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Four-team playoff ideal, but growth inevitable; more playoff Mailbag

I always feared that when the day finally arrived that the BCS was put to pasture, the Mailbag might go out of business. But two-and-a-half years before we even play the first semifinal, the four-team playoff complaints are already rolling in. Even in the wake of a historic, sought-after-for-decades announcement, many of you seem just as grumpy as ever.

So thank you!

But to start, let's celebrate just a little.

Stewart, do you think that the four-team playoff will remain for a long time or will it change to eight teams in 2026? I believe four teams is as perfect as it gets. It preserves the sanctity of the regular season -- more than one loss is almost a guaranteed miss of the playoff for most teams -- and it removes the stigma of the deserving team not having a chance. (Yes, the distinction between Nos. 4 and 5 will still remain, but that's a heck of a lot better than Nos. 2 and 3.) Plus, everybody can agree that every year there are no more than three "elite" teams.-- Nick E., Irvine, Caif.

I couldn't agree more. I've only ever wanted four teams. In the BCS era, there have rarely been more than four teams with a legitimate claim to No. 1. In fact, according to my research, it's only happened once in 14 years, in 2008. A four-team playoff maintains the intense week-in, week-out stakes of the regular season while also creating a more climactic postseason. It eradicates absolute injustices like 2004 Auburn while still restricting the field in most years to the truly elite teams.

When I saw all the eight-team proponents flooding my Twitter stream during Tuesday's press conference, I loaded up last year's BCS standings. The No. 8 team was 10-2 Kansas State -- a good team, and certainly deserving of an upper-tier bowl berth, but not a squad anyone would mistake for a national championship-caliber team. As I've written before, that's what separates college from the NFL: A team can't go 9-7, like the New York Giants did last year, and still get a shot at the top prize.

That said, I think we can all see the writing on the wall. The first time there's a dispute over No. 4 (presumably the very first season) we will hear every bit as much outrage as we did over No. 2 in the past. As soon as people get a taste of thrilling college playoff games, they'll want more of them. That's exactly why the commissioners are locking this thing in for 12 years. They don't want to be pressured into going back to the drawing board and doing this all over again four years from now. So those of you who agree with me and Nick should enjoy the heck out of 2014-25. Every other playoff in every other sport has eventually expanded, and this one will too.

How can you suggest that a four-team playoff is a "big move forward" for college football? It is a continuation of the stranglehold that AQ conferences have on college football. Can you think of a scenario where a non-AQ member gets one of the four selections? No, this "new" format will give the AQ's revenue from two more games and nothing more. Fans get shafted again.-- Dave Tout, Graham, Wash.

Not to be condescending, but of all the reasons college football fans have clamored for a playoff, fairness to the little guy was generally pretty low on the list. I've never sensed the same love affair with Cinderella in football as there is with March Madness. If anything, it's quite the opposite, as evidenced by how Boise State unwittingly became a national villain two years ago when pundits had the audacity to consider the Broncos a national title contender. First and foremost, people want to see a more conclusive ending to the season, which they're going to get. They want to see at least two more exciting, high-stakes games between the nation's best teams. They want to see Ohio State play Alabama or Florida play Texas. They don't want to see USC play Louisiana Tech in the Southwest Regional semifinal.

It may well be more difficult for the mid-majors to play for the national title in a four-team event than it was in the BCS, but it won't be because of any grand conspiracy. For one, realignment has hurt the former non-AQ leagues more than any other factor. Nearly all the best programs have now joined the "haves," with the exception of Boise State, which is now sitting somewhere between "have" and "have not." And by putting such an emphasis on strength of schedule -- which any rational person would agree is a good thing -- it becomes that much harder for even an undefeated mid-major to make its case.

For instance, I fully believed that Boise State's 2010 team was one of the four best in the country before it lost to Nevada, but I could not have argued in good conscience that it had a better résumé on paper than most of the major conference champions. That's something people are going to have to get used to with the playoff: Assuming this selection committee does in fact follow much the same protocol as the basketball version, we are officially shifting from "best" (in the subjective opinion of voters) to "most deserving" (based on agreed-upon criteria).

