Q&A: What to expect for the future of the College Football Playoff
ATLANTA -- A bit of history and tradition returned to Atlanta this offseason. In April the Chick-fil-A Bowl announced it would rename itself the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as part of the game’s new partnership with the College Football Playoff. As a rotating bowl in the playoff system, the Peach Bowl is set to host No. 6 TCU and No. 9 Ole Miss on Dec. 31. In 2016, the bowl will host one of the playoff’s semifinal matchups.
SI.com sat down with College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl President Gary Stokan on Wednesday to talk Ole Miss-TCU, reaction to the playoff, bigger brackets and more.
SI.com: What was your reaction to landing TCU and Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl?
Gary Stokan: We owe a debt of gratitude to the College Football Playoff for giving us such a wonderful matchup. When you have the No. 2 scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense, that in of itself is an interesting plot to a bowl game. Then to have TCU coach Gary Patterson, who’s won five coach of the year awards this year, coming from 4-8 to 11-1 and a Big 12 co-champ. Some of the individual players, you’ve got All-Americans on both sides, which is unique. The fan bases are passionate, so to have No. 6 against No. 9, we’re elated.
SI.com: The former Chick-fil-A Bowl was not a BCS bowl. What was the process to getting your bowl into the playoff rotation?
GS: There’s two parts to that. One, back in 2008, when the BCS went to a double-host model [a stadium that hosted a BCS bowl would also host the national championship game], we had bid to be part of the BCS. We didn’t get in because it went to a double-host. So out of that, we said, let’s start a BCS game on the front end of the season. The NCAA had just legislated a 12th game, so we recreated the kickoff format and created the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
When the playoff was formed, our organization said this was a chance to make a move up. So we went at it hard and made a strong bid to get into the College Football Playoff. We had such great success with the SEC and ACC, having 17 straight sellouts, setting attendances records and viewership records on ESPN in non-BCS games. But we felt like to have the opportunity to host two top-10 teams, like we have now, and host a semifinal game every three years was something special in college football. We bought into and believe in this.
We’re more than just a football game. Our mission is to create memorable experience for student-athletes and to use college football to give back in scholarship and charitable donations. So whether it’s giving $1.6 million of scholarship and charitable donations through the use of college football and the bowl game, whether it’s the kickoff game or recruiting the College Football Hall of Fame here, really using college football as a way to touch people in a special way. It’s a great sport and means a lot to a lot of people. If we can be that conduit in this city, in this part of the country, that’s something we want to take on.
SI.com: From the playoff’s perspective, why was Atlanta an intriguing venue?
Bill Hancock: People love coming to Atlanta. When we were looking for games that would be in the rotation for the semifinals, Atlanta came to mind right away. We put out a (request for proposal) to cities who were interested, and Atlanta submitted a response.
We also knew the infrastructure was here, with the stadium and the hotels and the airport, and also the Peach Bowl staff and committee. We knew they had all the tools. We also knew they were toward the top of the bowl world anyway, so this would be an automatic progression.
SI.com: The Peach Bowl hosts a playoff semifinal in 2016. How are you prepping for that?
GS: The great thing about what the College Football Playoff has done is, they’ve integrated the bowls into the system. They could’ve easily made the semis go on campus, or be a business trip, for lack of a better term. But they gave the opportunity for the bowls to stay involved. Just like this year, with the Sugar and the Rose, there will be a bowl-week experience and then the semifinal game. It’ll change a little bit for the championship game. So we’ll run our same bowl-week activates for the semifinal game. And we’ll go the national championship game this year and see some things that they’re doing and see if we can integrate those into our game. Then we’ll work with the College Football Playoff to see about other changes.
But everything’s new. There’s going be learning. This year, we’re going to learn with a 12:30 p.m. game, do people stay and spend New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, or do they fly back home or drive back home? If they (stay), then we may need to change what we do after the game. Maybe it’s a viewing party for next year’s semifinal games, the Orange and Cotton. We’ll all go through a lot of learning this year and adapt to that.
SI.com: Fans were happy to see the name “Peach” returning. What went into that decision?
