College football may get a Final Four – and millions in new revenue

The proposed playoff structure marks a big philosophical shift within the world of college football and opens the door to a Cinderella team winning a national championship.

Bill Haber/AP/File
Alabama (r) prepares to snap the ball against LSU during the first half of the BCS National Championship college football game in New Orleans on Jan. 9, 2012. BSC commissioners on Wednesday publicly endorsed a model for a four-team playoff to determine a national champion.

College football fans, you’re about to get your very own Final Four.

The sport went one step further in transitioning to a partial playoff structure Wednesday, giving legions of fans and analysts what they’ve been screaming for as long as there has been a BCS (14 years). All 11 BCS commissioners, along with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, publicly endorsed a model for a four-team, seeded playoff to determine a national champion.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of pluses to this,” ACC commissioner John Swofford told reporters after Wednesday's announcement in Chicago. “You’ve got the financial aspects of it, the transparency aspect of it. I think it will be better understood, by the public. I think it will be, if it comes to fruition, a definite step forward for college football.”

The next stop for the playoff proposal is Washington, D.C., where the commissioners will present it for approval by the BCS presidential oversight committee next Tuesday. Before any further specifics are announced, the commissioners have said they will discuss the playoff model with university presidents and athletic directors from their respective conferences.

Detail are few, but here’s what we know so far:

  • Four teams will vie for the title, up from the two selected to play in the title game under the current BCS system.
  • The teams will be decided on and ranked by a committee similar to the one that determines rankings for the NCAA basketball tournament, likely made up of former coaches, athletic directors, and other college football insiders.
  • The committee will weigh factors including record, conference championships, and strength of schedule to choose and seed the teams.
  • The two semifinal games will rotate among the already-existing BCS bowl games – the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange Bowls. The national championship game will be auctioned off to the highest-bidding city.
  • College football will become even more of a cash cow. According to ESPN, unnamed sources have hinted that the playoff could be worth between $400 million and $500 million for the NCAA

The commissioners’ group has been flirting with the four-team playoff for a while now. “There are still some issues to be resolved, but this shouldn’t be a surprise,” SEC commissioner Mike Silve, who has pushed hard for the playoff, said during the announcement.

So, now that the nitty gritty is behind us, what impact will a four-team playoff have? Well, it isn’t expansive enough to change the BCS being dominated by powerhouse programs from the major conferences – the ACC, the Big 12, the Big 10, and, especially, the SEC. The continued emphasis on regular season performances and conference wins all but ensures that no Cinderella teams from tiny schools will emerge. The most fans can hope for in terms of a major upset would be a team that routinely dominates its small conference (like the perennially spurned Boise State Broncos, who play in the Mountain West) squeaking into the final four and winning it all.

Detractors will point out, not incorrectly, that the commissioners’ proposal sounds awfully familiar: Regular season performance, poll rankings, strength of schedule, and conference championships are precisely the criteria already used by the BCS computers to determine how the postseason shakes out.

“Until you have an eight-team or 16-team regular season playoff, there will be folks out there who aren’t completely satisfied,” PAC 12 commissioner Larry Scott said, after the announcement Wednesday. “But we’re trying to balance other important parties, like the value of the regular season, the bowls, and the academic calendar."

Furthermore, the new structure could backfire and actually make the postseason even less inclusive by enabling the already dominant South Eastern Conference to steamroll everyone else. More than any other conference, the SEC has emerged as a junior NFL since the BCS’s inception, winning eight national championships in 14 years (and the last six in a row). Last season, the SEC had at least three teams with strong cases to compete for the title. Two of them did – LSU and eventual winner Alabama. Depending on how much weight the selection committee allots things like conference championships and schedule difficulty, an all-SEC team final four isn’t a totally crazy idea. Highly unlikely, but not crazy.     

While the teams in the hunt for the title may continue to look overly familiar, the likely playoff still represents a monumental philosophical shift within the game of college football. In virtually every other high-profile league, including college football’s professional counterpart, the playoffs hold the possibility of the unexpected, the improbable championship run. It’s a routine occurrence in the NHL which just handed the Stanley Cup to a Los Angeles Kings team that nobody saw coming. This year’s Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants, only won it all after a mediocre regular season that barely got them to the playoffs.

That’s still implausible in the college game, which takes unmatched pride in the importance of its regular season. But by agreeing to a playoff, the commissioners are conceding the possibility of the Cinderella team – or, at least, the appearance of such a possibility.

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