ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit picks playoff favorites

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Kirk Herbstreit revealed his picks for college football's inaugural four-team playoff to Newsday this week and his answers could reveal more about the future of the sport than expected.

The popular ESPN analyst touts himself as more of a college basketball man, but that didn't stop him from giving his thoughts on the upcoming season. His early favorites are Florida State, UCLA, Michigan State and Alabama.

That's two teams who won their conference last year: the Seminoles were the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA champs, and Michigan State led the Big Ten. And the other two weren't bad picks, with Alabama always a contender and UCLA sporting one of the most intriguing rosters this season.

While his choices were interesting, the most telling facet of Herbstreit's decision-making process was that he didn't pick a single conference to have more than one playoff team.

Perhaps Herbstreit thinks college football's new system, which uses a 13-person selection committee to choose four playoff teams, won't be as forgiving as the old computer polls.

After all, those polls were often willing to place teams that didn't even win their own conference into the national championship game - something a human committee might be less willing to do.

Will we see more diverse champions?

Think about this: the Southeastern Conference has had at least two teams finish in the top-25 of the year-end BCS Rankings each of the last three years.

The height of that imbalance came when LSU and Alabama finished first and second and played each other in the BCS National Championship game.

It's obvious this conference tends to provide at least two of the top four, maybe five, teams in the nation.

But it's also hard to imagine that a human selection-committee would allow such a rematch to occur in the future - especially since Alabama didn't even win its conference, though it did manage to wallop the Tigers 21-0 to win it all.

I don't know if Herbstreit intentionally picked four teams from different conferences, but it seems logical that he might have.

A computer can get over the fact a potential national champion didn't win its conference.

But can a human analyst?

This could mean that teams from conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten, who have been left out of the title game the last few years, will have more of a chance to crack through the competition.

But that leads to another problem.

A de facto decision

Will human voters be tempted just to choose conference champions as playoff contenders each year, without any deeper analysis?

There are five major conferences who have a realistic chance at winning the national football championship each year: the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12.

Your four playoff teams are basically already decided on, assuming that at least one of those conferences has a subpar champion each year (last year it would have been Baylor, after the Bears went 11-2 to win the Big 12).

Do we really want to see a title game decided simply by which teams wins its conference, without looking at how much harder it is to win a league like the SEC than the Big Ten or ACC?

That's the question voters will face and, if they think like Herbstreit, it might mean that conference champs become our de facto playoff teams.

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