Yes, college football is going to soon have a playoff system.
As we discussed in Vol. 1 of our special two-part playoff edition of College Football Questions & Answers, the question that had lingered over our beloved game for so long--"Should we adopt a playoff system?"—has effectively been answered. Indeed, when the conference commissioners met in Hollywood, Fla., last week to discuss the future of the game, it seemed that all of them--even longtime playoff skeptic Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten--were resigned to the idea that, starting very soon, college football will determine its champion the same way that every other American sport does: With a tournament.
But while that big overarching question has been asked, many, many other questions haven't--questions about how the tournament will be constructed, how many teams will qualify, how teams will make the cut, where the games will be played in more.
Here, we attempt to answer some of those very questions--the questions whose answers will ultimately shape the future of American college football.
Who will benefit the most from a playoff system?
It's hard to say, really. And here's why: Most every decision that has been made by the college football powers-that-be over the last few decades has been made for one reason and one reason only. That reason is money. Money is the reason we have the BCS. Money is the reason why New Year's Day is barely New Year's Day anymore. Money is the reason why the Cotton Bowl is no longer played at, you know, the Cotton Bowl. And so, yes, we can only assume that money is the reason that we will soon have a playoff system. Though the BCS served the BCS conferences well--the SEC and the Big Ten are making more money today than ever before--it seems that Delany and Mike Slive have come to the conclusion that a playoff system can make them even more money. So, yes, it's safe to say that the nation's big conferences stand to benefit enormously from this new set-up; if they weren't going to benefit, after all, the system wouldn't even be under consideration. The larger question is how the system will benefit the other conferences--you know, the ones that have effectively been blocked out of the BCS, relegated to second-tier status. Call me cynical if you must, but my take is pretty simple: At four teams, a playoff does nothing for the BCS busters of the world. Just as Boise State and TCU found it difficult if not impossible to truly break into the national title race, so, too, will the new generation of BCS busters going forward. This playoff, just like the BCS before it, will be an exclusive club--and if you're not in a major conference, membership may prove impossible to earn.
Where should the games be played?
To my mind, the answer is simple. The national title game should be played every year, without question, at the single greatest and single most historic postseason venue that college football has: The Rose Bowl. No other stadium can match it for history, for location, for setting, for beauty. It's ideal. As for the semifinals? Well, I think the answer is even more obvious, and anyone who truly understands college football will agree with me. The national semifinals should be played on campus. No questions asked. Imagine, if you will, an Alabama-Wisconsin semifinal in Madison. Or an Oregon-Texas semifinal at Autzen Stadium. Or an Ohio State-LSU semifinal at Death Valley. The atmospheres would be legendary. Unmatched. Unhinged. It would be madness--January Madness, if you will. Unfortunately, it seems that the idea of on-campus semifinals has been killed, and college football will instead take the easy (and, surprise, lucrative) way out: The semis will be played at neutral sites (possibly the bowls, possibly not), thereby creating the possibility of half-empty stadiums and corporate-dull atmospheres for two of the biggest games of the college football year. To be completely honest, neutral-site semis are depressing to even think about. But again, the folks who run our game don't make decisions based on what's good for the game. They make decisions based on how they can make the most money. Money first. Everything else second.
Why does Notre Dame still get a vote?
Yes, Notre Dame still gets a seat the table in these talks, meaning that one school--a historically important program, yes, but one that has not been nationally relevant in quite a few years now--is treated the same way as the mighty SEC, which is dominating the sport like no league in modern history. It may seem odd. And indeed, it is odd. But it's not puzzling--not in the least. While it's true that Notre Dame isn't what it once was, and while it's true that it's absolutely ridiculous to give one school so much power, the Irish continue to have a vote because of (wait for it) money. Love them or hate them, Notre Dame turns on televisions. That matters. Perhaps more than anything else, that matters.