But all is not lost for the little guy in this new world.

Stewart, under the college football playoff system, where do you think a team like Boise State would have ended up this past season? Many believe the most disgraceful treatment of any team this last year was Boise State playing a mediocre Arizona State team in a meaningless bowl, as the final score attested. Would this new system have made a difference or will we still see these kind of disappointing bowls?-- Lars Justinen, Enumclaw, Wash.

It appears the selection committee will be enlisted not only to pick the playoff teams, but to fill out the entire bowl pool for those top six games -- not necessarily to dictate matchups, but to decide which teams qualify for selection -- using the same criteria. We will essentially have the top 12 teams (or close to that) spread out over six bowl games. "At the one-through-four level, champions, strength of schedule and head-to-head matter as tiebreakers," Jim Delany said Tuesday. "Likewise, at nine, 10, 11 and 12, those same principles will be used to separate teams from each other." Idaho President Duane Nellis, who was in the room for Tuesday's presentation, told the Idaho Statesman five additional non-BCS teams would have gained access to those six bowls over the past 12 years and that Boise State likely would have been selected last year.

No one can say for sure what would have happened -- it would still, at the end of the day, have come down to the committee's decision -- but the point is, this new tier of elite games is meant to weed out lowly ranked participants and avoid situations like last year, when Boise State and Kansas State got passed over by the Sugar Bowl for lower-ranked teams. It also throws a bone to the former non-AQs, seeing as the major conference champions are all still guaranteed berths through their contracted bowls (the Rose for the Big Ten and Pac-12, the "Champions" for the SEC and Big 12 and presumably the Orange for the ACC). I'm sure the bowls aren't thrilled about losing even more control over the selection process, but it's a sacrifice they'll have to make if they want in on the playoff games.

Stewart, I nominate you for the new selection committee for your clear thinking, sound analysis and cool-headedness on all matters college football. We engineer some outstanding body armor here at Auburn and would be happy to provide you with a kit, no strings attached.-- Bart Prorok, Auburn

I'm flattered and honored by the suggestion, and while I'm fully supportive of the selection committee concept, it would take more than body armor for me to serve on it. I would demand seven-figure compensation, a fully-stocked bunker and secret, deluxe accommodations abroad during the other eight months of the year, preferably changing locations about once or twice a month. Maybe fake passports, too.

Stewart, the four-team playoff is certainly a big step in the right direction, but the one thing that doesn't make sense to me is that the semifinals are to be played within the bowl structure. If I were the Rose Bowl, for example, I wouldn't want to host a semifinal -- I'd rather go back to the way things were pitting a Big Ten champ against a Pac-12 champ (assuming one of those are not in the semifinal).-- John Goff, Austin, Texas

Without question, the Rose Bowl made the biggest sacrifice in this new model -- not that it's going to draw much sympathy outside of the Midwest and West Coast. While the bowl already lost some of its tradition the day it signed on to the BCS (and specifically when it hosted a Miami-Nebraska matchup), it's going to lose even more of its identity now. Chances are, it's not going to get both the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs most years. In many cases it'll get neither, making it essentially a consolation game. Instead of handing roses to winners of those leagues' championship games, officials might as well head over to the losing locker room. And then, once every three or four years (whatever frequency gets determined in this rotation), it's going to host a semifinal that could feature two teams from any part of the country. Coming in 2015: Florida vs. Virginia Tech in Pasadena.

But what choice did the game have? It's pretty clear that in the new world order, any bowl that's not part of this six-game upper tier is going to be viewed as inferior. The only way the Rose Bowl could maintain its prestige was to play along and be part of the mix. The one important assurance it's been given is that it will still get its traditional, exclusive time slot at roughly 5 p.m. ET on New Year's Day, which will be really cool both when it hosts a semifinal or when there's a semifinal right before or after it. Other than that, though, there's not going to be much to distinguish it from the other five bowls.

