You gotta hand it to college football’s powers-that-be. It only took two decades (three? four?) of public clamoring for a playoff system for conference commissioners, NCAA suits, and bowl officials to concede that, hey, deciding our champion on the field of play with elimination games (emphasis on the plural) is worth a shot.
It appears that we’ll have a three-game (semifinals and final) playoff to decide college football’s best team after the 2014 season. (Why must we wait three seasons for this? Major League Baseball can institute a new playoff round in less than a year, but we have to “plan” college football’s playoffs over the course of two years?) Four teams will be selected to compete for the sport’s crown, the criteria for selection — and, not incidentally, who exactly will be selecting the teams — still undetermined. Here are some quick thoughts on the new landscape:
• The four-team playoff is a huge step in the right direction — but only a step. Just as there has always been debate over the two teams selected to play for the Bowl Championship Series title (since the 1998 season), there will be debate over which four teams qualify as national semifinalists. Quickly: How many teams finished last season (after the bowl season) with no more than two losses?
The answer is 13. Thirteen teams with a case for being included in any playoff that included at least one team with two defeats. There’s no end, of course, to debating inclusion in a playoff selection process. (Every March, basketball programs feel cheated when left out of a 68-team field.) But if the new playoff format included eight teams, we’d be more likely to include all teams that have earned a legitimate shot at the throne.
• There’s been some back and forth on whether a conference championship should be required for inclusion in the four-team playoff field. I say absolutely. This is another shortcoming of only four teams in the mix. With eight, you’d see all six power-conference champions (yes, including the football-diminished Big East), plus two at-large teams. But with the field as tight as it will be in 2014, how could the NCAA allow a second-place SEC team in and exclude, say, the champion of the Pac 12 or ACC? The entire reason for creating this new system is to further legitimize the national champion with performance on the field. If a team falls to second place in its league . . . tough beans. (Miami-Boston would have been a better NBA Finals this year than Heat-Thunder, but the Celtics happen to live in the Eastern Conference with Miami. Tough beans.)
• Can the bowls survive? Easy answer (with one qualifier): If they continue to make money, yes. There’s been some griping that the new playoff will somehow diminish the bowl season. Diminish the bowl season from what? As of now, we have a month of games played by more than 60(!) teams all over the country, on random dates, often in front of half-empty stadiums. Revenue for bowl games has long been more about title sponsors and television than ticket sales or traveling fans. Here in Memphis, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is an institution on our sports calendar, a weeklong pigskin party of the first resort. Had there been a four-team playoff last winter, I’m convinced the players, coaches, and fans at Cincinnati and Vanderbilt would have still relished the chance to play in that Bluff City bash. Perhaps the playoff will weed out some of the second-tier bowl games (the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl? the BBVA Compass Bowl?), in which case the new format will have killed two birds with the same football.
• When will the Memphis Tigers land a playoff spot? Be patient, Tiger fans. Be very, very patient. Much will have to happen before our local program is anywhere near the top four teams in the country. As the U of M enters the Big East, though, the Tigers are actually on the radar. And if (I say when) the new playoff is expanded to (at least) eight teams, the chances of Justin Fuente’s boys rising to the top of a “power” league and capturing a treasured playoff berth are that much greater.
Just consider how good it feels to ponder the thought of a playoff berth for college football’s national championship. It took way too long, but those dreams — for millions of football fans — are a significant step closer to reality.