Four-team playoff is only tip of the iceberg for college football

Trent Richardson and Alabama didn't have to go through a playoff system to win the national title.

The drum beat is building, and it’s beautiful music on the ears of college football fans.


With a dreary BCS finale that was among the lowest rated in its cursed history, with overall bowl ratings plummeting to pre-BCS lows and with average bowl attendance the worst since before Herschel Walker committed to play at Georgia, even the defenders of the most inept “championship” system ever devised are pleading nolo contendere these days.

Case in point is Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, the most heinous of the villains in the anti-playoff cartel. Even Delany seems ready to endorse the “plus-one” concept first proposed by the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences whose demise he spearheaded in 2008.

“Four years ago, five of us didn’t want to have the conversation,” Delany said last week of the dissenting voting block at the BCS table. “Now we all want to have the conversation.”

The conversation is far enough along already that BCS executive director Bill Hancock is implying that some kind of limited playoff is in the works for the 2014 season after the current BCS contract expires.

“This is very preliminary and we are a long way from making any kind of decisions and I do not sense any groundswell for a large – that being eight- or 16-team playoff,” said Hancock on a radio show this week, clearly retreating to his second line of defense behind the four-team playoff wall.

NCAA president Mark Emmert is weighing in on the only collegiate championship his organization currently has no authority over.

“The notion of having a ‘Final Four’ approach is probably a sound one,” Emmert said last week.

While a four-team playoff remains far from the ideal that has long been established at the Division I-AA, II and III levels without destroying the student-athletes who play football at those levels, it is a massive and long overdue start.

What prompted this sudden change of heart? Well, it certainly was influenced by the annual pressure being applied by critics and legislative bodies that have the bowl cronies worried that their Ponzi scheme might be crumbling.

But mostly it has to do with the apathy of the average college football fan. While the collegiate game has never been more healthy and popular, that vitality and prosperity is not reflected in the postseason numbers.

Ratings for the five BCS bowls fell six percent from the previous year, with the abysmal Orange Bowl becoming the least-watched major bowl game in the BCS era (mercifully so for Clemson). The clunker of a rematch between SEC powers Alabama and Louisiana State University drew the third lowest in the BCS era and actually fell off from the mega-hyped regular season meeting between the two schools.

In an annual study by The Birmingham News of Nielsen Media Research data, the average rating of all the bowls dropped to an all-time low for the BCS era, marking a total decline of 37 percent since the BCS started in 1998.

Those numbers certainly reflect what you could see on television (if you bothered to watch) as teams performed in front of empty seats including the so-called elite Sugar and Orange Bowls. Average bowl attendance dropped below 51,000 for the first time since 1979. What that means is that whatever payouts the bowls doled out were largely lost to costs by the schools participating.

The bottom line is finally reaching into the BCS apologists’ pockets more than they ever realized, meaning it is inevitable that they will finally sign off on a limited playoff system likely following the 2014 season.

Of course, they say that four teams will be a hard line that they would never cross for the sake of the poor athletes and fans.

“Moving toward a 16-team playoff is highly problematic because I think that’s too much to ask a young man’s body to do,” said Emmert, who presides over 16-team playoffs at every other level of college football. “It’s too many games, it intrudes into the school year and, of course, it would probably necessitate a complete end to the bowl system that so many people like now.”

While some of the same tired platitudes survive, the line is softening and will continue to do so. I’m sure the architects of the original eight-team NCAA basketball tournament in 1939 didn’t foresee the exponential growth it would eventually take. By the 1950s they were inviting 16 conference champions. By 1975 they started admitting at-large teams and grew to 32. The number climbed to 40 in 1979, 48 in ’80, 52 in ’83, 53 in ’84, 64 in ’85, 65 in 2001 and 68 in 2011. It remains subject to change.

Playoff systems in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have all expanded to reap more revenue. So it’s safe to say that four teams would just be a starting point for college football as well. Once they realize the kind of money and enthusiasm it will generate, they will be eager to generate more cash that could solve a host of financial issues across the spectrum of college athletics.

The winds are definitely changing, and the air never smelled so fresh. At this rate, college football might crown its first legitimate national champion in three years.