College football has crowned national champions for more than a century, but the sport’s methodology in determining a champion always has lacked true authenticity.
Championships have been decided by mathematical formulas, by human polls, by computers, by confounding logic.
The history book lists multiple national champions for some years. Louisiana State and Southern California “split” the national title in 2003, even though USC didn’t play in the BCS Championship Game.
A year later, an undefeated Auburn team got left out of the title game because computer rankings determined that USC and Oklahoma were more worthy.
Public pleas for a playoff constantly met resistance from the sport’s old guard, encapsulated by an infamous quote from Ohio State President Gordon Gee in 2007.
“They’ll have to wrench a playoff system from my cold, dead hands,” Gee said.
Thankfully, change didn’t require such a drastic conclusion. Decision-makers finally budged and college football joined the ranks of other sports by adopting a playoff, starting this season.
So long, BCS. Hello, playoffs.
“This may be the most significant change in the history of college football,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the new College Football Playoff.
A 13-member selection committee will choose four teams to compete in the inaugural playoff. The semifinals will be at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. The national championship game takes place Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.
No break from bickering
The overdue arrival of a playoff likely will increase the excitement and popularity (and revenue) of college football’s postseason because fans can understand and embrace a tournament format.
The playoff, however, won’t eliminate the annual controversy surrounding which teams get to play for the national championship.
The BCS caused anger and confusion by relying on computer algorithms. The playoff will lead to resentment from the team that finishes No. 5 in the committee’s rankings.
Consider this hypothetical: Five teams from power conferences finish the regular season with one loss. Good luck appeasing the fan base of the team not included in the playoff.
“Any event that’s worth its salt brings contention with it,” Hancock said. “That’s because it’s an event that people want to participate in. And so those that just barely don’t make it are very disappointed.”
Former Wisconsin coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez weighed the “good and bad” before agreeing to be on the selection committee. He said committee members understand the pressure and magnitude of being asked to choose between teams with similar résumés.
“I’m sure people ranked 5, 6, 7, 8 are going to disagree,” he said. “But we’ll have reasons and criteria that we used to determine which teams were 1 through 4.”
Clarity in process
The selection committee at least provides an element of transparency that was absent in the BCS model. Even diehard fans had trouble deciphering the computer rankings. The human component of a committee — much like the NCAA basketball tournament — should peel away some of the ambiguity over how teams were selected.
The committee won’t rely on one singular metric in evaluating teams. Instead, the set of criteria includes conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head matchups, results against common opponents, even key injuries.
“In the past with the BCS, you had computers [and] there was no one to answer why,” Alvarez said. “The criteria of the computer were never explained. I think this is a fair way. The one thing that we’re charged to do is pick the right four. Our [committee] chair will come out of the final meeting and explain why those four were selected.”
Added Hancock: “The committee will analyze and reanalyze and triple-analyze those teams against each other.”
A playoff represents a seismic change, but many argue that it doesn’t go far enough. LSU coach Les Miles called the four-team playoff a “quality attempt,” before noting that he believes it will expand.
Talk of an expansion to eight teams (or more) began as soon as the playoff became reality. However, Hancock insists the playoff will remain at four teams for the life of its 12-year contract. But given the remarkable transformation of college athletics in recent years, playoff expansion seems inevitable.
“I think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I think you’ll see it expand.”
Hancock said decision-makers purposely capped the playoff at four teams because they wanted to protect the importance and excitement of the regular season. They were concerned that a larger postseason field would diminish the significance of a 12-game regular season.
Power conference bias
Teams outside the power conferences worry that they will largely be excluded from playoff discussion because of the strength-of-schedule criteria. Realistically, would the selection committee pick an undefeated team from the Mountain West over a one-loss team from the SEC?
One consolation: The highest-ranked champion from the so-called “Group of Five” conferences earns an automatic bid to one of the top-tier bowl games in the playoff rotation each season. That means the Group of Five representative will earn an invitation to the Fiesta, Cotton or Peach Bowl this season.
For all its flaws, the BCS didn’t hurt the sport’s popularity. If anything, college football has never been more popular. Now imagine the drama of playoff race the final weeks of the regular season followed by a postseason that will determine a true champion.
“After years of debate and frustration,” Pacific-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said, “we have been able to find a way to firmly establish a real playoff in college football and settle matters on the field.”