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A simple four-team playoff? Not in college football
“Finally, the poo-bahs of major college football have seen the light. Smelled the money. They’ve broken from the past, from almost a century of polls and bowls, and embraced a national playoff.”
Those sentences appeared in Athlon Sports’ 1995 preseason annual as the conferences and the bowls began work on agreements for an updated postseason. The whiff of a college football playoff was in the air as Athlon contributor Steve Wieberg — who is now on the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee — wrote about a hypothetical single-elimination tournament for the 1997 season.
We didn’t get the playoff then. We got the BCS.
After 15 years of confusion and hand-wringing over polls and computer rankings, the BCS has come to an end. The conferences, schools and bowls will join the rest of civilized sporting society and determine a champion through a playoff this season.
The name itself is designed to be a tribute to its simplicity: The College Football Playoff. From the same power structure that brought a Bowl Alliance (that didn’t include the Rose Bowl) and a Bowl Championship Series (that wasn’t a “series” at all) comes a title that says exactly what it is.
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock wants the process of selecting teams to be just as simple.
“The term we are using is ‘the best teams,’” Hancock says. “We are not getting into the nuance of the debate of ‘best’ and ‘most deserving.’ We think ‘best’ says it all.”
The name is simple. The goals and execution of the CFP are not. All the Playoff needs to accomplish is to be all things to all people. Yep, that’s it.
The Playoff needs to have the legitimacy of crowning a true, one and only, national champion for the first time in the history of the college football postseason. It needs to preserve the excitement on college campuses during the shortest regular season in major sports.
The Playoff, perhaps to the chagrin of some fans, also needs to preserve the traditional bowl system that has existed since 1902.
Most important, the Playoff is meant to restore teeth to college football’s presence during the New Year’s holiday. Beyond expanding the field of teams that can play for a national championship from two to four, the new format aims to reclaim the New Year’s holiday for college football.
Not that college football was ever absent from Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, but the title game the following week and BCS games throughout the week diluted the teams and matchups for what traditionally has been college football’s signature day.
That won’t be the case in the next three seasons, with Jan. 1 hosting the national semifinals this season and New Year’s Eve hosting the semifinals following the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
This is supposed to be a solution to a postseason that’s been unsatisfying for many fans even before the BCS era. Take the four best teams, have them play during a national holiday and have two of them meet for a national championship roughly a week later.
What could go wrong?
Here are some F.A.Q.’s about the new system and some straightforward answers (where they’re available).
What is the least I need to know about this Playoff?
Here’s How the Postseason Might Look With Our Rankings As a Template
Step 1: The selection committee ranks and assigns teams to the semifinals.
Let’s say the top four is: No. 1 Florida State (ACC champion), No. 2 Alabama (SEC champion), No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten champion) and No. 4 Oklahoma (Big 12 champion):
Sugar Bowl semifinal:
No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Rose Bowl semifinal:
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State
Step 2: The contract bowls fill their spots.
The Orange Bowl fulfills its contract with the ACC by selecting No. 21 Clemson, the best available team from the ACC, to replace Florida State, and No. 5 Auburn, the highest-ranked team remaining among the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame. The Orange Bowl is not necessarily obligated to select the highest-ranked remaining team from the ACC, however.
Step 3: The pool of teams for the six remaining bowl slots is determined.
The Pac-12 champion, contracted to play in the Rose Bowl in non-Playoff years, is guaranteed a slot in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach since it is not part of the Playoff. In our rankings, that team is No. 6 Oregon. The committee also determines the highest-ranked team outside of the “Group of Five,” which is guaranteed a bid. In our rankings, that team is No. 40 Marshall. The final four spots — the at-large bids, if you will — go to the highest-ranked remaining teams: No. 7 UCLA, No. 8 Georgia, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Baylor.
Step 4: The selection committee assigns the remaining six spots in the New Year’s Day bowls with the best remaining teams in the rankings, being mindful of geography and avoiding rematches or repeat trips to a bowl. The selection committee may assign bowls as follows:
Fiesta: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 9 South Carolina
Cotton: No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Baylor
Peach: No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 40 Marshall
Who hosts the championship game and semifinals?
The championship game will rotate among locations, starting with AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for 2014-15, University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in 2015-16 and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in 2016-17.
