the bowls.

1986 would have seen Michigan back in the playoff picture, and this would have gotten interesting.  This year featured the famous #1 vs. #2 matchup between Miami and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl (which #2 Penn State won 14-10).  Would this game have still occurred if Penn State had to go through #3 Oklahoma?  Could Miami have beaten #4 Michigan?  It would have been fun to watch.

1989, Bo’s last season, would have also been his last attempt to win it all in a playoff.  Michigan dropped their first game of the season, 24-19 to Notre Dame, who was #1 in the country at the time.  After that, the Wolverines went undefeated until the Rose Bowl.  They were ranked #3.  Colorado was #1 in the country, and they actually played, and lost to #4 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.  Miami, which was #2 in the country ended up with the National Championship, after defeating #7 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  With if #3 Michigan played them instead?  That would have been a fun game to watch.

After examining these years, and playing the inevitable, and impossible, game of “what if?”, it’s still difficult to see how Michigan could have won a National Championship for Bo Schembechler, given the chance.  Still, in the “that’s why they play the game” world we inhabit, it would have been intriguing to watch these great Michigan teams fight for the respect they never quite achieved.

Possible CFP berths:
1971
1973
1974
1976
1977
1986
1989

Near misses:
1972
1978
1980
1985

It appears Schembechler would have coached in at least 5 CFP games, with the possibility of an additional 2.  It also appears Michigan would have been in the first cut for 4 to 6 other CFPs.  Unfortunately, there was no CFP in Bo’s day, so all we can do is talk about “what if?”.

Conference Championships – The Next BCS Debate

Arguing about the BCS has become a sport in and of itself. The whole system is so wildly broken that everybody gets an opinion, and many of the opinions actually make sense. Nothing will make more sense than a full-blown 8 or 16 team playoff, but at least we can quiet the noise when the 4 team playoff comes. That is, until we have 5 undefeated teams, or 7 one-loss teams, or fill in the blank.

I have a side-beef with the BCS system – Conference Championship games. The reason I bring this up now is because the Big Ten is about to send an undeserving Wisconsin team to the Big Ten Championship. They are not “earning” their way into the championship game, but rather getting in by default, because Ohio State and Penn State are under sanctions. This should not be.

In 2011, we witnessed a Pac-12 Championship Game between a 6-6 UCLA team, and a 10-2 Oregon team. Why? Because 10-2 USC was ineligible. We also witnessed the farce of an SEC Championship between 10-2 Georgia and 12-0 LSU, only to watch SEC Championship 2 in the BCS Title Game, while 12-1 Oklahoma State got shut out for not passing the “eye test.”

The most egregious use of a Conference Championship to me may have been 2008, when 11-1 Oklahoma played 9-3 Missouri in the Big 12 Championship, while 11-1 Texas and 11-1 Texas Tech stayed home. Do you see where I am going?

I want to eradicate Conference Divisions, when it does not make sense to have them. It amazes me that I have never heard of special rules for conferences in such cases as I described. These match-ups simply do not make sense. For example, this year the Big Ten will have Nebraska play Wisconsin. Wisconsin has lost 2 games (so far) in conference, with the possibility of losing 4. Personally, I think they will go 1-1 in their last two games, but this means they will be an 8-4 team, with 3 losses in conference, playing for the conference title, in a year when there are other teams in conference with less conference losses. Why not have a rule like this: if there are teams ineligible for conference championship play, allow the two best teams in the entire conference (by record) play for the conference championship? It’s not fair that since Michigan, who does not control which division they play in, could have as few as 1 conference loss, and be shut out of the championship game, when a mediocre team gets in from the other division. If there are not enough eligible teams to field a quality championship game, CHANGE THE RULES!

Maybe that one isn’t a very strong example, because the Big Ten is weak this year, and even a 1 conference loss Michigan does not make for a quality opponent.  Let’s go back to the 2011 Pac-12. Why was 6-6 UCLA in the conference championship game? Because they were the champions of the South Division of the Pac-12, right? Yes, but looking closer at the standings, there was a much more intriguing possible game. Since USC was ineligible, why not allow Stanford to substitute in the Conference Championship, because the South Division could not legitimately field a competitive team. Stanford was the #4 team in the country, and Oregon was the #8 team in the country. Outside of ineligible USC, there were no other ranked teams in the conference. These clearly represented the two best teams in the conference, and would have given a definitive winner to the conference, along with great ratings for the Conference Championship Game. Why can’t we make up a simple rule in a case like this when a team is ineligible for a Conference Championship Game, as USC was in this case?

