Randy Edsall was relieved of his duties as Maryland’s head football coach on Sunday. Regardless of what you might have felt about the firing — and whether it was merited or not — the move at least brought an end to a strange and uncomfortable form of coaching limbo in which Edsall was “going to be, but not yet” fired. No one should have to live in that kind of a situation, and now we can move on with our lives. Edsall can move on with his.
My colleague at TSS, Bart Doan, wrote about Edsall and Maryland last week, and he’s going to say more about the Terrapins in short order. You can get a larger sense of the Maryland chapter of Edsall’s coaching journey from Bart.
In this piece, you’re going to read about the enduring value of Edsall’s signature coaching achievement: his successful 2010 season at the University of Connecticut, which culminated in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
We’re now in our second year of the College Football Playoff system, but with a move to eight playoff teams likely to occur within the next 15 years (and very possibly sooner), the emergence of Edsall in the sport’s spotlight — albeit for unwelcome reasons — gives us a chance to look back and forward at college football’s postseason structure. That 2011 Fiesta Bowl showed exactly what was wrong with it… and why a future move to eight playoff teams, if it happens, must be administered with more care than you might think.
Intrigued? Let’s continue.
Let’s start with the appetizer before getting to the main course. Want to be blown away by a fact (even if it’s something you realized you knew all along)?
Randy Edsall made more BCS (now New Year’s Six) bowls at Connecticut than Steve Spurrier made at South Carolina, 1-0.
The follow-up: Edsall never won more than nine games in any season at UConn, and only once in the Big East. (He did so on a separate occasion, before the Huskies moved to the Big East.) Spurrier, on the other hand, won 11 games in three consecutive seasons from 2011 through 2013.
How is that possible? Simple: The Big East got its automatic berth to the BCS, while the system prevented all conferences from having more than two representatives in the collection of BCS bowls. Few schools were hurt more by that policy than South Carolina, which beat Clemson in both 2011 and 2013 and yet had to see the Tigers go to the Orange Bowl in those seasons, because the ACC rarely produced more than two BCS-bowl-worthy teams.
Edsall’s march to the Fiesta Bowl as a Big East champion — with an 8-4 record at the time — called to mind a similar instance six years earlier. When regular-season schedules were just 11 games long instead of 12, Pittsburgh (coached by Walt Harris) registered an 8-3 record and won a four-way Big East tiebreaker. The Panthers were drubbed by Utah in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, much as UConn was by Oklahoma in 2011.
That’s the appetizer. Now let’s dive into the main course:
The good news in all this is that college football has addressed one side of the above problem. The sport lifted the two-team-per-conference limit in the New Year’s Six bowl structure. The quality of matchups for last season’s New Year’s Six bowls was appreciably better than what it had been under the BCS. Having a sixth game obviously gave bowl arrangers some freedom, but a process slightly less beholden to constraints also contributed to the better matchups.
South Carolina excelled just a few years too early. However, the sport is unquestionably better off for this reform in a strictly competitive sense.
Here’s the not-so-good news, or if that seems too gloomy, the news college football has to pay attention to as it (eventually) considers expansion to an eight-team playoff: Connecticut got into the BCS (now NY6) field with four losses (and then lost its fifth game in that 2011 Fiesta Bowl). Pittsburgh got in with three losses in the 2004 season.
It should be fairly obvious: If we’re going to promote freedom of matchups and freedom of opportunity for the best conferences to get more teams into the New Year’s Six, it only stands to reason that Team X from the Big Ten, with an 11-1 record, should get in over Team Y from the AAC with a 9-3 mark. In general, teams that play tough schedules and lose only once or twice should get preference over teams that lose three or more games. The Wisconsin team which faced Stanford in the 2013 Rose Bowl carried five losses into that game (and ended up with six). If “valuing the regular season” really matters to college football in relationship to both the NY6 bowls and the playoff itself, teams won’t be allowed to carry large numbers of losses into those events.
This leads us to an important note about an eight-team playoff.
It’s very simple: The five-conference-champion, Group-of-Five-champion, two-at-large-team model enjoys widespread popular support. It is seen as a readily implementable, clean, and straightforward way to structure the eight-team playoff. Conceptually, this is true. However, the lesson of the 2010 Connecticut Huskies and the 2004 Pitt Panthers (and the 2012 Wisconsin Badgers) is that conference champions shouldn’t get automatic bids if they have at least three losses. If college football simply handed out autobids to the Power 5 champions, this deficiency would lead to very unsatisfying selections for the eight-team field.
For this reason, college football needs to put in more policies and parameters if (when) it does seek a move to eight playoff teams.
Randy Edsall’s head coaching career is in limbo. Whether or not he lands another job as a head coach, his major accomplishment at Connecticut carries a lesson the rest of the college football community needs to absorb. If Edsall’s 2010 season in East Hartford is ignored, college football could make a mistake which will give credence to those who say the BCS was good for the sport.
We’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle with the College Football Playoff; it’s here to stay. What matters now is making sure to avoid harming this system. Any future adjustments must improve the structure instead of undercutting it.
Randy Edsall’s greatest achievement shows us exactly what those proper adjustments should be.