College football enters a new playoff world

It took a hundred years, but college football finally caved to the faucet drip of public persistence by agreeing to stage a four-team playoff starting this season.

Fare thee well to mythical champions crowned by wire services, matrices and wing nuts.

The good news is every team that ever won a Helms Athletic Foundation national title — Georgia Tech, 1928 — can keep a spit-shine on that trophy.

The benefit of not having a playoff, of course, was some years it seemed like youth soccer, where every kid gets a participation ribbon.

It was a system in which Ohio State could cherish the Associated Press trophy in 1954 as much as UCLA coveted the coaches' 1954 crown.

Even as this hatch of history closes, Auburn scours to make retroactive claims to corner grocery stores that may have voted War Eagle at No.1 in a final straw poll.

Gone now, presumably, will be ridiculously unresolved seasons capped by screaming matches passed down through generations.

Alabama still can't fathom Notre Dame winning the 1966 title and USC still can't believe it shares 1979 with Alabama when the Trojans that year defeated the Crimson Tide.

Top-ranked Michigan ran out of the 1998 Rose Bowl holding up a No.1 finger but then considered flipping the next finger over when the coaches pulled a fast one and voted Nebraska a half share.

It made for great chair-tipping arguments, but so does "The Jerry Springer Show."

Getting to the playoff was a slog spike-stripped mostly by bowl contracts that prevented the top teams, other than randomly, from meeting in a 1-2 matchup.

While the NBA and Major League Baseball expanded their postseasons almost hourly, college football needed to be shocked by cattle prod.

The seeds of playoff sprouted in 1997, when the Rose Bowl was taken to a dark alley and urged to release the Pacific 10 and/or Big Ten champion to an independent title game (to be determined by a rankings system).

The Bowl Championship Series worked out terrifically, mostly for the Southeastern Conference, which devised the system and won nine of its 16 titles. The Rose Bowl lost power and prestige — but got to keep its parade.

The BCS system was a tangled, contorted mess tweaked almost annually. It was reviled but also singularly responsible for transforming the sport from a regional to a national game. It made people in Tuscaloosa have to care about a game in Eugene.

Under the BCS banner, college football became more popular than any other sport except the NFL. Yet it ultimately collapsed, after 16 years, under its own bloated weight.

The new, four-team playoff is already better because ... what could be worse?

Leaders entrusted to protect the game swear the playoff will not morph into a March Madness-type format that becomes so large the President of the United States fills out a bracket for ESPN.

It would be cannibalism to encroach on college football's spectacular, every-game-counts, regular season.

"There is a tipping point beyond which the regular season begins to become diminished," Bill Hancock, executive director of the new College Football Playoff, said in a Friday phone interview. "None of us knows where that is. We're taking a leap of faith with four."





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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