Change is here: Four-team playoff alters landscape in college football

To some, it’s the beginning of a glorious new era of college football.

But to others, it’s also the beginning of the end of the collegiate sports model.

The first College Football Playoff, which this season includes the Allstate Sugar Bowl as one of the two semifinal games, is the highly touted successor to the much-maligned BCS, perhaps even challenging its NFL counterpart.

“Five years from now, if not sooner, the championship game will rival the Super Bowl,” said Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando. “This is going to galvanize college football in ways the traditional fans have not even dreamed about.”

At the same time, lawsuits over benefits for athletes and a widening divide between the haves and have-nots, both fueled by ever-increasing broadcast revenues have football more closely than ever emulating its NFL counterpart.

“If athletes are employees, what’s the point of going to class?” Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson recently told Sports Business Journal.

All agree on one thing: 2014 marks a new paradigm for the sport, which launches its 146th season this week and ends with the title game Jan. 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re at a fork in the road,” said Wright Waters, who has been an administrator at every level of college sports and is now executive director of the Football Bowl Association. “One way is to continue concentrating on the academic model — being concerned about the kids being students, our graduation rates and their ability to get a job after school, which is the goal of a vast majority of those athletes.

“The other way is market-driven — focusing on the money that can be generated and now including the athletes in the benefits beyond their scholarships. The ground is always shifting, but college sports remains as it always has been — gloriously flawed and uniquely American.”

Case in point: Notre Dame recently removed four starters from its football program after an internal investigation of academic fraud. Certainly, their absence will hurt the Fighting Irish’s chances of success.

On the other hand, Oklahoma unsuccessfully petitioned the NCAA to allow wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham to be eligible this season instead of having to sit out a year after transferring from Missouri, citing a rule designed to aid those who have been pressured out of a program because of lack of performance. Certainly, having Green-Beckham, a possible first-round draft pick with a troubled history, available for what will likely be his final season in college would have boosted the school’s national title hopes.

The academic model meets the market-driven model.

“You never apologize for winning,” Waters said. “Winning is as American as mom and apple pie. But as we move more into a market-driven model, there is less concern by many fans on what the school is doing to get there.”

Those “Wild West” days of the late 20th century when programs were dealt harsh NCAA penalties because of recruiting violations appear to have been replaced by a new reality about ways to reward football players, and in some cases basketball players, for their efforts that are not direct pay-for-play.

Stipends covering the full cost of attendance for those whose year-round job is football plus other benefits are coming, especially now that the Power Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12) have gained the autonomy to make it happen after indicating they were willing to break away from the NCAA if it was denied.

Doing things like providing for families to attend bowl games is also on the agenda, although the slippery slope of controlling it has yet to be addressed.

Most of the other FBS schools (those in the AAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, the Mountain West and MAC) are likely to follow suit, at least as much as possible, so as not to put themselves at a larger recruiting disadvantage than they now face. But already schools like Hawaii have talked about having to drop football if the cost to remain competitive keeps driving up deficits.

“Our five conferences and their five conferences have a lot of history together, and we’ve always found a way to get in a room and to be good listeners and to work it out,” C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said. “But now we are in a transition from conference realignment to system realignment.”

For all, after the O’Bannon ruling, schools are faced with compensating, in some form, athletes for the use of their names and images on TV broadcasts and other media forums although the timetable for starting to do has yet to be determined. The NCAA is appealing the ruling, but there are other similar cases working their way through the courts.

But all of those issues are likely to take a back seat to the CFP once the season begins.

The BCS underwent heavy criticism during its 16 years, but the conference commissioners who controlled the structure avoided expanding beyond a single championship game for the top two teams until LSU and Alabama finished 1-2 in the 2011 standings.

The relatively low interest in the game outside the South brought the leagues into line with the notion that four was better than two.

In its early days, there was considerable consternation about a selection process for the title game that required seemingly annual tweaking. But the elimination of the human polls and computer rankings in the place of a 13-member committee now make that less likely.

The committee, whose members include Archie Manning, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and several other current and former coaches and administrators, will meet at the FBS headquarters in Irving, Texas, on Mondays starting in late October, and their rankings will be released on Tuesdays thereafter, except for the final one on Dec. 7, the day after the regular season ends.

Unlike the poll voters — both those for the coaches poll and the Harris Interactive one which was created for the BCS after The Associated Press denied the use of its rankings — who were required to vote Sunday mornings and were left to their own devices to get information, committee members have been given access to watch every game whenever they wish and will be provided analytical data by the FBS staff generally not available to the public.

There’s also a recusal policy to avoid a conflict of interest, just as the NCAA basketball tournament selection committees pick their fields.

Besides selecting the four semifinalists, the committee also will place teams in the three access bowls — the Cotton, Chick-Fil-A Peach and Fiesta, in years when those bowls are not semifinal sites. One of those spots is guaranteed to the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five, a leftover benefit from the increased access gained by former Tulane President Scott Cowen in 2003.

While those schools also are eligible for the playoffs, both history and their current status are against them.

In the poll era the only schools to win national championships from outside the current Power Five were Army and Brigham Young, the Cougars’ title coming in 1984.

“There may be some kinks to work out, but I assure you that every committee member will put in the time to be as well-informed as possible,” Manning said. “It’s going to be a combination of four or five things that we use to determine the rankings. We’ll do our very best and trust that it works out.”

The CFP contract is for 12 years, although there is skepticism the playoff can be contained to four teams, given both the likelihood of one of the power conferences being upset if its best team gets shut out early on and the certainty that ESPN or any of the other networks would love to have even more playoff games in their inventory.

Brando, who for the past 18 years was the studio host for CBS’ slate of SEC games, sees playoff expansion as inevitable.

“If it happens, it will be for the wrong reasons,” he said. “An eight-team playoff would be incredible, although I’m worried about what it would do to the bowl system.

“But the need for money is always there. It’s a changing landscape, but you hope that whatever decisions are made are for the good of the game.”