College Football’s New Dawn
By BJ Bennett
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The move towards a four-team playoff is cause for some celebration, but measured jubilation. More work needs to be done.
The news of college football's impending switch to a four-team playoff format has hit the sport like a warm ray of sunshine. After decades of stubbornly clinging to the cold frailties of an imperfect voting system and later a vague mathematical formula, college football will now decide a champion the same way everyone else across the vast plane of athletic competition does: on the field. It's hardly a novel concept, though one FBS football will likely incorporate for the first time ever in 2014.
For years, major college football has been overwhelmingly identified with its own unique postseason format. Like a teenager in a rebellious phase, BCS supporters have used their abnormality as an awkward point of pride. Overwhelming public support and pinpointed internal pressure may soon lead to a postseason system that allows the top teams to play for, not just politic for, the national championship. Rising overall parity and conference depth has been clamoring for change for years. Consider the curtains now opened up.
The move towards a four-team playoff is cause for some celebration, but measured jubilation. With 124 NCAA Division I FBS football programs, and current conference realignment drama focusing on inclusion, more work needs to be done. The current proposal has semifinal locations rotating amongst the major bowl games and will involve the four best teams in the country -- regardless of league title claims. For a sport whose postseason has long been defined by, in this case, rigidity, it's a very real step in the right direction.
"I think it's a start," explained former Clemson head football coach Tommy Bowden. "I could very easily see this, in a year or two, go to four or eight. But I like the direction that they are going and I think they have made a lot of progress. I'll tell you one thing, I am not for conference champions. I'm for the four best teams."
Amidst the palm-pressing that has come with what appears to be an agreement are questions about this system's future. With eleven conferences plus independents currently with FBS membership, a potential four-team playoff still lacks a comprehensive foundation reflective of the grouping it will serve. Perhaps FBS football will trim its weight some. Potentially, though, invitations to the year-end tournament may one day increase. An estimated half-billion dollar payday will likely have all involved wanting more.
"I think we'll wait and see until they write that first check. I saw the numbers at 400-500 million dollars that could be brought in as revenue from this type of system. When they say it's not about the money, it's the money. Once the money that is fixing to be generated is dispersed, then I think you could very easily see it go to an eight team playoff first, which will generate more money, then possibly a sixteen team playoff which would generate more than that," Bowden continued. "And the economic times are so tough right now, if you look at the have's and have not's, there's a larger separation than there was a few years ago as far as the facilities arms race and the ones that have a lot of money because of TV. I see this as a way to equal things out, which the NCAA likes to do."
The consensus from those in and outside of college football is that this new playoff may expand to include more teams in the future.
"I think it will answer a lot of questions in terms of having more teams at least be able to have a shot to play in that big game at the end of the season," first-year Oklahoma State assistant Van Malone explained. "You mention maybe even going to eight teams, I think it's going to eventually go there. One of the questions I have been hearing is "why four?'. I think everybody at the start will be satisfied with four but I think eventually there will be a push for more."
As the concept currently sits, a look ahead offers quite the view for leagues like the SEC and the Big 12. Alabama and LSU played for the BCS National Championship last season, their second meeting of the year. Such matchups could be commonplace in the new proposed format. With no automatic bids at stake, consistently powerful conferences will be the obvious beneficiaries.
"If they continue to win games like they have..." Bowden acknowledged about the SEC being in the best position regarding the four-team idea. "I think it's legitimate because I think the best teams should play. Right now, their conference is at the top of the cycle. If two of the four best teams are from the SEC, then I think they should definitely get in."
Such a system would have benefited college football last season, especially extensions in Palo Alto and Stillwater. The rematch between the Tigers and Crimson Tide was a controversial one in California and Oklahoma. The Cardinal dropped just one regular season game, a November tilt with Oregon. The Cowboys only blemish came in double-overtime at Iowa State. At the end of the regular season, they were third in the BCS standings.
"It's kind of crazy. The fans have cried for this, so for us to be on the eve of something like this is pretty amazing. As a college football coach, especially being in the OSU family, we would have appreciated this last season," Malone continued.
Assuming opinions are finalized and the four-team playoff soon overshadows the BCS, many unknowns will still have to be addressed. Who, what, when and where remain yet to be determined; why appears to have been taken care of. There will be great debate over the role of mid-majors, scheduling and, most importantly, the selecting of participants. The continued reshuffling of the conferences will have a significant impact on future changes. That chaos will directly effect, if not completely dictate, the format. Guidelines and oversight must also be set into place.
"I don't know, I've gone back and forth. You want the conference champion, but then there are some conferences out there that are pretty powerful and you would like to have more teams from those conferences," Malone added. "Others questions I've read are 'who is going to be apart of this committee and how will they make these selections?'. As the days grow near, I think we will find the answers."
Time will tell the tale of major college football's historic change. Today, the game stands on the brink of a major paradigm shift. Where that turn will ultimately take the sport is currently undetermined.
"Years ago, 15 years ago, people were talking about a superconference, the top 1-A teams kind of branching off and kind of being their own NCAA. If you look at the superconferences and the way we're headed, you could very easily see this thing, in the future, at 60 teams," Bowden reflected of FBS fragmentation. "The mid-majors, the have-not's are falling further behind. The bigger stadiums, facilities, the TV contracts kind of separating...I could very easily see, in a few years, those 60 teams separating. It will be a fight to get into that top 60 or 50 or whatever it is."
Who knows how the landscape will look tomorrow. For now in college football, it's the dawning of a new day.