GS: The College Football Playoff, based on the history of bowls, and having the Rose and Sugar and Orange and Fiesta in the BCS, asked us if we would be willing to add a moniker back into the name. We agreed to that. Our board met, and we looked at the tradition and history of the bowl, and Peach Bowl was so prominent in creating the bowl game here in Atlanta. So we went back to Peach, which was a natural progression to meet the needs of the playoff to add a moniker back to the name of the bowl game. I’ve gotten numerous emails and calls thanking us. That’s what people remember. They grew up with the Peach Bowl.
SI.com: Bill, looking at the playoff as a whole now that the first selection process is over, was the end result what you expected? Did anything surprise you in the process?
BH: It was what we expected. We really didn’t get surprised by anything, either in the process or the result. We had modeled 10 years worth -- we had rehearsed the committee process. We created computer software for voting, and we rehearsed that a half-dozen times. By the time we got to the real committee meeting, nothing surprised us. We were ready for everything that happened, which is pretty unusual for a startup activity. I think in 20 years, we will all look back and say we were there for the first College Football Playoff, and look what we started.
That’s not to say there may not be some changes. We decided to wait until after the first of the year, maybe late winter/early spring, to think about what changes might be necessary because we wanted to take a longer-term perspective of it. I don’t think there will be major changes. We were so satisfied with the way things went, I just don’t think anything major will change.
Next year we go back to the 14-week season as opposed to the 15-week season this year. So I think that in itself could probably lead to one fewer weekly rankings.
SI.com: So you would release your first set of rankings around the same time, but you might have one fewer set of rankings total?
BH: Yeah, maybe. That might be one way to do it. We have to talk about whether that next-to-last ranking is something we ought to do, being that it’s only five days before the final rankings. There aren’t many games that last week, although they’re important games.
We were intrigued by folks that sort of complained -- reporters -- who have complained about the transparency that we had. Of course, transparency is at the heart of all reporters’ desires. But people were saying, why do you announce weekly and why do you explain how you got there? If we hadn’t, people would wonder what the heck we were doing and why. So we think this is a new level of transparency of any event, any kind of event where you get a weekly peek into what the committee’s thinking. So the weekly rankings were very good for the regular season, there’s no question about that. For that reason, I don’t see or hear any talk about how they’d go away.
SI.com: Gary, from a bowl perspective, how did you view the first year of the playoff?
GS: It was a unique year for us, because obviously in my case, being here 18 years, we were part of the selection process and had that control. You don’t have it this year, but that’s what we bought into with the College Football Playoff and the selection committee and the process. But we’re all in this together to take the game to another level. We knew that going in, and we’re elated with the outcome, having No. 6 against No. 9.
It was kind of ironic because we were sitting there like a team, with our board and our volunteers and our staff watching the TV [on Selection Sunday]. I called Bill and said, “Bill, are we going to get a call with who we have?” He said, “Gary, you’ll find out when America finds out.” When you’ve been used to doing something for 18 years, and then you don’t have that, it’s kind of scary. But trust is what we had in the College Football Playoff and the selection committee and the process.
BH: People ask me what the differences are between this and the BCS. Of course, there are a lot of them. But one of the major ones is that everybody outside of the committee learned at 12:45 p.m. on Dec. 7 -- commissioners, everybody.
GS: Is that right? Commissioners? Wow.
BH: Yeah. So is it what you guessed?
GS: It’s interesting, each week I did an analysis of what I think. It’s on YouTube. If these are the rankings, here’s what’ll happen. I had Ohio State or Wisconsin, if they won, potentially coming to us, with either Ole Miss or Mississippi State. But when I was standing there and saw the rankings, I said, “Mississippi State jumped Michigan State.” Which means they’ve got to go to the Orange Bowl. So I said okay they’re gone. That puts Michigan State back in. Now that TCU and Baylor didn’t make it, they’ve got to split them, so we’re getting either TCU or Baylor. Which means they can’t put them against Kansas State, so we’ve got Ole Miss because Arizona and Boise would play in the Fiesta. Or we could’ve had Michigan State.
SI.com: As a bowl, was it hard to relinquish the power of picking your own teams?
GS: It was interesting. We had a team selection committee that existed. I started with the bowl as a volunteer in 1985, and this was going on way before me. And we didn’t have that this year because we didn’t want people out there representing the bowl when we didn’t have the selection. Now that we’ve been through one year, we’ll probably bring that back, but we’ll change that to a marketing ambassador committee. In our case, having the ACC and SEC since 1992, we’ve got to now have relationships with the Big Ten and Pac-12 and Big 12. So we’ll recreate that in another format. But it was unique. I went out each week to see teams, but we didn’t have committee members going out, so we’ll change that next year.
