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December 20, 2012
College football's new playoff system looks like a million bucks—until you take it out for a test drive
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December 20, 2012

A Future Of Chaos

College football's new playoff system looks like a million bucks—until you take it out for a test drive

THE TRUMPETS BLARED, WHITE SMOKE EMANATED FROM A HOTEL BALLROOM, AND THE college sports world launched into a protracted standing ovation. Metaphorically, of course. In Washington, D.C., in June, after endless meetings, ego clashes and media leaks, college football's overlords finally voted to move to a four-team playoff to decide the sport's champion. The first one will take place following the 2014 season. After 14 years of the serially unpopular Bowl Championship Series, the screeches for change finally registered with college presidents.

So it'll be easy now, right? The introduction of a playoff will end all controversy to the point that Hakuna Matata is heard from Coral Gables to Eugene, from Los Angeles to South Bend, right? Um, not so fast.

In November,'s Stewart Mandel came up with the idea to test-drive college football's new postseason format as it would apply to this season. Specifically, we walked through the part of the playoff with the most potential for disputes—the selection of the four teams by an NCAA basketball-tournament-style committee.

Athletic directors from 10 conferences plus an independent representative (Navy's Chet Gladchuk) were asked to take part in a 138-minute mock-selection-committee conference call. Our panel was composed of heavy hitters like Ohio State's Gene Smith, veterans like Washington State's Bill Moos and up-and-comers like Mississippi State's Scott Stricklin. Greg Shaheen, who for a dozen years served as the lead facilitator of the NCAA basketball selection committee, ran our mock exercise.

The takeaway? Not only won't the new system solve everything, it may well cause the same amount of arguing. Having the two semifinals in addition to a title game will certainly be viewed as an improvement, as there will now be three high-impact postseason games. But controversy will rage, as the biggest gap in college football shifts from the teams ranked No. 2 and No. 3 to those ranked No. 4 and No. 5. Smith says filling the first two spots should be clear, but he summed up picking the next two this way: "Oh, my God."

Consider that the panel voted these four teams into our playoff, in ranked order: Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Oregon. That's a fine field, but the gut punch is that the two teams on the immediate outside were Stanford and Georgia. Guess who Oregon's and Florida's only losses were to? Stanford and Georgia, respectively. This is not going to be easy. Shaheen summed it up best: "This was supposed to be the promised land. I thought we were solving everything with this new system."

What else did we learn? Plenty. Some of the playoff system is good—scheduling will matter. Smart athletic directors like Smith have already started beefing up their out-of-league slates to primp for the new version of college football's beauty pageant. Some of it is darker, as the ADs conceded that their reliance on comparative scores could lead to teams running up scores to impress the committee members, who are more impressed by 70-point than 35-point wins. "Even if you say you're not going to look at it," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck says, "you're going to look at it."

The biggest takeaway was that the NCAA football committee—and it hasn't been set how many people will actually be on it—may end up being one of the biggest pressure cookers in sports. Backgrounds will be scrutinized, hate mail will be sent and conspiracy theories will abound. Once the smoke from the boardroom has cleared and the blaring of the trumpets quiets, college football's new postseason could end up looking—and sounding—like its old postseason.