Over the past few weeks we've been delving into the still-evolving debate over college football's inevitable adoption of a playoff system.
And while we haven't come to a great many conclusions just yet, we have come to a couple. Those being, most prominently, the following:
1. College football will, indeed, soon have a playoff system.
2. The structure and format for how that system will remains a huge mystery.
In our previous playoff editions of College Football Questions & Answers, we have explored such topics as where these playoff games will be played, how the bowls will (or will not) be incorporated into the system and how the new Big 12-SEC partnership will impact the playoff debate going forward.
Here, in our latest edition, we'll tackle a few more tricky questions--including the massive and as-of-yet undecided question of how, exactly teams will be selected for the playoff field.
1. So let's get right to it: How many teams will be in this "playoff? And how will be they selected?
The first question is easy. The second one isn't. Though it's quite clear to me and anyone with a brain in their head that there will come a time when the pro-playoff crowd will demand that the field be expanded (to eight teams, or 16 teams, or ...), for now, college football is starting its playoff evolution cautiously (and, to my mind, wisely). That's why the initial iteration of this playoff will almost certainly include just four teams. Essentially, what we're doing here is going from a two-team "playoff" (after all, that's exactly what the BCS is, isn't it?) to a four-team format. On this, it seems, there is widespread agreement: At this time, the game simply can't go any bigger than four. But then ... well, then comes the hard part. The BCS has always been built upon the foundation of its six major conferences--the Big Ten, the SEC, the Big 12, the ACC, the Big East and the Pac-12. Most everything about the old bowl system was tied, somehow, to those leagues--bowl seedings, bowl matchups, the national title picture writ large and, of course, access to the big-money BCS bowl games. Win your league, no matter how good or bad that league is, and you got a free pass to the Orange, Rose, Sugar or Fiesta. Now, of course, that's no longer true. With a four-team format, at least two league champions are going to be left out of the party (or at least, the most important party). This marks a significant philosophical shift away from the way things used to be run; in short, college football just became an even more exclusive club. Some have argued that this playoff system will make the national title more accessible than ever before; I disagree. If anything, this system will make the national title completely inaccessible to all but a couple dozen programs in the entire country. What we're seeing, in other words, is the first step toward the era of the superconference. It's an era that will treat some programs better than others.
2. But you didn't answer the question: How are the teams going to selected?
The short answer: Nobody knows. The long answer: In the end, I have a very strong feeling that the power center of college football (hint: it is located in the South, and Mike Slive lives there) will end up getting its way here. Slive, commissioner of the super-lucrative and super-competitive SEC, has been sending out somewhat mixed messages about his preference for how teams make the playoff field, but there's no denying the fact that his league will be best-served by a system that uses the simplest and most direct means to fill out the bracket: The rankings. Simply put, the folks down in SEC country would like to see a system in which the current ranking system is preserved and then used as the ultimate arbiter in the playoff debate. In other words, at season's end, the Top 4 teams in the rankings are the teams that make the playoff--regardless of whether they've won their conference (or division). Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney has been open about his desire to ensure that all playoff participants have at least won their division to make the field, but as we saw last year, when Alabama won the national title after losing the divisional race to LSU, such a metric doesn't necessarily carry much meaning. Especially not in a playoff system, which, should I remind you, does not actually deliver "the best team." What playoffs do is deliver "the winner of the playoff."
3. In other words, you're still anti-playoff, aren't you?
Not entirely. I accept, in a sense, that this four-team playoff is an inevitability. And part of me thinks it will prove to be a whole lot of fun to watch. But I'm not naive enough to believe that this system will "solve" college football's problems, that it will placate the critics of the game, or that, when all is said and done, the powers-that-be will create a system that makes good sense. At the end of the day, there are still plenty of "special interests" at work here, and they will all battle to make sure that their interests are served; the good of the game, as always, comes second. Such is life here in College Football Nation.