Then there was the SEC. Nobody denies that the 2011 SEC was the best conference in college football, but there are a lot of people who wanted to see Oklahoma State get a shot at the National Championship, and it is still hard to say, even in hindsight, that they didn’t deserve that shot. The Conference Championship Game is a little harder to judge in this case, because Georgia was a good team, and there were no ineligible teams. Still, on one side you had #1, 12-0 LSU. On the other side you had #12, 10-2 Georgia. Again, Georgia was a good team, but in this case there was another team in the conference, #2, 11-1
Alabama, who was clearly the 2nd best team in the conference. The key word in that prior sentence is “clearly.” Without playing in a Conference Championship Game, Alabama still got into the BCS Championship Game. This should never happen! If you have two teams in a conference who are the two best teams in the country, they should play each other for the conference championship regardless of which division they represent. This way, one team moves on, and a team like Oklahoma State gets a legitimate chance to play for the National Championship. It would not be hard to make this kind of rule change.

Now, let’s back up to 2008. The Big 12 had an amazing year that year, but it ended badly. After the regular season was over, you had #3 Oklahoma, #4 Texas, and #7 Texas Tech (depending on which polls you followed), all at 11-1. Because Oklahoma had the higher BCS ranking, they were able to play in the Conference Championship against #17, 9-3 Missouri. Again, we were in a position with National Title implications on the line. #1 Alabama was playing #2 Florida in the SEC Championship, with the winner going to play in the BCS Title Game. This meant that if Oklahoma beat Missouri, they had a walk-in to the National Championship Game. Why not Texas? It would have been so easy to make a modification to the rules so Texas and Oklahoma could battle it out to see who actually went to the National Championship Game. Yes, Texas Tech would have been stiffed, but in this case it seems more fair to let Texas play than neither Texas or Texas Tech. Missouri was simply not a deserving team when we are talking about National Championship potential. And again, if Oklahoma lost to Missouri, there would have been no argument putting Texas in the National Championship Game anyway. Why not let them decide it on the field instead of in the polls? This was clearly a case where the 2 best teams were not allowed to settle these issues on the field.

There is one last conference with eligible teams (at least the ineligible team isn’t very good), but it could still effect BCS Bowl bids, if not the National Championship. The ACC has 2 very good teams, with a lot of also-rans. As it stands now, Florida State will play Miami in the ACC Conference Championship. If not Miami, they will play Georgia Tech or Duke. These teams are barely bowl eligible. FSU will likely win an uncompetitive game in a romp, and go on to a nice BCS Bowl as a result. The ratings will be awful (even if they play Miami), and we will see Charlotte, North Carolina lose moneyin the transaction. It doesn’t need to be this way. Clemson is clearly the second best team in the ACC. They are the
only other ranked team in the conference, and they already played a tough game against FSU this year. Why not allow them to play again, on a neutral field, with a BCS Bowl on the line? Ratings will be high, Charlotte will make money, fans would love this, and a clear Conference Champion will be crowned.

As we tweak the BCS system to get the “best” teams in each bowl game, it seems to me the next logical thing to do (if we do not want to expand the playoff to more than 4 teams) is tweak each conference’s rules to include a little more common sense and intuition into the Conference Championship Games. First, when there is at least 1 ineligible team in a conference, allow two teams from the same division to play each other when the division with the ineligible team is clearly weak. Second, when National Title hopes are on the line, and you have two teams in the top 5 in the country, let them play each other in the Conference Championship, regardless of which division they represent. Third, when
there are clearly two teams in a conference that are head and shoulders better than the other teams, let them play for a legitimate Conference Championship. All of this will add revenue to the NCAA, the conferences, and the universities. It will also create a more balanced system, allowing only the best teams to go to BCS bowl games, while not allowing teams who don’t win their conference championship to “back in” to a National Title game. Let the best teams win!