SI.com: Getting back to potential playoff changes, Bill, you say you don’t see the weekly rankings going anywhere?
BH: I don’t hear anybody suggesting to get rid of them.
SI.com: What about changes with the committee itself? I think it was chairman Jeff Long who called the process of meeting twice a week in Dallas for six weeks “grueling.” This year alone, Mike Tranghese missed a meeting due to illness. Archie Manning had to bow out due to health issues. Has there been any discussion about no longer requiring in-person committee meetings?
BH: We talked about having them meet remotely. We just decided it wouldn’t be the same. They wouldn’t be able to get as good an evaluation and have as good a debate if they did it on the phone. We also thought, while it might be grueling to come to Dallas, a 10-hour teleconference would be equally grueling. So I don’t have any sense that the in-person meeting will go away. We’ll talk about maybe we should do one or maybe two fewer.
SI.com: Many have criticized the selection committee for its criteria, or lack thereof. Currently the committee can use any and all means of evaluating teams, but it’s often hard to see how or why certain teams are picked. Do you see the committee’s evaluation process changing at all?
BH: This is why we went to the human committee, so we can have the subjective opinions of humans. We didn’t want to tie their hands, so I don’t see that changing. We did have the broad criteria, which were common sense things: how’d they do, what about head-to-head, common opponents, strength of schedule. We didn’t weigh them intentionally because we didn’t want to tie the committee’s hands. I don’t think there will be any demand to weigh those in the future. I think this compilation of subjective opinions worked, and I think it was the best way to do it, so I don’t anticipate any changes in that.
GS: One of the things we learned in this process is our Chick-fil-A Kickoff game really gets elevated in perspective now. I think, from an AD perspective, that’s a differentiation point. You have to play your conference schedule, whether it’s eight or nine games. Everybody’s going to be judge on that. But those four or three nonconference games that you schedule, now they take on a different relevancy as we saw throughout the year. Our kickoff game becomes even more relevant and more important in the process now for ADs to schedule that tough game. You don’t have to go home-and-home necessarily, you play them on a neutral field, which you’d probably have your druthers, rather than go away to play somebody.
SI.com: Have you seen an increase in future games like your Chick-fil-A Kickoff games?
GS: You really have. It’s great for college football because you get an elevated intersectional matchup early in the season. I think it helps the selection committee because it’ll have another data point. This team beat this team in a neutral game. I think that’s good for college football when you can play bigger type of games, intersectional games, for the fans, media and the selection committee.
BH: That paid off for Boise State. That was discussed often, having played Ole Miss [in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game]. Even though they lost the game, it added a quality opponent for them.
SI.com: Did you get the sense that strength of schedule truly mattered to the committee?
BH: Yes. The committee’s not trying to send signal, but what they’re saying is, all 11-1 teams are not the same. We have to compare who they built that 11-1 [record] against.
GS: It’s data points, right Bill?
BH: You’re looking at data points, you’re looking at games against quality opponents, significant victories. It almost seems like an oxymoron, but it is a term: good loss. The fact is there are good losses. Notre Dame had a very good loss to Florida State on the road. For a long time, until they dropped out of the picture, that was significant factor for them.
SI.com: People are already discussing expanding the playoff to six or eight teams. If four teams seems to work, why not more?
GS: I don’t want to step on Bill’s toes -- certainly they matter more than we do in that process -- but as someone who’s played and coached on the basketball side and really loves college athletics and is passionate about it and made my decision to stay in this part of the business because I love college sports, I think you have to consider a few things. No. 1, these student-athletes are 18, 19 and 20 years old. Physically, for them to play 12 games, a championship game, a quarterfinal, a semifinal, a final, it’s going to be a war of attrition. The team that’s going to win is going to be the team that’s less hurt. That’s not how you want to decide a championship. That’s an NFL schedule. We’re all thinking about what’s in the best interest of student-athletes as we move forward in the college landscape. That’s not what’s best for the student athlete.
