The world witnessed one of the most monumental changes in sport this week, as major college football approved its first playoff, a four-team, two-bowl tournament (piggybacked with four other elite bowl games) to begin in 2014. A selection committee will be used to choose the four teams in the playoff, focusing on such criteria as wins and losses, strength of schedule, and conference championship.
Writers who have spent the last few months speculating what the various prospective formats might have looked like over the past fourteen years are now turning their eyes to how the new approved playoff would have looked like retrospectively.
While there are still myriad details to work out, I wanted to take a look in the other direction, to write a fictionalized “crystal ball” story about what the headline will look like in 2014 as our actual playoff will enter its first season. There will still be ample controversy, but that will only make the impending New Year’s holiday entertainment even more thrilling. Without further ado…
December 31, 2014
With the NFL’s regular season winding down, the eyes of America turn to the inaugural four-team playoff of college football today and tomorrow. On Wednesday night, top-seeded Texas faces No. 4 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. On New Year’s Day, No. 2 Florida State battles No. 3 Tennessee in a primetime Orange Bowl.
The newly christened “Football Four” kicks off at 7pm EST on New Year’s Eve, as every holiday festivity from coast to coast is guaranteed to have the game playing somewhere in the room. The New Year’s Day night game starts a bit later: the Seminoles and Volunteers will play at 9pm EST.
Texas secured the No. 1 seed by crushing their Big 12 foes by an average margin of 26 points on their way to an 11-1 record. Critics doubted the selection committee’s choice though, citing an early loss to Pac-12 champ UCLA (23-20 in overtime) and a lackluster Big 12 field as reasons for the Longhorns unworthiness.
Their foe, 12-1 Big Ten champion Penn State, also faced some naysayers as both the AP and Coaches Poll said the Nittany Lions were ranked sixth after their Big Ten championship game win over two-loss Michigan. The convincing 31-13 win over the Wolverines was revenge for the 20-19 victory Brady Hoke’s team notched against the Lions in Ann Arbor on October 25. Penn State garnered the final playoff bid over the next three seeds—10-2 Alabama, 12-0 Boise State, and 11-2 Texas A&M—by a narrow margin according to Chuck Neinas, selection committee chairman.
The other semifinal game in the Football Four features the SEC champion, the 11-2 Tennessee Volunteers and second-year coach John Gruden. Tennessee reversed fortunes this season after a 5-7 campaign in 2013. Despite ugly losses to Alabama and Georgia, the Vols had the best record in the SEC East and earned a spot in the title game against the AP poll’s No. 1 team, the 11-1 Texas A&M Aggies, whom they then beat 10-8 in a defensive thriller. The loss dropped the Aggies all the way to No. 7 in the selection committee’s eyes, while the win thrust Rocky Top into the national championship picture. SEC commissioner Mike Slive said he thought the Crimson Tide and Aggies both deserved spots alongside the Volunteers.
On the other side of the line, the Florida State Seminoles finally regained the national relevance they hadn’t seen since the Bobby Bowden days, steamrolling the entire ACC except for Miami (a 21-20 loss from a missed Seminole field goal at the end of regulation). Their convincing ACC championship game win over undefeated and third-ranked Virginia Tech catapulted them to the two seed and landed them in the ACC’s contractual bowl, the Orange Bowl.
While the national semifinals are the most anticipated games of bowl season, the Football Four aren’t the only exciting matchups. The Bowl Showcase kicks off at 2pm today with the Capital One Bowl, pitting the eleven seed Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-2) against the seventh-seeded Texas A&M Aggies in a Big Ten/SEC contest.
The Bowl Showcase’s New Year’s Day games commence at 1pm with the Sugar Bowl. With the SEC’s best, non-semifinal team not available (Alabama), Texas A&M anchors the Sugar Bowl against undefeated Big East champion Boise State. The selection committee called the spurned Broncos’ schedule inadequate, as it faced just three teams ranked in the top 60 of the committee’s strength of schedule formula.
