New era: Inaugural College Football Playoff ushers in much excitement for fans


By most measures, the 2010 season was one of the most successful in Wisconsin football history.

The Badgers finished the regular season 11-1 with wins at No. 13 Iowa and against No. 1 Ohio State at home. Their only loss came in a heartbreaking 10-point defeat on the road against No. 24 Michigan State.

The Badgers finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in the BCS standings. Quite an accomplishment, and good enough to land them in their first Rose Bowl in 11 years.

If Wisconsin replicates that feat this season it will enter December still in the hunt for a national championship.

The College Football Playoff will kick off its inaugural season this year, giving four teams a chance to win a national championship after the regular season ends. While the playoff is an answer to fans' longtime complaints about the BCS, some of its details and longer-reaching implications are still to be determined.

Looking back on that 2010 Wisconsin team, anchored by running back John Clay and defensive end J.J. Watt, then-Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said that team would have appreciated its shot at a national championship.

"It would've meant a lot," said Chryst, now Pitt's head coach. "It's hard to go back, and it meant a ton to be where we were at the end of the year.

Last year, Clemson lost just two regular-season games: against eventual national champion Florida State and on the road against No. 10 South Carolina. The Tigers would've been a longshot to make the playoff, but coach Dabo Swinney said his team would have liked a chance.

Instead, the Tigers landed in the Orange Bowl and beat an Ohio State team that was a quarter away from winning the Big 10 championship and playing in the BCS title game.

"I mean, we can talk about that all day long," Swinney said. "If that would have been the case, I certainly think we could play with anybody. I said that last year.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we were capable of competing for it. We just didn't win the key games when we needed to to warrant the opportunity like Florida State did and like Auburn did."

The list of teams the past few years that would have liked a shot at the national championship is extensive. Undefeated small-conference schools such as TCU and Boise State could have gotten their swing at Goliath. And big-time schools wouldn't fall victim to the BCS' convoluted mathematics, perhaps the most egregious example being the 2004 Auburn Tigers -- as unfathomable as it might seem now, it was just 10 years ago that an undefeated SEC champion was left out of the national championship.

From those Tigers, to Oklahoma State in 2011, to Cincinnati in 2009, there are plenty of teams who just wish their dream season could have happened in the forthcoming playoff era.

"That's what everyone wants," Chryst said. "Just a shot, right?"

• • • • 

For years, ACC commissioner John Swofford and his SEC counterpart Mike Slive felt like they were alone on an island every time they brought up the possibility of a playoff at meetings of conference commissioners.

Despite overwhelming fan demand for a playoff (or something like it) to replace the much-maligned BCS system, whenever Swofford and Slive raised the possibility to their colleagues, they were greeted with crickets.

"There wasn't much reaction," Swofford said. "That was the problem. Even for a couple of years, Mike and I would periodically bring it up and we were the only two in the room that had any interest in it. It gradually, obviously, changed."

In a somewhat ironic twist, it was Slive's conference that played a large role in spurring the advent of the playoff. While momentum for the format was growing, the largely unpopular Alabama-LSU rematch championship after the 2011 season was the final nail in the BCS coffin.

The following June, college presidents approved the framework for the four-team playoff.

"I guess there's a lesson there," Swofford said. "Sometimes you've just got to be persistent and people's views change."

For as much as the BCS was derided, the mechanisms of the playoff aren't dramatically simpler. Sure, the complicated math is gone, but it is replaced by an intricate selection process.

The biggest difference is that the four teams for the playoff will be selected by a 13-member selection committee rather than by a computer ranking. That committee will place the four teams in the playoff, as well as fill out the other four high-level bowls.

The semifinals will rotate among six bowls -- Sugar, Rose, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach.

Some bowls have tie-ins with certain conferences to host their champion if that team does not make the playoff. The ACC, for instance, has a deal with the Orange Bowl to have its champion face the highest-ranked team from the Big Ten or SEC, or Notre Dame, in years the ACC champ doesn't make the playoff.

The committee will meet every week starting in October and release a weekly top 25 starting at the same time.

"I think the excitement, the talk, the finding the teams, to me it's everything good about it," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "I think it's the way we should go."

The playoff matchups should be fairly simple, with the No. 1 team going to the geographically closest semifinal to face the No. 4 team, and No. 2 and No. 3 playing in the other semifinal.

However, when College Football Playoff chief operating officer Michael Kelly went through some mock selection exercises at ACC media days, he noted that there are some wrinkles.

The committee will try to avoid regular-season rematches, but only in non-playoff games. The committee will, though, work to avoid putting higher seeds at a geographic disadvantage. For instance, if Ohio State finishes this season No. 1 and LSU is No. 4, they wouldn't put the Buckeyes and Tigers in the Sugar Bowl semifinal -- even though its closer to Columbus than the Rose Bowl -- because Ohio State would be in a virtual road game as a No. 1 seed.

"There's very key criteria for what happens," Kelly said.

• • • • 

While the College Football Playoff executives and selection committee have tried to prepare for every eventuality, there are some things that won't get ironed out until the system is in place.

One of the main questions is what exact criteria the committee will use in selecting its four teams. They have said record, strength of schedule and conference championships will play a role, but how each one weighs in regard to the others won't be clear until the committee starts releasing rankings in October.

The strength-of-schedule component has led to some schools beefing up their non-conference slate (and played a role in the ACC's eight-or-nine-conference-games debate).

But Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said he thinks the old model of undefeated teams getting the benefit of the doubt, regardless of schedule, will stay in place.

"They say strength of schedule is going to be pivotal for what goes on, but it'd be interesting if a one-loss team goes over a zero-loss team if the strength of schedule is that much greater," Fisher said. "That will depend on how much they weight your schedule, the weight that's put on that. We'll see in the future. I think if you win, you'll be in."

And, of course, there will always be controversy over the teams selected. There could even be more of it. In most years, the BCS has produced a mostly-clear picture of the two best teams. Determining No. 4 versus No. 5, though, could prove trickier.

"You're always going to have the argument with a fifth team not feeling like they got due justice," said Virginia's Mike London, who coached Richmond in the Division I-AA playoffs in 2008 and 2009.

The first year there is significant debate over that fourth team will probably lead to calls for the playoff to expand to eight.

The current contract for four teams is set to run through the 2025 season, with ESPN paying a staggering total of $7.3 billion for the broadcast rights, according to Sports Business Journal. Swofford was adamant the playoff will stay at four at least until that contract expires.

He said college presidents gave the Division I-A commissioners two parameters when creating the playoff: It could not interfere with exams in December and could not extend into the second semester in January.

"I know a lot of people would like to see it at eight," Swofford said. "But the reality is four is the one that fits within those bookends, which is reasonable, I think. Hopefully it'll go well the next 12 years."

It's also important to note that while the playoff will undoubtedly play a major role in shaping the big picture in major college football, Fisher said he doesn't think it will have much impact on the week-to-week journey of the season. There will still be the pageantry, rivalry games and, naturally, arguments over which team is better.

"I don't think it changes anything," Fisher said. "It just adds one game. They're still picking on the same criteria, they really are. [Being] the best team and winning games is what's going to get you there."


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG

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