No. 2, to have the regular season the way we have it, which is the best in any sport. Bill just hit on it, that Mississippi-Boise was a playoff game. Alabama-West Virginia was a playoff game. West Virginia, in the whole discussion of Baylor and TCU, was going to be a good loss. So I think we have a playoff starting with the first game of the year. The regular season really matters in college football.
I think the academic side, the presidents don’t want to move into the second semester. So to crunch all that in, with exams and to get another game in, I think, is going to be difficult.
For the fans, there’s the travel perspective. You have to pay for these things. You take someone that has to go to an SEC Championship Game, then a quarterfinal game if you’re on the road and not playing at home. Then you’ve got to go to a semifinal game and travel, then you’ve got to go to a championship game. And by the way, you’ve got Christmas to pay for in the middle. That’s an awful lot of money to ask people to spend. I think you’d see attendance drop off, which would be a detriment to college football. So there are three or four reasons right there why I don’t think it makes sense to go past four.
And I think the relevancy of four is really unique. To me, we’ve got the second-best sport in the country right now, only behind the NFL. It’s because the BCS -- give them credit -- and the College Football Playoff have elevated that. What’s wrong with that? Normally you want to make a change when there’s something wrong. Every analytic you look at is positive. Viewership is up, attendance is great, we’ve got this new system everybody’s talking about. Why do we want to change it? Let’s let it be and enjoy it.
SI.com: So you’re saying a four-team playoff enhances the regular season, but anything more would water down the regular season?
GS: Yeah. I think of Auburn-Ole Miss. I was at that game. That was a playoff game. If Mississippi beats Auburn, if the kid doesn’t get hurt in the end zone, that touchdown counts and all the sudden that changes the season for Mississippi, right? So the playoff started way back then. That increases the interest of college football, and that’s why fan-affinity wise, we’re second out of all sports across the country.
And you got to remember the other thing: Conference commissioners work for the presidents. The biggest contracts they have and are responsible for are the regular season TV contracts. Now that they all have networks, that regular season has to remain valuable because that’s where they gain a lot of the financial wherewithal to do all the things they’re talking about doing to the students-athletes, with this autonomy of the Power Five conferences.
Bill and I have both been in basketball. Look what’s happened to basketball. It’s ruined the game. During the regular season, it doesn’t matter. Viewership’s down, attendance is down. I played in the ACC when the ACC Basketball Tournament was kind of like the Final Four, when only one team that won moved on. So it was really relevant. Now you go to the ACC Tournament, there’s eight teams going in that know they’re going to be selected into the [NCAA tournament].
So you’ve diminished the regular season, you’ve diminished the conference tournament. The Final Four is great, no doubt about it, but we don’t need to do that to college football. We’ve got a great system right now.
SI.com: The playoff’s current format is slotted for a 12-year contract. Bill, what do you think about the potential for playoff expansion?
BH: I don’t have much to say. Gary said it well. Having been in basketball so long, I have seen what’s happened to the regular season. As a basketball guy, it concerns me. I hope people are thinking about it. I don’t want to change March. March is great for them. March should not be tinkered with. But they have to do something about the regular season. Our regular season is so strong, we have to learn a lesson, which is protect the regular season. When you break it down, the people who want to expand, Team No. 7 would like to have a seven-team tournament. Whether it’s Team No. 3 or Team No. 5 or Team No. 9 or Team No. 17, there’s always going to be somebody on the outside. That won’t change a thing.
GS: Look at basketball. Team No. 70 is irritated because there are 69 teams in basketball.
BH: SMU was so mad last year that they didn’t get into the tournament. That will not change.
GS: Sometimes when you ask for change, you have to think, ‘What am I asking for?’ Sometimes if you don’t have a good answer and it’s not the right answer, why change?
SI.com: On Wednesday Oliver Luck announced he’d be leaving West Virgina for a job with the NCAA. That also means Luck will step down from the selection committee. Given Luck’s exit and the situations with Tranghese and Manning, has there been any consideration to changing the terms of committee members? Originally you had said it’d be 2-3 years.
BH: It won’t change. The terms are three years. But to get started because we didn’t want them all to go off the same time, some are on for two and some for three and some for four. I can’t remember off the top of my head what Oliver was, but it won’t change that.
SI.com: Do you have any information on the process of replacing Luck on the committee?
BH: It hasn’t started. The process will be that the Big 12 will submit a nomination, and the management committee will review that and consider whether to put that person on there.