Ultimately, I think the playoff will be a boon to the six bowls in the rotation even during non-hosting years, because they'll get the very best teams and the most desirable time slots. On the other end of the spectrum, it won't much impact the Beef 'O' Brady's/BBVA Compass Bowl tier. But all those games in between -- Alamo, Holiday, Sun, et. al. -- are probably going to suffer, because so much of the spotlight and fan importance is going to be placed on those six preferred games.

I enjoyed how you published the Mailbag a day early last week "in an attempt to keep these columns from becoming outdated six hours later," but you jinxed yourself. On that Tuesday morning it was announced that the Champs Sports Bowl will become the Russell Athletic Bowl. So when your mailbag hit the Web at 12:59 p.m., it was already outdated with your inclusion of a question regarding the Champs Sports Bowl. Sorry about that. -- Dan, Hollywood, Fla.

I know. I probably should have caught that, but I was too busy scouring eBay for Champs Sports Bowl collectors items.

In the new playoffs, there will be six cities that host semifinal games, and a national championship game that rotates cities. Can we PLEASE get a game in the Midwest? How about in Indianapolis? We have to be the only city that has hosted the Super Bowl, Final Four and a Conference Championship but doesn't have a bowl game.-- Sam, Indianapolis

I can't see the semifinals being played in the Midwest, since the whole point of a bowl is to go somewhere warm and luxurious in the winter (and since there's no prominent bowl in the Midwest presently), but without question Indianapolis will bid on the national championship rotation and presumably succeed. It's a fantastic city for major sports events.

In general, I'd expect a pretty strong overlap between Super Bowl cities and national championship cities, since there are only so many that have both a modern dome stadium with bells and whistles and a sufficient number of hotel rooms and infrastructure. Most assume JerryWorld (Dallas/Arlington) will be a frequent host, with its decadent stadium and central location in a football hotbed, but Indianapolis makes my list of next-likeliest candidates, along with New Orleans, Atlanta, Glendale, Houston, Tampa and New York/New Jersey (depending on how the 2014 Super Bowl goes). Under-the-radar possibilities: St. Louis, San Antonio, Seattle and, coming to my backyard in 2014, the 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. There will be a tailgate at my place for that one.

Stewart, any chance of provisions that would prevent (for example) a No. 4-seed LSU from playing in the Sugar Bowl?-- Matt, Chicago

That's definitely a risk the commissioners opened themselves to when they decided to go with a predetermined rotation. However, I've been told there will likely be some flexibility; possibly with the higher-seeded team getting to pick which of that year's two semifinal bowls it prefers.

Exciting news about the four-team playoff, but why do they have to play the championship game on a Monday night? College football is basically built around Saturdays, but since the BCS era, they have insisted on playing the big bowl games on weeknights. This is hard on those of us in the Eastern Time Zone who have to work the next day. What's the rationale here?-- Andrew Hagan, Kingsport, Tenn.

College football can't go head-to-head with the NFL playoffs. No television network would go for that. So that rules out both Saturday and Sunday night on the first two weekends in January.

My advice: Move to the West Coast. You'll find you get a lot more sleep here.

I looked back at your February article on how the playoffs would have looked across the history of the BCS. It got me thinking about how teams would prep for the semifinal and the final. Last year LSU would have had to watch tape for Oregon or Stanford, and then not know whether to also prep for 'Bama or Oklahoma State. Without a full month to study for the national championship game, will this impact coaching and team strategies?-- Vince, Washington D.C.

First of all, let's hope the end of the 40-plus day layoff helps eradicate some of the ridiculously sloppy championship games played since the BCS went to double-hosting in 2006. I'm guessing the main impact will be on the way coaches use their time in December. It's always been an unusual month, even for BCS bowl participants, with the coaches devoting a lot of their time to recruiting (and to changing jobs) and often using that extra practice time to take a look at younger players for next season. I would assume coaches of the semifinal teams will now scout and devise game plans for all three of the other playoff teams, though practice will focus almost entirely on their semifinal opponent. I would expect practices will also be more intense, both with the added stakes and the added scrutiny these teams will be under. College football will no longer go into quiet mode between the Heisman ceremony and the end of the month.

