Jimbo Fisher's gaze drifted toward the crystal football trophy he held tightly in his hands as he carefully lifted it triumphantly. It was a token of all the hard work and countless hours Fisher's Florida State Seminoles put into winning the national championship.
At that moment, under the stars in southern California, the Bowl Championship Series came to an end.
Unlike college football's previous postseason format, the new College Football Playoff is exactly what it says it is — a playoff. The word is so blasphemous among college football purists, just the mere mention would spark protracted arguments about protecting the precious bowl experience.
Like it or not, the new era has arrived.
Now, instead of selecting the top two teams to play for the national championship, the top four teams in the country will face off in two semifinal games. Those games will rotate among six "access" bowl games: Sugar, Rose, Orange, Cotton, Peach (formerly the Chick-fil-A) and Fiesta.
The Rose and Sugar bowls will host this year's semifinals, with the Orange and Cotton hosting them in 2016 and the Peach and Fiesta hosting in 2017.
"The format is very simple. It's symmetrical. It's really beautiful. It's a four-team bracket," said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. "We all love our brackets."
In an effort to restore the importance of New Year's Day in the college football postseason, the six games will be split and played on both Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, with the national championship game set to kick off off a little more than a week later on a Monday night.
"We have planted our flag on Monday night," Hancock said.
This season, for example, the title game will be played on Jan. 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Another new nuance is that the national championship game will no longer just rotate among the "access" bowls, but will instead be bid out to other cities and venues across the country, much like NFL's format for awarding the right to host the Super Bowl.
AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, will host the first championship game under the playoff format in 2015, with the University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.) hosting in 2016 and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa set to host in 2017. Hosts for 2018, 2019 and possibly 2020 title games won't be awarded until early 2015, according to Hancock.
It's good news for cities like Orlando and Miami, who are hoping to have stadium renovations completed in time to contend for the right to host the title game.
The venues are set, but who decides which four teams qualify for the playoff?
Under the old BCS system, a combination of votes from two human polls – the Harris and USA Today coaches' polls — and six computer polls were used to come up with the final BCS top 25 rankings. The top two teams faced off in the title game. It was a cold system that drew criticism from fans, who lamented it weighed certain elements like strength of schedule too heavily and failed to factor in a more "human" touch.
Well, those fans got their wish.
As part of the College Football Playoff, a 13-person selection committee was created to decide which teams qualify for not only the four-team playoff, but also the remaining "access" bowls not hosting semifinal games. The group consists of members from different walks of life, including former coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners and a former media member.
"We have an all-star team of 13 people of high integrity who know the game, who love the game and are ready to commit the time necessary to do the job," Hancock said.
The biggest criteria needed for being a member on the committee may be thick skin. There's no doubt that once the first rankings are released, there will be people upset with the selection process.
"Anything we do will be criticized, and I wouldn't have it any other way because it shows that people care about what we're doing," Hancock said.
The core concept of the committee is loosely based on the same system used to determine the field for the NCAA Tournament in March.
The new top 25
The members will meet each Monday starting on Oct. 27 in Dallas – the headquarters of the College Football Playoff — and for two days they will go over the week's results before deciding on a top 25. Once the rankings are complete, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, who is the chairman of the selection committee, will announce the results each Tuesday on ESPN.
The final rankings will be released on Sunday, Dec. 7, at 12:45 p.m. on ESPN.
The committee will make its decision based on criteria including a team's strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of common opponents, conference championships and other factors.
And that means, according to Hancock, that there are no limits on the number of teams from a conference that can qualify for the playoff.
"The best four teams in the playoff and the next best teams go play in the Cotton, Fiesta, Peach bowls," he said.
One of the biggest differences fans will notice from the BCS to the College Football Playoff is access.
In the past, the six conferences of the ACC, American, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC each received an automatic invitation to the BCS bowl games. It's the reason UCF found its way to the Fiesta Bowl last season.
Those days, however, are gone.
Instead, the "access bowls" reached individual agreements with several of the power conferences. Winners of the Big Ten and Pac-12 will meet in the Rose Bowl or the champions of the SEC and Big 12 in the Sugar Bowl if those teams fail to qualify for the semifinals.
The Orange Bowl will feature the champion of the ACC, or a replacement from the ACC if the champion is competing in the playoff semifinal, against the highest ranked available team from the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the Cotton, Peach and Fiesta bowls will feature at-large selections from the rest of the top 25.
Outside Power 5
The five conferences outside of the Power 5 — American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt — will now have to battle for just one guaranteed spot among those top six bowls — either the Cotton, Peach or Fiesta. The highest-ranked winner among those leagues will earn the right to play in the game.
That means for UCF to qualify for a top bowl game, the Knights must win the American Athletic Conference again and finish ranked higher than any of the remaining champions of the non-Power 5 conferences.
The non-access bowls, previously known as non-BCS games, will continue to provide a postseason home for a slew of other college football teams.
Teams face tougher roads to the elite access bowls, but many college football leaders see it as a chance to generate more revenue and crown a true champion.
Despite the move to what appears to be a more fan-friendly postseason, there are those critics who believe the playoff should be expanded to include more than four teams. But playoff expansion is unlikely.
"I really don't [see it changing,]" said Hancock, adding that the reason the playoff was set up for the next 12 years was to provide stability.
Many coaches still insist a day will come when the playoff moves from four teams to possibly eight or even 16, noting at least one Power 5 conference won't send its champion to the playoff every year.
"I think the playoffs will eventually at some point in time expand," LSU coach Les Miles said.
For now, the road map is set and college football coaches are joining their basketball peers chasing a spot in the Final Four.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun