Commentary: College Football Playoff Arrives and What It Means for Northwestern
by Jonathan Hodges

Last Tuesday marked a watershed moment in college football history: the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee officially adopted the proposal to stage a four team playoff starting after the 2014 season. I put together a long list of pertinent links over at PurpleWildcats.com which provide further background.


In 1902, the first college football postseason game was played (a 49-0 Michigan win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl), but the ensuing bowl system would be nothing more than a series of exhibitions for some time. With the advent of television in the mid-20th century and the dissemination of ranking polls, the game began to expand from regional to national and those postseason contests garnered more interest when top teams were involved. Those polls began ranking teams after bowl games a little later. Then, through the 1970's and 80's, the number of bowl games expanded and some flexibility emerged in the system that allowed bowls to set matchups between top teams. Starting in 1992, a handful of conferences and bowls began working together to make this happen on a more structured basis in order to match up the top two teams in a bowl game, but a major impediment remained: the Big Ten and Pac-10 chose not to participate due to their affiliation with the Rose Bowl.

But, in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series came about, with all major conferences participating and officially staging a 1 vs. 2 matchup in a bowl game with a formal ranking system to determine those two teams. It took almost a century after the advent of the collegiate postseason, but a method to determine a "true national championship" was finally in place. Unfortunately, this one-game event had significant flaws, and attempts to tweak the system over the past 14 years was never able to correct the fact that the BCS could only accommodate two teams.

The major conferences saw little need to change the status quo as they controlled both the power and money that flowed from the BCS. Those in charge (conference commissioners and school presidents) were essentially stalwarts in their support of the bowl system, particularly Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, who was significantly aided by Big Ten commish Jim Delany and their respective presidents. Again, much of this came from their attachment to the Rose Bowl, which many claimed was naive and regressive, though it is worth noting the long and illustrious history of the game and the fact that the organization has not been plagued by many of the issues with other bowls (corruption, overpaid leaders, lack of contribution to the community). Also, mid-major conferences began throwing rocks at the system after non-Automatic Qualifying teams were left out of major bowls (and the championship game) on multiple occasions, leading to Congressional hearings followed by some concessions.

Over the past 14 years there have been numerous controversies (Nebraska getting in in 2001, Auburn being left out in 2004, a jumble of teams in 2007, etc.) and it has been clear that tweaks to the ranking formula wouldn't fix the issue. There has been a gradual snowballing of negative feelings towards the BCS from the fans and media, but what really began to gain the attention of the powers that be were declining interest (lower attendance and television ratings for BCS bowl games) and increasing supremacy of one conference (the SEC, culminating in this past year's title game featuring two members of that league). Also, the retirement of the aforementioned Tom Hansen ushered in forward-thinking Larry Scott as (now Pac-12) commissioner, which provided enough of an opening to move a multi-game playoff system forward.

One should not cast too much negative light on the BCS, though, as it did bring together many title games that otherwise would never have happened while also providing a stepping stone to a real playoff system. Also, it added to the popularity and nationalization of college football, along with cable TV and the internet, and has led to soaring attendance, ratings, and, most importantly, revenues.

The New System

The new system will consist of two semifinal games rotated amongst six top tier bowls, which will include the Rose Bowl (Big Ten and Pac-12), the announced but not yet named "Champions Bowl" (SEC and Big XII), and the Orange Bowl (ACC). The three other spots will be up for bid, but will likely include the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls and possibly the Cotton Bowl (now played in the new Cowboys Stadium). Also up for bid is the new national title game, which will be held outside of the traditional bowl system, with the control instead being handled directly by the BCS's successor (which is in turn directly controlled by the now 11 but soon to be 10 FBS conferences, with the likely dissolution of the WAC, along with Notre Dame). This will ultimately lead to more control and much more revenue falling into the hands of the conferences, particularly the "big five" consisting of those conferences directly affiliated with the three aforementioned top tier bowls.

Another key point is that participants in the playoff will be selected by a committee (reportedly to be between 10 and 20 members and likely to consist of college administrators and conference commissioners similar to the NCAA basketball selection committee) which will have criteria that include win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and, most importantly, if a team has won a conference championship. This appeases the Big Ten & Pac-10 in particular, who wanted conference championships to be given more weight, as well as the SEC who wanted the top four ranked teams to be taken (of course, everyone had their own teams' past performances in mind when negotiating). A committee will also conveniently avoid some of the issues with the BCS rankings that constantly required tweaking for specific situations but could not accommodate something new the following year after those changes were locked in place.

Another interesting note is that committee will likely be involved in selecting teams for the other top tier bowl games (non-semifinal games without anchor conferences involved) which will also deal with another complaint of the BCS: lackluster matchups in non-championship games. Anchor conferences, selection order, and corruption often led to questionable if not downright bad choices for games and matchups (e.g. Virginia Tech over Kansas State last season, or Boise State and TCU forced to face off a few years back when both were in non-Automatic Qualifying conferences). The committee should have more transparent criteria for selecting teams (just like the criteria for playoff participants, which should be more transparent as well).

Timing was also decided, with semifinal and top tier games all happening on New Year's Eve & Day and then the title game landing on the first Monday in January at least six days following the semifinal games. This will help concentrate more attention on those games and prevent empty stadiums and low ratings that have plagued recent midweek non-championship BCS games. It will also help accommodate the Rose Bowl (4PM ET on Jan. 1) and the presidents' desire not to extend the season any longer than it is now.

Finally, the new system will reportedly be secured by a 12 year contract that should keep it in place through the 2025 season, which will avoid any immediate schemes to expand to eight or 16 teams. A four team playoff that emphasizes strength of schedule and conference championships will retain or enhance the value of the regular season, while anything beyond that would at the very least put that into question (along with raising concerns about the number of games and length of season).

Left to Be Decided

A number of details will have to be worked out over the next two years before the new system is ready to go; some of those questions appear above: what are all the bowls that will be involved, what will the selection criteria for the committee be (both for the playoff and the other bowls), and how large will the committee be (and who will be on it)? But, there are certainly further questions, including how much new revenue will there be and how will it all be divided?

Thankfully there is time and the groundwork has been laid and agreed upon by all major parties involved (all FBS conferences, with input from their members, along with the major independent), which should allow the next step of amending the NCAA bylaws to allow the new extra game to be completed with relative ease. The revenue question and the vote for the bylaw change go hand in hand: the mid-major schools (now including the remaining Big East members) could threaten holding up the legislation in order to be accommodated via revenues and access guidelines (particularly for the top tier bowls). While it's unclear if that will go off without a hitch, the consensus reached both among commissioners and among presidents shows that the parties are willing to work together to make it work for everyone, and it certainly helps that the revenue pie is becoming much larger which will help everyone, even if the shares remain to be unequal.

It will also be interesting to see if the conferences use their new-found power to squeeze out bad behavior by bowls; some of that is evident in the formation of the "Champions Bowl" which will reportedly be run directly by the affiliated conferences instead of a bowl organization. The bidding process for the three remaining top tier bowl spots will allow the conferences to exert more control over the bowls, while the threat of a playoff expansion that would be the death knell to most bowl games should help keep everyone else in line. Hopefully this will quiet some of the most egregious issues with the bowls.

Impact on the Big Ten

The biggest impact this will have is an expanding chance to win the national title for the conference who has not participated in the BCS title game on a regular basis. This is essentially in return for a diminished profile for its prized postseason possession: the Rose Bowl. In terms of access to the Rose, the Big Ten may very well be better off under the new system rather than the BCS where there were more constraints (like access for non-Automatic Qualifying teams) relative to the new system where there will be predefined years where the Rose will be a semifinal.

This will lead to more Big Ten teams in the playoff and, therefore, more chances to win it all. As mentioned earlier, the regular season and the conference championship game will still be vitally important as they will be key to earning a spot in the playoff. Also, the new scheduling partnership with the Pac-12 is important as it will help bolster the strength of schedule, another component to playoff selection.

While the Rose Bowl will be slightly diminished, it will still be an event unto itself and will be held up with the other top tier bowls as marquee events, even when they are not hosting semifinal games. It is a concession, but definitely one worth making to allow a playoff to move forward.

The Delany Effect

It has been interesting to see the effect that Big Ten commissioner Delany has had through this process. First off, his emphasis on decision making via consensus as first demonstrated when Nebraska joined the conference a couple of years ago. This has been evident throughout the playoff negotiating process as each step (first, deciding to talk about a playoff, then the commissioners deciding, and, finally, the presidents approving) featured a consensus amongst all members with everyone standing together both literally (in the press conferences) and figuratively (at the end of the negotiation). Consensus amongst all members is certainly key for appearances and to avoid undermining those who didn't necessarily get their way (see issues in the Big XII during the last round of conference realignment that saw Texas' largesse drive away Missouri and Texas A&M).

Also, despite leading what many consider to be a conservative conference, Delany has led the charge on a number of issues. Yes, it took years for them to come around on the BCS and giving up exclusive access to the Rose Bowl, but it eventually happened. He then led the charge on advancements in the game such as instant replay, which the conference piloted. He started the Big Ten Network which had shaky beginnings but has since become a model for other conferences and a huge revenue driver for this league. His announcement of expansion research led to the most recent round of realignment and perennial power Nebraska coming on board. And now, finally opening up to playoff discussions led to this agreement.

While many still think of him as a stalwart for history, he has really been progressive in a lot of ways while also keeping the league together as a band of equals and increasing the profile and revenues of the conference as a whole by leaps and bounds. No, he's not perfect, but he's done a bang-up job.

Northwestern and The Playoff

Finally, how will the Wildcats be affected by this new system? Northwestern has not participated in a BCS bowl during its time, with the closest chance coming in 2000 (one win away from a Rose Bowl berth, where instead Purdue won the tiebreakers and NU was relegated to the Alamo Bowl). More spots in top tier bowls and a preferred arrangement with the Rose Bowl (particularly important during years when the conference champ goes to the playoff) will certainly give NU more chances to make a top tier bowl.

Looking further back, the only time NU has been in the top four at the end of the regular season was in 1995, when the 'Cats finished No. 3 in the AP Poll and were sole Big Ten champs. They would almost certainly get the nod over No. 4 OSU (who did not win a championship) and No. 6 Notre Dame (who they famously beat). The top two teams were Nebraska and Florida (both undefeated). The final spot may very well have been awarded to OSU or Tennessee (both had losses to teams above them). While this is not to say NU will consistently compete for a spot in the playoff, it certainly shows that it is possible (even starting out completely off the radar of the polls and also sporting a loss).

It's worth noting that NU would actually not have qualified following the 1948 season, when they went to and won the Rose Bowl, as they finished the year No. 7 in the AP (7-2 record) and got the trip to the Rose Bowl thanks to a rule stating that the same team could not represent the conference in consecutive years (Michigan finished No. 1 at 9-0 and had gone to the previous Rose Bowl). (It's also worth noting NU's two losses were to Michigan and No. 2 Notre Dame, who was also 9-0). NU has not finished close to the top four in the polls in any other season.

Finally, NU continues to win in the revenue department thanks to its membership in the Big Ten. The revenue pie will get bigger and the conference will certainly take home one of the largest portions of the playoff/top tier bowl money thanks to past performance and historical standing. Also interesting to note is that the presidents mentioned that academic performance will play some into revenue distribution, which will certainly help NU (who achieved the highest rolling Academic Progress Rate score in Div. I football this year) and the Big Ten (who traditionally performs rather well across the board). In any case, this additional revenue should continue to help build all of NU's athletic programs, but also continue to maintain football, which has certainly moved forward in recent years thanks to ballooning checks from the conference.


Overall, I believe that the new playoff system will be beneficial for college football and will help decide things on the field while also maintaining some of the things that have made it unique, like the bowls and the value of the regular season. Issues certainly remain with the new system, but it did indeed happen which I sincerely doubted when I drafted my own unique playoff proposal (only undefeated teams participate in a variable number of playoff games). Like the BCS, we will have to give the new system time to settle in before making any sweeping conclusions, but on face value it seems to be a step forward that will enhance some of the best aspects of the game. And while NU may not be a regular competitor, it will keep the door open for the 'Cats to make an appearance while also helping bolster their resources via increased revenues. I'm glad to be able to see this finally come to fruition and will certainly be watching in January 2015 when the playoff becomes reality.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.