With the college football regular season wrapping up this week and conference championship games just around the corner, the BCS picture is getting clearer. Of course, this is the last year that just two teams will be selected to play for the championship. The College Football Playoff (or CFP) will be the new sheriff in town when 2014 rolls around.
We might know who’s on the committee now and we might know the schedule for the games the next six years. We even know that there will be four CFP polls that are released before the selection committee makes its announcement.
But what we don’t know is this: which criteria will the committee use to select their teams? Ranking, record, quality of competition, conference championship all have been mentioned, but no definite weighting of these factors has been determined.
Follow the money though—which makes the college football world go ‘round, after all—and you’ll surmise with me that the conference championship distinction is going to play a major role. A championship in one of the major five conferences is even more influential.
If you remember a few years back, the conference championship game (or CCG) money was purportedly a driving force in getting to 12 teams. It was an easy way for conferences to make millions more each year, simply by staging their own game.
Those lucrative games though often were stinkers. Teams barely above .500 were sneaking into the games because of ineligible teams above them or stacked opposite divisions. Fan bases that were expecting national titles often skipped the games because of a disappointing 9-3 team or a lackluster match-up.
Still, the TV networks ponied up the money. Money that the conferences didn’t have to share with anyone—no BCS busters, no mid-majors, no Cinderellas.
Now the conferences have consolidated some of that power—obliterating the Big East and WAC while weakening conferences like the AAC and Mountain West. And the only thing on their minds is how can we make more money.
They’ve created their own bowls, they re-packaged the college championship structure (the new CFP), and they might even reform or blow-up the NCAA altogether in January. But one surefire way to increase revenue is to make these conference championship games—which they own already—worth more. And the way to do that is to make the winner of the game a priority for CFP selection.
In some cases, the CCGs might be de facto quarterfinal games. In playoff terminology, that’s going to drive ratings off the chart.
Let me use last year’s Pac-12 scenario as the perfect example. Stanford (10-2) beat Oregon (11-1) in the regular season to get the Pac-12 North’s CCG bid. They also lost to No. 1 Notre Dame and were upset at Washington, which meant they were ranked three spots below Oregon heading into the CCG vs. No. 18 UCLA (8-4).
Even though Oregon was widely regarded as the superior team, I believe that our CFP selection committee will be mandated to make Stanford (who beat UCLA 27-24 and moved to No. 6 in the final BCS poll) one of the four playoff participants.
If Oregon gets the CFP bid without playing—without winning a conference championship game—the Pac-12 championship game essentially means nothing. Oregon can sit at home at stay at No. 5 in the rankings, guaranteed to rise after the SEC CCG loser drops. Stanford has no meaningful incentive to beat UCLA for a second time in two weeks.
However, if Stanford can assure their berth with a win or lose their bid (and open up an avenue for Oregon or some other “at large” to sneak in), that same Pac-12 CCG has unbelievably huge implications. Not just for the Pac-12 conference, but for the whole country. The Pac-12 CCG—which no one really cared about nationally last year—would become one of the ten biggest games of the season. Instantly.
And big games equal big ratings.
There needs to be a line, of course. No. 18 UCLA should never be able to play its way into a 4-team playoff with a 9-4 record (their theoretical record if they had beaten Stanford). I doubt the CFP committee will communicate that line, simply because it should vary from year to year.
Could 9-3 Nebraska (ranked No. 12 in the BCS before last year’s Big Ten CCG meltdown) or 10-2 Florida State (ranked No. 13 before its close win over 6-6 Georgia Tech in the ACC CCG) play its way in with a convincing win? Maybe, if that cutoff line were nebulous. And if the polls themselves are skewed towards potential CCG participants, that might change the entire conversation, right?
It would behoove the power conferences to make their CCGs as important as possible. And with this much money at stake, you can bet that there will be preference given to CCG winners in the CFP selection committee.
Ryan Murphy is the author of Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of our Lives, available in paperback and ebook on Amazon.