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Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: College football playoff edition

Skip this entry if you’re looking for commentary about Donald Trump, Roy Cooper, or some other aspect of public policy. What follows deals primarily with the less important topic of college football playoffs.

To justify its inclusion in the “Locker Room,” I’ll note two policy-related items. First, excitement about the upcoming playoffs should not distract us from serious concerns about the world of higher education (as exemplified by the National Association of Scholars’ new report on the impact of social justice activism in colleges and universities).

Second, those who want to complain about the playoffs — who’s in, who’s out, why are teams seeded in particular spots — ought to consider the following admonition: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. From a policy perspective, this means advocates can harm their cause when they hold out for an end goal and reject an incremental improvement. In football terms, rather than using their four downs to advance from the 10-yard line to the 20, they throw three Hail Marys and end up being forced to punt.

If you can round up enough support to advance a particular policy, if that policy moves you closer to the ultimate goal, and if the policy is unlikely to create negative consequences that make conditions worse than the status quo, then the policy is worth pursuing. (N.C. public school teachers with no pay raises this year might want to keep this idea in mind.)

OK. Enough with the content that makes this blog at least slightly relevant to “The Locker Room.” Now for the fun stuff.

It strikes this observer that the 2019 college football season has presented the exact circumstance the four-team college playoff was designed to address: more than two undefeated major-conference champions.

Consider how the rest of the season would have played out with these teams back in the days of my youth. Big Ten (back then, the conference’s name made sense) champion Ohio State would have been locked into a trip to Pasadena to play the Pac 10 champ in the Rose Bowl. Southeastern Conference champ LSU would have been locked into the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Since the ACC had no binding bowl obligation, Clemson likely would have faced LSU.

The winner of that contest would have a strong claim on the final No. 1 ranking. But what if both teams made each other look bad, while the Buckeyes blew out their opponent? Coaches and sportswriters would be forced to decide in their competing polls which team deserved to win the unofficial national championship. Meanwhile, fans of an undefeated team without a No. 1 ranking would have compelling reasons to complain.

Even the BCS that replaced the old bowl-centric system would fall short with this year’s circumstances. One of the three undefeated teams would be left out of the championship game. If that team won its bowl, we once again would face the prospect of two undefeated major-conference teams at the end of the year.

The four-team playoff clearly represents an improvement. The three undefeated teams — along with 12-1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma — will settle issues on the field.

Is the outcome perfect? No. Will it ever be perfect? No.

Considering all possible scenarios, 2019 turned out to be relatively good for a four-team playoff system. Oklahoma emerged as the best one-loss team available to join the three undefeated squads. Utah made the choice easier by losing its conference championship game, and none of the three undefeated squads complicated matters by losing their final games. (A Georgia win over LSU in the SEC championship would have made it likely that both of those teams would advance, leaving Oklahoma fans to stew about being slighted.)

One inherent problem with a four-team playoff is the fact that college football’s top level has five major conferences. Though not a problem this year, it’s conceivable that a worthy major conference champion could be excluded in the future simply because of the limited number of playoff slots.

So here’s my proposal for the next reform: 1. Expand the playoff to eight teams. 2. Make each major-conference champion an automatic qualifier. 3. Make the three best nonchampions wild-card qualifiers. 4. Seed all teams without regard to conference titles.

Sure the teams that get ranked No. 9 and No. 10 are likely to complain that they don’t make it into the playoff — especially in the years when a lower-ranked two- or three-loss team wins an automatic playoff spot by pulling an upset in its conference championship game. But it would be hard to argue that the eight-team setup I described would be likely to omit a team deserving of competing for the national championship. It’s theoretically possible that a particularly strong conference (I’m looking at you, SEC) could send as many as four teams to the playoffs.

My idea generates its own challenges — including the fact that an extra game would mean 16 contests in a season for the two championship contenders. But there are ways around that. The simplest is to mandate that any team interested in competing in the playoffs would have to limit its regular season to 11 games.

But the details could be determined later. Meanwhile, I’m willing to accept the “good” of the four-team playoff this year.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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