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College Football Playoff System Drives Change

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Unintentionally, perhaps, one of the most revealing moments about the power of college football's four-team playoff system occurred Jan. 6, 2015, six days before Ohio State would go on to defeat Oregon for the first title of the Playoff era.

Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer had complained publicly about the financial strain on players' families having to travel to New Orleans for the semifinals, then turn around and go to Dallas roughly two weeks later to watch them play. The $800 stipend Ohio State was offering from the NCAA-approved student assistance fund was nice, Meyer said, but not enough -- especially in a world in which the Playoff had been created largely because ESPN was paying $7.3 billion over 12 years for broadcast rights.

"Are we going to get their families to Dallas? We should," Meyer said immediately after Ohio State beat Alabama in the semifinals. "There should be an immediate committee meeting somewhere. And I hope you all write that. That's more important than anything else being said today."

In a matter of days after Meyer had turned it into a public issue, the wheels were in motion for the NCAA to approve a $3,000 reimbursement from the CFP for each family of a competing player. On top of that, the NCAA announced its own reimbursement program for the families of men's and women's basketball Final Four participants.

Though it might seem like a no-brainer today, along with full cost-of-attendance scholarships, unlimited meals and various other benefits college athletes have gained recently, paying travel expenses for championship game participants' families was very much viewed as a revolutionary change three short years ago.

"You had a lot of bristling about those kinds of things in college athletics," said former Missouri athletics director Mike Alden, who left the business in 2015 to become a professor at the university. "I was one of them. We're all saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, what are we trying to do?' But when you step away from that, you think, 'That's a really good thing.' If we can help families be able to travel to these types of events they couldn't normally afford, why wouldn't we do that?"

Hindsight brings clarity

For the longest time, that question -- "Why wouldn't we do that?" -- could have been applied to just about everything in college football. The Bowl Championship Series had served its purpose, moving the sport out of its adherence to polls, traditional bowl games and mythical national titles and more toward a system where a true champion could be identified.

But it wasn't enough.

Though there was no logical reason to resist a lucrative playoff as much as the power structure of college athletics resisted, it took until the end of the 2011 season -- when the Southeastern Conference placed two teams in a BCS title game that performed poorly in the TV ratings -- for the key stakeholders to agree that it was time to make the obvious move to a four-team tournament.

Now the College Football Playoff is three years old. Although the sport is fundamentally the same, the number of changes it has driven are almost mind-boggling.

"It has historically taken a long time to turn the battleship of college football, and I don't know that there have been any bigger changes in the game than the addition of a playoff," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. "When you're in the middle of it, you have to sit back and wait and see what else will happen. That's why we were so deliberate when the commissioners put it together. We knew we only had one chance to get it right."

Although the system still might have detractors, including those who would prefer to see it expanded to eight teams, there's no doubt it has changed the language and mind-set of college sports.

Now we talk about committees more than polls. Games aren't just games, they're "data points." While the regular season has strengthened, rank-and-file bowl games have been weakened. Strength of schedule is a fact of life. The separation between Power Five and everyone else has become codified in revenue and in the NCAA's "autonomy" rules, largely based on the CFP's existence. And conferences have gone through existential crises born out of its failure to make the Playoff -- in two out of three years in the Big 12's case.

"I don't think I've ever seen a time when there's been more changes going on at once," said Jim Livengood, a former athletics director at Washington State, Arizona and UNLV. "Five, 10, 15 years ago, some of these things would be such drastic changes, but because these things have happened incrementally, now we've just kind of become numb to it."

U-turn in approach

Few have experienced the upside of the new era more than Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Peach Bowl. His game, and his city in Atlanta, are big winners in the new system, becoming part of the New Year's Six rotation and hosting a semifinal last season between Alabama and Washington. Additionally, Atlanta will host this season's national championship game in the sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

On Sept. 2, Stokan's organization also hosts the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, which will feature No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State, arguably the best season-opening weekend matchup in the sport's history. Though Stokan always has attracted solid teams because of the big payout and visibility in a recruiting hotbed such as Atlanta, getting a blockbuster game the likes of Alabama-Florida State has become easier since the Playoff.

Much to the detriment of the sport and its fans, the entire mentality of college football used to be built around going undefeated, meaning mega non-conference matchups were rare. Now it's all about impressing the committee, which has rewarded teams that play challenging schedules and shunned teams such as Baylor in 2014, after the Bears played three poor non-conference opponents.

"Whoever loses our game, it's a quality loss at the end that is going to help you in the eyes of the committee," Stokan said. "Talking about a good loss is a huge change in college football. Back in 2008, 2009, 2010, it was a lot tougher to schedule an opening-weekend game, because if people lost, they knew it was tough to make it back. Now I've got ADs and coaches calling me, wanting to get in these games."

If there's a downside, it's the perception that all the focus in college football is on the Playoff. It has added pressure to coaches and athletics directors, and it has diminished games such as the Rose Bowl when it's not hosting the semifinals, not to mention the dozens of minor bowls that don't involve Playoff teams.

"That's tough for a lot of people, and the pressure aspect isn't going to slow down," Livengood said. "It's trite to say this, but if you're not one of the four, that doesn't mean you didn't have a good year. But a lot of things now seem to be measured on, 'Are you one of the four in the Playoff?' And that's kind of sad, but, from a media standpoint, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. That's done."

Not exactly as envisioned

If there was one big fear when the system was conceived, it was rooted in SEC paranoia. Former commissioner Mike Slive, in fact, had pushed for a playoff years earlier but was opposed -- ironically, in retrospect -- by former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese (whose conference was a casualty of the power consolidation) and the Big Ten's Jim Delany (whose league won the first CFP title).

Even in 2012, as the details of the College Football Playoff were being hammered out, the commissioners went went head-to-head over whether it should be the four "best" teams, which Slive favored, or Delany's preferred system of inviting conference champions only.

At the time, the philosophical battle lines made sense. The SEC was at the height of its dominance, on a run of BCS championships that would reach seven in a row with Alabama's 2012 title.

Surely a system of the four best teams would include two, perhaps even three, SEC teams in a given year. The Big Ten, which had won just two titles since 1970 and none since 2002, naturally wanted to guarantee a spot in the four-team field.

Though Slive won the argument, the Playoff might have had an unintended consequence for the SEC.

As things stand three years in, the playing field seems more level than it has been in a decade. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten have caught up significantly, and the format has exposed the vast difference between winning two games over elite competition as opposed to one.

"We'd just joined the SEC, so I was probably one of those people that thought, 'Shoot, you'll have a couple of SEC teams in there every year,'" Alden said. "But the way it's played out, I think that's going to be really tough."

That's a credit to the committee and the CFP, which has stuck to its guns on strength of schedule and the value of conference championships, which has been far less controversial than people had imagined. Though there was initial backlash in Year 1 to taking Ohio State over TCU and Baylor, that went away when Meyer's team upset Alabama in the semifinals. Since then, the selections have been fairly straightforward, and no conference has really come all that close to getting two teams in the field.

"One thing I've been very pleased with has been the public's acceptance of the committee," Hancock said. "We joked at the beginning about needing the witness protection program, but none of that has happened, and I think it's because people have so much respect for the integrity of individuals."

It's also because a four-team playoff has been a lot simpler to put together and understand than BCS partisans could have ever admitted before 2014.

Though it might not be a perfect system and there might be unintended consequences, college football fans now speak the language of the Playoff. For better or worse, it has undeniably driven big, long-lasting changes in college sports in three short years. Based on the money it makes and its reach to all areas of the country, it's probably not going to change anytime soon.

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August 24, 2017
 
 
 

 

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