As for the championship game, the turnaround will be tighter some years than others. The plan is that the title game will always be the Monday after the first weekend of NFL playoff games, which in the first year won't be until Jan. 12, 2015. That's obviously plenty of time to prepare. But in 2019, on the other hand, that date is Jan. 7. Even if they play the semifinals Dec. 31, that's only a week-long turnaround, and while teams do that every week during the season, they'll presumably have to arrive at the site a couple of days early and do media/TV obligations. Therefore, it will be imperative that the coaches do as much prep work for that game as possible before they actually know the opponent.

I have a political question for you. Four years ago, I voted for President Obama after he promised to "throw his weight around" in favor of a college football playoff. I also vowed that I would not vote for him again unless he kept that promise. So, who do I vote for? We have a playoff, so maybe I should vote to re-elect. On the other hand, I'm not sure the president had anything to do with it.-- Mike Nicholas, Kenosha, Wis.

Sorry, I don't do politics. The BCS is divisive enough. But I do think I'd vote for Chuck Neinas if he ever decided to run for office. He became a commissioner again in September, and by June we had a playoff. Stick him on the debt crisis.

With the college football playoff committee putting more emphasis on schedule strength, what is going to happen to the little guys from the WAC, MAC, Sun Belt, etc. when this happens? There will probably be fewer big-money games for those teams, when the power conferences decide to play more games against other power conferences to help their case. Do they get left out in the cold without enough revenue to continue at the high Division I level?-- Shawn, Lima, Ohio

I must say, you folks are really looking out for the little guys this week.

I do think the new SOS emphasis will have an impact on scheduling, but it won't necessarily be radical. Any powerhouse program with an 80,000-plus seat stadium is still going to want seven home games every year, and they can't do that without at least a couple "guarantee" games. For the most part, I'd expect teams with national championship aspirations to schedule at least one home-and-home annually with a prominent intersectional opponent. We'll probably see even more neutral site games like the ones in Dallas and Atlanta -- possibly even sprinkled throughout the season -- so that teams can schedule a marquee foe without losing home-gate revenue.

But that will still leave at least two other home games to fill. We may (hopefully) see a decline in FCS foes, simply because of the blight that puts on one's schedule, but we'll still get plenty of games between the Big Ten and MAC, the SEC and Sun Belt. That's good for the smaller programs from a revenue and exposure standpoint. If a team wants to become the next Boise State, it's got to fill its schedule with as many big names as possible, even if it means going on the road for most of September.

Meanwhile, remember, all conferences will be getting a cut of the estimated $500 million a year the playoff is expected to garner (albeit at a lesser proportion). Personally, I'm baffled by how many of the lower-echelon FBS programs can afford to keep competing at that level, but apparently people aren't too worried. At least seven more schools -- UMass, South Alabama, Texas State, UT-San Antonio, Georgia State, Charlotte and Old Dominion -- are moving up over the next few years.

Now that the BCS has approved the four-team playoff, will the NCAA officially recognize an FBS national champion? That is, just as Boston College's men's hockey squad received the oak and gold trophy as its prize for winning the tournament, will a similar trophy be awarded to the football team that triumphs?-- Jay Zavislak, Phoenix

Nope, because this will not be an NCAA-orchestrated event. The conferences are running it, just like they did the BCS.

Huzzah to the Commishes (and others)! With details still to be ironed out, understandably, this is a great day. I really don't see how -- after where college football has been the last 100 years -- anyone who wanted a playoff can't be happy with this. Anyone that doesn't like it because it's not eight or 16 teams is just being greedy. Using a selection committee that considers -- but does not require -- conference champions is very fair. In sum, I'm tickled pink over this.-- Chris G., Melrose, Mass.

I'm sure Messrs. Delany and Slive will be pleased to read this. I'll go ahead and naively assume you'll still feel the same way on Jan. 12, 2015.

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