The answer for the semifinals is a little more complicated. Six bowl games will rotate between hosting semifinals and premier New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve bowl games. In 2014-15, the Sugar and Rose bowls will host semifinals on Jan. 1 while the Cotton (Jan. 1) and Orange, Peach and Fiesta bowls (Dec. 31) host other top games determined by the Playoff Selection Committee. In 2015-16, the Orange and Cotton bowls will host the semifinals before passing the baton to the Peach and Fiesta bowls in 2016-17. The College Football Playoff brass is calling the semifinals and other four premier bowls the “New Year’s Six.” Think of the non-Playoff bowls as the non-championship “BCS” games under a new name.
What will the selection committee do?
The selection committee will rank the top-25 teams in the country and assign the top four in the semifinals. After that, it will place the next group of at-large teams into the New Year’s Day bowls and identify the top teams from the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. In essence, the selection committee is picking the field for the championship (the Playoff) and the consolation prizes (the best non-Playoff bowls).
What criteria will the selection committee use to rank teams?
That’s not clear. In basketball, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has established benchmarks — top-50 wins, bad losses, strength of schedule and the RPI. The football selection committee has no precedent, so it’s not clear what metrics will be used to determine the “best” teams. The Playoff has retained a company called SportSource Analytics to provide statistical data to aid the committee in comparing teams. What that entails is not clear, but it will include opponents’ record, opponents’ opponents’ record and other unspecified data.
“The selection committee’s charge is to use common sense and to consider strength of schedule, conference championships won, head-to-head, results against common opponents,” Hancock says. “Those are the four overarching standards.”
Hancock also says the committee will not dictate how leagues structure their conference schedules. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 will play nine-game schedules in the Playoff era. The ACC will play eight games plus a five-team deal with Notre Dame. The SEC will play eight league games while requiring teams to play at least one game against a team from the other four major conferences. The Big 12 is the only league among the major conferences without a title game.
Why not include tools like college basketball’s RPI?
Remember how much you hated the BCS computers? The Playoff took note. “We intentionally did not create one single metric because we had that in the BCS,” Hancock says. “We created the selection committee because we wanted the human factor to be involved, for human judgment to be involved. Committee members will be able to say Team X lost in the second week of the season, but let’s remember that their left tackle didn’t play and now he’s back.”
How will the committee handle conflicts of interest?
The first selection committee will include five sitting athletic directors. At some point, a selection committee member likely will be in a position to vote for his or her own program into the semifinals. The Playoff established a policy that will recuse committee members if they or an immediate family member receives compensation from the school or has a professional relationship with the program. Recused committee members may not vote or be present during deliberations involving their schools.
What are the logistics of ranking teams?
The committee will meet in person in Dallas on Mondays and Tuesdays starting in late October. Each committee member will devise a top 25. Through a step-by-step process, the committee will whittle its pool of teams under consideration into groups of six and then groups of three until it arrives at a consensus top 25.
How will this change my weekly football routine?
Remember that Sunday night BCS rankings show? That in essence moves to Tuesdays, when the selection committee will release its top 25 on ESPN.
How is this process an improvement over the last one?
The rankings process appears to be more deliberate and rigorous than the BCS system, if only because the committee has three days to analyze Saturday’s games and two days to deliberate. No more AP voters on deadline or coaches (or athletic department staffers) filing top-25 ballots Saturday night. The committee members’ individual ballots and votes will not be made public.
What are the potential problems?
Releasing a weekly poll every week starting in late October is an admirable attempt at transparency. Selection committee chair Jeff Long also will appear on ESPN to explain the rankings. But transparency will come at price when, inevitably, a team continues to win yet drops in the rankings, perhaps out of a Playoff spot. Coaches and athletic directors will be asked to defend — or stump for — their seasons throughout November until the final rankings after the conference title games. The Playoff may soon learn why the basketball committee doesn’t tip its hand until Selection Sunday.
What kind of turnover will there be on the selection committee?
Who is on this selection committee?
The 13-person selection committee, picked by the FBS conference commissioners, is designed to be a cross section of luminaries from college athletics, higher education and government. The selection committee for 2014 will consist of:
• Jeff Long Arkansas athletic director and chair of the committee
• Barry Alvarez Wisconsin athletic director and former coach
• Mike Gould former superintendent at the Air Force Academy
• Pat Haden USC athletic director
• Tom Jernstedt former NCAA executive vice president
• Oliver Luck West Virginia athletic director
• Archie Manning former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints quarterback
• Tom Osborne former coach and athletic director at Nebraska
• Dan Radakovich Clemson athletic director
• Condoleezza Rice former Secretary of State and Stanford provost
• Mike Tranghese former Big East commissioner
• Steve Wieberg retired USA Today college football reporter
• Tyrone Willingham former coach at Notre Dame, Stanford and Washington
Term limits haven’t been set, but committee members generally will serve three seasons. Members of the first committee, though, will have variable terms to achieve a rotation for future years.
