Folks who have yearned to see a "true" college football national champion determined by a playoff rather than single title game are about to get their wish. But only just barely.
At a recent conclave of conference commissioners and BCS mandarins, the participants hammered out an agreement in principle, that would create a four-game playoff for the 2014 college football season. Most of the important details remain in limbo, but there is little doubt that college football will soon have a playoff system.
One suspects, however, that the playoff system we see in 2014 will only be the tip of the glacier. Change happens very slowly in the world of college football where tradition holds sway and moneyed interests vigorously protect their fiefdoms.
And that is how it should be.
Despite various flaws and weaknesses, college football has arguably been America's greatest pastime for close to a century. It is hard to challenge a record of success that has been predicated on cautious evolution and reverence for history and the sanctity of the game. You don't throw radical fixes at a machine that already works quite well.
The cautious move to a four-game playoff is thus only prudent. It will go some way toward placating those who have been howling for a playoff system, without thoroughly undermining the structure of college football.
Under the most likely scenario, the constellation of bowls, including the BCS games, will remain intact. The semifinal games of the playoffs will go to BCS bowls on a rotating basis. The national championship game will go the highest bidding BCS bowl, or perhaps a city not affiliated with a BCS bowl game.
In theory then, only one BCS bowl would be left out of the playoffs each year. And that game, presumably, would have first dibs on the teams that were not selected for the playoffs.
The general consensus seems to be that the four playoff teams will be selected via the current BCS formula, but tweaked to more heavily emphasize strength of schedule. All teams, regardless of whether or not they won their conference championship, will be eligible for the playoff.
As alluded to above, however, this proposed playoff is likely just a first step among many to come. What we see in 2024 will probably be much different from what we see in 2014.
The principle weakness of a four-team playoff is that it simply doesn't cast the net wide enough. In many seasons—perhaps most—there are more than four legitimate claimants to college football supremacy. With only four teams participating, there will always be at least one team that, after a particularly spectacular bowl performance, will justifiably claim that it deserved to be in the playoff.
Of course, no matter how large the field of a playoff or tournament, some teams will claim that they were unfairly snubbed. But the larger the field, the less grave the "injustice." Hence, nobody in their right mind will assert that the 66th best college basketball team in America could have run the table and defeated Kentucky in the championship game. But a football team rated No.5 would have a legitimate shot winning the whole shooting match.
Eventually, we should expect to see an eight or even 16-team college football playoff. But for the moment, the baby steps of a four-team playoff are steps in the right direction.