On the Wooden 5-Year Anniversary of the College Football Playoff


Wedding anniversaries are broken down with titles that also hint at gift suggestions. One year, paper; five years, wood; 10 years, tin or aluminum (off-hand comment: that’s kinda cheap, no?); 15th, crystal; 20th, china.

Sports anniversaries rarely receive a moniker unless its silver (25 years) or golden (50). The consistency is that the celebration of a significant event is relegated to rounded time frames – five years, 10, 15, 20, etc.

Your Veteran Scribe hasn’t come across many mentions of a college football milestone that is worth noting. This is the 20th anniversary of the birth of the Bowl Championship Series, a flawed system with one strong point – it produced the sport’s first true championship game.

As compressed as history is becoming, 1997 produced the last poll champs. Appropriately, the national titles were shared by Michigan (13-0, No. 1 in the Associated Press poll) and Nebraska (13-0, coaches) as his colleagues rewarded the Huskers’ Tom Osborne with a retirement gift.

For 16 seasons, the BCS presented a crystal football to its champion and produced twice as many controversies. The excellent book “Death To The BCS” by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan delineated the problems and class warfare that created year-round headlines. The best thing about the BCS is that eventually did pass away.

In its place we have the four-team College Football Playoff, which goes into Year Five this season. While the BCS represented college football dipping its toe into the frigid postseason waters to create a champion, the CFP has only waded knee-deep into Lake Playoff.

Many believe that the BCS received a fatal diagnosis in 2011. The “title” game that year was a rematch between Southeastern Conference West division foes Alabama and LSU. The BCS formula that determined the top two teams selected the Tide and the Tigers with Oklahoma State (12-1) finishing ++++ points out of second place. The “title” game was a low-rated, offensively challenged contest won by ++++, ++++.

The power brokers who run the sport – the conference commissioners, in particular the bosses of the Power Five leagues – invented the CFP with a committee charged on selecting the teams each season. The obvious flaw was that there were only four spots for five conferences and never mind the Group of Five conferences who are in the FBS as supporting roles.

Then last season the CFP produced a sequel to the BCS 2011 debacle. The committee chose Alabama, Clemson (ACC champ), Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) and Georgia (SEC champ). And, of course, Bama played the Bulldogs in the championship game with the result a thrilling overtime victory for the Crimson Tide.

Last season’s inbred championship game, plus the fact that Big Ten champion Ohio State was left out while Alabama, which didn’t even win the SEC West Division, was chosen as an at-large team pointed out the CFP and the BCS have in common more than just being six capital letters.

UCF of the American Athletic Conference won a consolation prize Peach Bowl, finished 13-0 and claimed a mythical national championship while Alabama housed the real hardware in its bulging trophy case.

Scott Frost was the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to the 2017 season. He was Nebraska’s quarterback on the 1997 national championship team and last season he was the Golden Knights’ coach for their perfect season. He’s gone from Group of Five to Power Five, taking over as the Huskers’ coach.

“Getting it to four teams was an improvement,” Frost said at Big Ten media days last month. “But it’s hard to look at last year’s college football season and not feel like an eight-team playoff isn’t where we should go. I think that’s my opinion. I think it should be five conference champions and three at-large teams. That would give a surprise conference champion that plays well at the end of the season a shot. It might give a team like we had at UCF last year a shot.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh also weighed in.

“Thoughts on the playoff system? I guess the first thing that comes to mind is more would be more,” he said. “More would be better in the playoffs. Four right now, go to eight and eventually get to 16.”

Not gonna happen, coach Khaki. The only time the CFP tried to be innovative, it evoked the parking garage quote from Deep Throat in “All The President’s Men” – “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

In its first two years, the CFP disastrously scheduled semifinal games on Jan. 31. The goal of changing “the paradigm of what New Year’s Eve is all about” was a ratings disaster and led to full-scale scheduling retreat.

The Power Five commissioners – three of whom qualify for retirement benefits – are committed to the 12-year plan of the CFP. Contrary to Harbaugh’s wishes, the men in charge say less is more. Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director, fields that question on a regular basis. His answer is the same; writers can keep it on their clipboard.

“There is no talk about expansion among the university presidents and the commissioners,” Hancock said during the SEC’s media days. “They are quite happy with the four-team playoff.”

Doubling the playoff from four to eight appears simple. The Power Five champions earn automatic bids and the playoff committee selects two P5 at-large teams and the best team from the Group of Five. The four-team format guarantees that one P5 conference is left out each season, but the Alabama over Ohio State choice mean two conference champions were excluded.

“The original arguments in the early stages of this were, do we bring forward the four best conference champions or do we bring forward the four best teams? To some extent that discussion is continuing,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “We had some discussions at the CFP meetings in April about how … to value conference championships. What weight should that carry in the portfolio of each of the teams under consideration? We invited 13 honest people to go in a room and pick the best four teams and take into account a lot of criteria that may be weighted differently depending on who’s vantage point you have.”

Eight teams and another round to the playoffs would mean more money and that the teams that play for the title could play 16 games. Both of those factors are third-rail issues. Adding to the already gushing revenue stream would increase the calls that the players somehow earn a bigger share. Plus, even though it’s only two teams, playing 16 games would increase concerns about player welfare.

Other than changing the criteria that CFP teams must be a conference champion, the blueprint is in place through 2025. Short of something catastrophic – like, say, the SEC champion somehow being left out of the bracket – this is how the college football champion is going to be decided.

Like Spaulding Smails, this is all we’re getting, and we’ll like it.