What does “assign” the Playoff teams mean?
Hancock says the Playoff will match the selection committee’s No. 1 vs. No. 4 team and the No. 2 vs. No. 3 team. At the same time, he says the No. 1 team will be protected. It seems those goals might not always coincide, right? What if LSU is a No. 4 seed in a potential semifinal at the Sugar Bowl? Or USC or UCLA at the Rose Bowl? Or Georgia in the Peach Bowl? Could the selection committee negate a regional advantage for the No. 1 seed by placing them into the backyard of the No. 4 seed? Or will the selection committee slyly shift a team up a seed line to give a No. 1 seed a more pronounced home-field advantage? We may find out.
Is there a limit to how many teams from a particular conference can go to the Playoff?
No. Conceivably, one conference could send four teams to the playoff, though that seems unlikely. No conference is guaranteed a bid in the semifinal, and no conference is barred. Although conference championships are mentioned as a factor for the selection committee, the Playoff doesn’t require a team to win its league or even its division to be selected for a spot in the semifinal.
What about those other big-time bowl games that aren’t part of the Playoff? Are there automatic bids to these bowl games?
Yes and no. There are no automatic berths to the Playoff for conference champions. However, the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls (aka, the “contract bowls”) have their traditional conference tie-ins during years they are not hosting the semifinals. In years major conference champions aren’t in the Playoff, those teams will head to their traditional destinations: the Big Ten and Pac-12 to the Rose, the SEC and Big 12 to the Sugar and the ACC to the Orange. The only change is the Big 12’s contract with the Sugar rather than the Fiesta.
When a “contract bowl” loses a conference champion, the selection committee assigns the next highest-ranked team from that league to the bowl game. So, if Florida State wins the ACC and earns a bid to the Playoff this season, the Orange Bowl will take the next highest-ranked ACC team as an automatic bid.
The Playoff means that the traditional bowl pairings will occur on an inconsistent basis. Meetings of conference champions will be even more rare. When the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal, for example, it will only have a matchup of Big Ten/Pac-12 champions if those teams happen to be in the Rose Bowl’s portion of the bracket. When the Rose Bowl isn’t hosting a semifinal, the game still will have a Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup, but a matchup of Big Ten/Pac-12 champions seems unlikely, as one or the other (or both) would likely be in the playoff.
The selection committee then will fill the remaining three New Year’s Six bowls — the Cotton, the Fiesta and the Peach — with the highest-ranked teams remaining once the semifinals and contract spots in the Rose, Orange and Sugar are filled.
There are other stipulations: The highest-ranked champion from the so-called “Group of Five” — the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt — is guaranteed a bid to one of these three bowls. The Orange Bowl’s second spot opposite the ACC team will be the highest-ranked remaining team from the Big Ten or SEC or Notre Dame.
When assigning these games, the selection committee will tend to favor geographic fit while attempting to avoid rematches or sending the same teams to the same bowl game.
How has the Rose Bowl managed to be stubborn in all of this?
The Rose Bowl is losing some its traditional role in the college football world but not all of it. The Rose Bowl will still be played at 5 p.m. Eastern on New Year’s Day, whether it is hosting a playoff or not. That means when the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal, the semis will be on New Year’s Day. When the Rose Bowl does not host a Playoff game, the semifinals will be on New Year’s Eve.
What about Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is in the mix for the Orange Bowl spot opposite an ACC opponent. The Orange Bowl will select the highest-ranked team available among Notre Dame, a team from the Big Ten or a team from the SEC. The Orange Bowl is obligated to take three teams each from the Big Ten and SEC during the next 12 years.
What happens to the rest of the bowl games?
The rest of the bowl structure — the Capital One, the Holiday, the Outback and so on — will continue independent of the Playoff structure other than the provision that they won’t be played at the same time as a semifinal. So the Capital One Bowl can still feature an SEC/Big Ten matchup on New Year’s Day, just not at the same time as a Playoff game in the Sugar or Rose bowls.
What about the money?
The 10 conferences and Notre Dame will split an average of $470 million over the course of the rights deal with ESPN, according to a report from USA Today. The ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will split roughly 71.5 percent of the revenue after expenses, while the “Group of Five” will split 27 percent. Notre Dame receives less than one percent.
The Playoff contract between the conferences and the bowls lasts for 12 years, so at minimum this four-team playoff will last until 2024-25.
Where can I watch this thing?
The College Football Playoff will be aired on ESPN.