The Rose Bowl kicks off at 5pm, featuring the Big Ten’s nine seed Michigan Wolverines (10-3) and the Pac-12’s twelve seed UCLA (10-3). With Penn State in the Football Four, the Wolverines earned their second-straight trip to Pasadena, riding the momentum of four straight wins over Ohio State (three of them over the Buckeyes’ Urban Meyer, who retired days ago after his 24-20 Pinstripe Bowl victory over the Big East’s runner-up San Diego State).
The final Bowl Showcase game starts at 8pm on Friday night, the final college football game until the championship game on Monday, January 12. The SEC/Big 12’s first ever contractual Cotton Bowl pits five seed Alabama against ten seed Oklahoma (9-3 on the season). Once dubbed the Champions Bowl, the game has been given its own exclusive time slot on January 2.
The six-game Bowl Showcase received a 12 billion dollar, 12-year deal from ABC/ESPN for the rights to air these games. Although these six are the most lucrative, they aren’t the only great games yet to be played. Below is the complete remaining schedule for college football’s 2014 season (with Bowl Showcase games on ABC/ESPN bolded).
As you can see, when Chuck Neinas said college football was going to take back New Year’s, he wasn’t kidding.
12pm—19 TCU vs. 23 Wisconsin in the Insight Bowl on FOX
2pm—11 Nebraska vs. 8 VaTech in the Capital One Bowl
3pm—13 Florida vs. 22 Miami in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl on CBS
7pm—Football Four—1 Texas vs. 4 PSU in the Fiesta Bowl
11am—20 LSU vs. unranked Michigan State in the Outback Bowl on ESPN2
12pm—25 Iowa vs. unranked Georgia in the Gator Bowl on ESPN
12:30pm—18 Oregon vs. 24 Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl on FOX
1pm—6 Boise State vs. 7 TAMU in the Sugar Bowl
4:30pm—9 Michigan vs. 12 UCLA in the Rose Bowl
9pm—Football Four—2 FSU vs. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl
8pm—5 Alabama vs. 10 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl
8pm—Semifinal winners in Cowboy Stadium
This hypothetical schedule shows a few things. First, the elite bowls will be much more evenly matched while still having a somewhat traditional feel to them. New Year’s Eve—not an ideal time for TV viewing—will have attractive games, but fewer of them than New Year’s Day. The New Year’s Eve semifinal will be early enough in the evening to not completely dominate the holiday, yet will create a huge buzz heading into the next day’s games. At the same time, the New Year’s Eve game will become a part of the evening’s celebration, similar to the NFL on Thanksgiving or the NBA on Christmas Day.
As for the actual selection committee choices, controversy will still abound. Worthy teams will be just outside the 4-team cut-off. But despite the angst from the outcasts, the new system will still be infinitely more “fair” due to the fact that the four teams must win two games and prove their worth on the biggest stages.
Another notable outcome—the conference championship games’ stocks will shoot through the roof. In my hypothetical, two conference championship game losers will lose spots in the Football Four (Texas A&M and Virginia Tech) while three winners will play their way into the games (Florida State, Tennessee, and Penn State). Only Texas—from the 10-team Big 12—didn’t need to prove itself in the thirteenth game; ironically, they may be rewarded for their more pristine record. The Big 12 knows what they are doing by not expanding.
Although the smaller conference teams will have access to the six Showcase bowls, they are likely to be shut out of the other New Year’s bowls. The major bowls will want the major conferences tied into them. You’ll still see unranked SEC and Big Ten teams get bids over small market or non-major conference schools.
What will happen to TV ratings? Die-hard college football fans will be drooling over such a schedule. Casual fans will likely be glued to the TV for two days straight. Non-fans will probably tune in for at least the two primetime semifinal games, if they don’t get sucked into one or two other elite bowls as well.
Naysayers can scoff and clamor for an 8-team playoff before we even play a game under the new system, but when 2014 actually gets here, I predict we’ll be in for a real treat.
Ryan J. Murphy is a frequent contributor on Nittany Lions Den. His new book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives is availabe now in paperback and ebook (Amazon and Father's Press).