The four-team playoff changed college football. Not just the postseason and crowning of a national champion that finally could be called undisputed.
College Football Playoff 1.0, which wraps up a 10-year run Monday night when No. 1 Michigan (14-0) faces No. 2 Washington (14-0) in the national championship game, created a new standard for success — and failure — for teams and conferences. It helped the rich and powerful become more rich and powerful, further nationalized a sport with regional roots and was an imperfect but necessary step in the evolution of the postseason.
“I think what’s coming is going to be better, but this worked really well,” said Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, one of the architects of the 12-team system that goes into effect next season.
But not without unintended consequences.
A four-team playoff made sense for college football when it was conceived in 2012, following 16 years of the Bowl Championship Series, which was implemented in 1998 and birthed from the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance earlier in the 1990s.
The BCS gave only two teams a chance to win a national championship in the postseason and often produced unsatisfying results. The four-team playoff fixed that.
“We were able to eliminate any real controversy about who the champion was because it was decided on the field,” said Bill Hancock, who was the first executive director of the BCS before moving into a similar role with the CFP.
It’s easy to forget now, but the idea of a playoff was shunned by so many in college football at the time that merely uttering the “P” word was taboo.
There was no serious consideration given to going bigger than four. When the conference commissioners finally decided to move to a playoff, it was going to be the smallest possible version, even though it was an enormous change.
“It was a 100 percent expansion from two to four and have that experience, see how it worked,” Swarbrick said.
Hancock said: “It was the obvious next step in the world of 2012, when all we’d ever known was the coalition, the alliance and the BCS for 22 years.”
The CFP debuted in 2014 and was a smash hit, drawing record television ratings, with New Year’s Day semifinals in the Rose and Sugar bowls. And it produced the type of champion that never would have been possible before when an Ohio State team that suffered a bad early-season loss peaked late and won it all as the last team in the field.
“Whether it’s broadcast ratings, total attendance, whatever it may be, the game has never been more popular. And I think you have to give some credit to the playoff system for helping to make that happen,” Swarbrick said.
But that first season also immediately put unintended consequences into focus when the Big 12 was thrown into a near-crisis because co-champions Baylor and TCU were leapfrogged by Ohio State and the conference was left out.
“It hurt conference brands,” American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Because if you didn’t make a four-team playoff, man, there’s some problem with your conference.”
None more than the Pac-12, among the Power 5 conferences. The Pac-12 made the field just three times in 10 years, including a six-year drought from 2017-22 that was snapped by Washington.
To draw a direct line from CFP exclusion to the demise of the Pac-12 would be an overstatement.
“No, I don’t think you could go that far,” Aresco said. “On the other hand, did it help the Pac-12? No, of course not.”
Even before the CFP, there had been a delineation of conferences in college football. The four-team playoff draw a more stark line and led to new nomenclature: Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences.
As hard as Aresco pushed back against those terms, they became ubiquitous, and it became apparent the CFP was mostly for the Power 5. AAC champion Cincinnati in 2021 is the only school from a Group of 5 conference to reach the Final Four.
“We looked at it as a P5 invitational at some point,” Aresco said.
The CFP generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, the vast majority of which went to the Power 5 conferences.
The CFP seemed to create a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforced the idea that certain teams and conferences were superior. The Southeastern Conference never had a team left out, put two teams in the field twice, and its teams won six of the first nine CFP titles.
Over 10 years, only 15 teams made the CFP, as the very top tier of programs capable of winning a national championship seemed to shrink.
“A lot of the same teams kept making it, which gave them a huge advantage in recruiting and probably had a somewhat deleterious effect on some of the other schools that were competing with them,” Aresco said. “Because if you’re in the playoff time and time again, kids want to play in it.”
Swarbrick disagrees. He said the consolidation of elite talent is a trend across all college sports over the last couple of decades that just happened to coincide with the four-team CFP.
That consolidation also led to a load of playoff blowouts. Only seven of 20 semifinals and three championship games have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
The decision by the conferences to accommodate bowl tradition, especially when it came to the Rose Bowl, and not play the four-team semifinals on Jan. 1 annually was an admitted mistake. That decision kept down CFP viewership and conceded New Year’s Day as college football’s biggest showcase.
As many, most notably Alabama coach Nick Saban, predicted, the prestige of the bowls took a massive hit. Especially the top tier of games that were supposed to be rewards for playoff contenders who missed out.
Instead, they became consolation prizes, distorted by player opt-outs and coaching changes. The nadir came last weekend when a shell of an unbeaten Florida State team that was left out of the CFP lost to Georgia in the Orange Bowl by 60 points.
Nick Carparelli, a former Big East administrator who was part of the discussions that led to the creation of the four-team CFP, is now the executive director of Bowl Season.
“Bowl season is different, but it’s still important,” he said.
Aresco and Swarbrick said expansion ideally would have come much sooner, but that is far from consensus. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has often said his conference would have been fine with it staying at four.
Unlike the BCS, which became a punching bag for critics over 16 years, the postseason system itself was not constantly under attack over the last 10 years.
“I don’t remember a groundswell after three, four or five years to do something different,” Hancock said. “We just didn’t have enough years to evaluate.”
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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