There are sports occurrences and accomplishments that I remain uncertain I will ever see in my lifetime — the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series (sorry, Theo), a baseball player hitting .400, an NBA player averaging a triple-double for a season, a golfer winning all four majors in the same calendar year.
That sports bucket list shrinks by one improbable item this college football season. A sport long associated with pageantry and passion will add another “P”: playoff. For years, the power brokers of major college football treated the idea of a playoff as if it were an infectious disease, but they have finally recognized it’s the cure for a championship process that was frustrating, mystifying, and often unsatisfying.
The exasperating and stultifying Bowl Championship Series has been traded in for a four-team playoff, an inspired idea with an uninspired name, the College Football Playoff. Apparently, Really Important Football Games was already taken.
Death to the BCS indeed. No more esoteric formulas, computer-determined national title-game matchups, or jilted teams.
Well, two out of three isn’t bad. This is still college football we’re talking about. As in American politics, there will always be passionate debate, campaigning, and deep philosophical divides. It’s part of the fabric of the game, like Touchdown Jesus, Roll Tide, and The Ohio State University.
But it’s much more palatable — and reasonable — to have the debate be about which team should be the fourth team given a chance to play for a national championship, instead of which team was shut out of playing for the title completely.
It’s also more acceptable when the debate is going to be settled by a selection committee with actual human beings, accountable for their rankings, not sloughed off as the ineluctable will of an arbitrary formula.
Ask Miami fans if they wish this system existed in 2000, when a one-loss Florida State team Miami had already beaten was chosen by the computers over the one-loss Hurricanes to play Oklahoma in the BCS championship game.
Auburn fans would have swaddled Toomer’s Corner if a four-team playoff existed in 2004, when Auburn went undefeated in the Southeastern Conference and had its nose pressed against the BCS championship glass, forced to watch USC crush undefeated Oklahoma.
The advent of a playoff and the doubling of access to the sport’s Holy Grail isn’t strictly about a more democratic method of determining a champion.
Old-fashioned capitalism played a role as well for the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and Notre Dame. It’s funny how fast the sanctimonious anti-playoff arguments about missed class time and stresses on student-athletes waned once the ESPN coffers were opened.
ESPN doled out more than $5.6 billion for the rights to the football final four for the next 12 years.
Now, if we could just do something about that prosaic name. College Football Playoff.
It’s like naming a skyscraper the Really Tall Building. You’re not even trying. It’s almost as if the college football establishment was so traumatized by adopting a playoff that it couldn’t bear to properly name it. Hopefully, a better name emerges for this momentous event.
The name of college football’s Magna Carta is the exact opposite of what crowning a champion in major college football has been since the sport’s first season in 1869: simple, clear, and easy to understand.
Things change quickly on the field in college football; players, coaches, offensive trends, and uniforms can all be transitory. Off the field, the sport is much more entrenched, wrapping itself in a cocoon of tradition and intractability, a bubble that common sense and public sentiment have struggled to penetrate over the years.
So, seismic change comes with reverence for the old ways.
The two sacred cows of college football — the regular season and the bowls — have both been preserved.
The playoff won’t diminish the weekly drama and jockeying for contender status of the regular season.
The sacrosanct bowls have also been preserved as part of the playoff. The Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl will serve as the semifinal games for the inaugural playoff and will be played on New Year’s Day. The Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta bowls will rotate as the semifinal sites.
The championship game will be put out to bid, just like the Super Bowl and the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four. The inaugural College Football Playoff championship game is slated for Jan. 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The old joke was that you could take the middle letter out of the BCS and get its true meaning. The BCS formula was tweaked over the years.
In the final version, the Harris Interactive college football poll, the USA Today coaches’ poll, and a composite of six computer-generated rankings each counted for one-third of a team’s BCS ranking.
The playoff features a 13-member selection committee that will determine the four teams in the playoffs, similar to how the NCAA men’s basketball tournament field is filled out by a selection committee.
Among the members of the College Football Playoff committee are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is a professor at Stanford University, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, and Archie Manning, father of Peyton and Eli.
Six of the selection committee members, including committee chairman Jeff Long of the University of Arkansas, are current college athletic directors. Members currently employed by a school will not be able to vote for that school.
The first set of College Football Playoff rankings will come out on Oct. 28. The committee will select the four participants on Dec. 6 and 7.
Then the complaining will commence.
It’s not a perfect system — this is college football, after all; chaos is part of the fun — but it is historic progress.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.