Monday, May 12, 2014

Playoff Era and College Football's Brave New World

A sensational story making the rounds last week claims that a Chinese miner was found alive after living 17 years underground following a mine collapse. He had been trapped since 1997 and subsisted on limited fresh water and whatever critters he could find to eat.

Of course, the story turned out to be a hoax, as it was propagated by a site that's the Israeli equivalent of The Onion. But let's just pretend that Mr. Cheung Wai is for real, and he's a huge college football fan (hey, it's my story now, so I'm going with this). The first thing he asks after seeing daylight is: Who won the Rose Bowl last year?

Mr. Cheung must've been utterly confused when he's told that Michigan State won the Rose Bowl, but Florida State won the national championship at the Rose Bowl. Yeah, if you've been living under a rock for the last 17 years, as Mr. Cheung did, college football has been radically different—and will be even more so starting in 2014.

The advent of the BCS was the first monumental change in the way college football's champions are decided. Though its predecessors the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance tried, it wasn't until the BCS when all traditional bowl tie-ins were loosened and all teams were free to meet for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.

But the leap from the BCS to the College Football Playoff, due to debut in the 2014 season, trumps the introduction of the BCS.

After all, the BCS preserved and relied on the traditional poll system and merely made an accommodation to make the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup possible. During its 16-year run, only three times (2000, 2001 and 2003) did the BCS title game not feature the top two teams in the final regular-season polls—and none after the standings were fixed in 2004 to heavily favor the polls.

The College Football Playoff, on the other hand, will obliterate the clout of the polls, which go back to at least 1936, when the AP poll came into existence.

With the 13-member committee making the calls on not just the four-team playoff field, but also berths for the four other most lucrative bowls, the significance of the polls will be marginalized. The committee members will rely on many data sets to form their decisions, with the polls being just one of the tools.

This setup will prompt several significant changes in college football in the coming years:

1. It will place more importance on winning the conference championship than even during the BCS era. The odds of getting a shot at the national championship for a major conference winner has just improved from (at best) 33 percent to up to 80 percent.

2. It will force top teams in the "Group of Five" conferences to schedule up. They will need to do that not just for a slim shot at making the playoff field, but also jockey to be the team to claim the only guaranteed spot for non-power-conference teams in the CFP bowl games.

3. Depending on how the committee behaves this season, it may even force top teams in power conferences to beef up their own schedules. After all, one major champion will still be left out every year, and the key factor most likely will be strength of schedule.

4. The PR games of lobbying will continue, but will probably not be as intense as they've been in the BCS era. Instead of trying to sway some 170 voters, there are only 13 people who are theoretically more informed, more savvy and have more data at their disposal. This will lessen the influence of talking heads of TV networks, particularly ESPN and also CBS.

But as Mr. Cheung settles into his comfy chair and knocks back his first cold brew in 17 years, he'll know just as much as we do about how the selection committee will go about its business. Such is the brave new world of college football.

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