With a new playoff system, college football seeks to end a tradition of convoluted, often unsuccessful attempts to award a national t
Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration Richard Mia
On New Year’s Day, 2007, college football fans witnessed one of the most thrilling games in the history of the sport. The Boise State Broncos had blown an 18-point lead to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and trailed 35-28 late in the fourth quarter. But Boise State tied the game on a miracle 50-yard touchdown on a trick hook-and-lateral play with just seven seconds left. Oklahoma retook a seven-point lead in overtime, but Boise State rallied again, scoring a touchdown on a fourth-down halfback option pass, and then making a two-point conversion on a classic Statue of Liberty play to clinch a 43-42 victory. The dramatic win capped a 13-0 season for Boise State, but the undefeated Broncos, who played in the small Western Athletic Conference, finished the year ranked No. 5 in the country and never had a chance at the national title, which went to the one-loss Florida Gators of the powerful Southeastern Conference.
While college basketball has a populist way to determine its champ—the 66-team, single-elimination March Madness tournament—college football has long operated as something more like an incompetent oligarchy: A variety of systems have been put in place, each one denying access to teams like Boise State in favor of the so-called “power conference” teams—the Floridas and Ohio States of the world—and also angering the bigger schools by failing to crown an unquestioned champion.
That may be changing next month. On New Year’s Day, the semifinal games of the first-ever College Football Playoff will be played. Eleven days later, when the winners of those two games play, the result will give college football the closest thing it has had to a true national champion in almost 150 years of existence. The four-team tournament may even give teams from smaller conferences a shot at the title.
“We’re in a better position now than we were,” says Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, in which Boise State now plays. “We just have to perform, and then we get into a serious conversation for the semifinal berth.”
Not that it’ll be easy for teams from smaller conferences to make the playoff. Their fate will be decided by a newly established 13-person selection committee that will choose the four playoff participants. Among the members of the inaugural committee are five current athletic directors at major universities, a former USA Today sports reporter, former All-American quarterback Archie Manning (father of Peyton and Eli) and a Stanford fan best known for her four-year stint as U.S. Secretary of State: Condoleezza Rice.
Of course, questions remain. The criteria the committee will use to choose the playoff participants are a mystery. And one wonders if 13 people with full-time jobs can truly know enough about every team.
“There’s some concern about that,” says Brandon Pertner, assistant editor at Phil Steele Publications, which covers college football. “How much time do these guys spend watching football?”
Even with those concerns, it’s hard to imagine the committee will do a worse job than the NCAA’s previous systems. For more than 60 years after the first college football game, in 1869, a smattering of researchers and mathematicians selected a national champion based on wildly varying criteria. Some years, as many as five teams were awarded a national title.
A dominant voice arose in 1936, when the Associated Press writers poll was born. An aggregation of opinions from writers across the nation, the AP poll quickly became the best-regarded selector of national champions, but it had competitors. In 1950, United Press began polling college football coaches and anointing its own champion. The Coaches’ Poll was soon held in the same regard as the AP Poll, and college football continued down the road of indecision for decades, with the two polls disagreeing on the national champion 11 times. Teams were locked into playing specific bowl games due to contractual agreements, with the result that it was rare for the top two teams to play each other at the end of the season. Champions were crowned not on the field but in the newspapers.
In the 1990s, the NCAA attempted several times to incorporate the bowls into a system that would produce a national championship game, but not all of the major conferences and bowls were involved in the agreements. In 1996, for example, Nebraska and Penn State both finished undefeated, but they played in different bowls, and the Cornhuskers were named No. 1 in both polls without having to beat the Nittany Lions. In 1998, the NCAA tried to address the issue by creating the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Using a formula that took into account the two major polls along with expert and computer rankings and an assessment of each team’s schedule, the BCS produced a master ranking of college football teams. At the end of the season, the two teams with the top scores played in the BCS Championship Game. For the first time in its long history, college football had a national title game.
Or so we thought. Complaints about the BCS’s convoluted formula followed (a common quip was that the acronym would be more accurate without the C) and nearly every season led to griping about the two teams that were chosen for the title game, often by smaller conferences like the Western Athletic/Mountain West, whose teams didn’t make the cut because their schedules were never deemed tough enough.
Now that college football fans have gotten their wish, how will the playoff change things? For starters, smaller schools hope they’ll have a better shot at getting into the title game—though Thompson acknowledges it’s still an uphill battle. “I’m more optimistic than I was in the 16-year history of the BCS,” he says, “but I’m also a realist. To be in the four-team semifinal, we definitely would need to be undefeated.”
In some ways, the advent of the playoff and the selection committee may actually lead to a consolidation among the power conferences. As Pertner notes, power conference teams seeking to build their résumés for the committee now have greater incentive to play each other, rather than schedule guaranteed non-conference wins (see Ohio State beating Florida A&M 76-0 in September 2013). “We’re already starting to see it with USC playing Alabama and Michigan State playing Oregon,” Pertner says. “You’re going to see that more and more. It’s all about the power five.”
While those big-time early-season games will likely lead to more excitement for fans, Pertner fears that a playoff system could end up diluting the importance of the regular season—especially if the field is expanded. “If you go to eight teams you’re definitely going to have teams in there with a couple losses,” he says. “To me, it would completely devalue the regular season.”
Such an expansion is likely inevitable, as fans advocate for more playoff games and schools agitate for a shot at the title. “I don’t think it will stay at four teams, because the pressure will be too immense,” Thompson says. If the College Football Playoff is indeed expanded to include eight teams, it will surely be hailed as a momentous day. Shortly thereafter, the complaints will begin anew.
At home, freelance writer Adam K. Raymond is the only member of the prestigious College Football Snack Selection Committee.