Finally, after years of clamoring from fans and the allure of a huge television contract becoming too much to bear, the NCAA has finally relented on a College Football Playoff. The four-team format goes into place for this season, creating a system whereby the constant controversy surrounding the title picture should cease.
With everything new in sports, though, comes one question: What in the world is going on?
The concept of a playoff is easy to understand in other sports. Win more games than your divisional opponent and you're in. Win enough games to earn a wild-card berth and you're in. Everything is black, white and easy to understand; even tiebreakers have spelled-out rules.
College football's playoff teams are decided on a much more subjective level.
Winning 12 games in the MAC is not as good as winning 11 in the SEC. When given the choice between an undefeated mid-major and two-loss major-conference team, there is no guarantee the team with the better record gets the bid. Because, of course, unlike professional sports, not all collegiate programs are playing on an even field.
Strength of schedule, quality of opponent and scoring margin—things that matter in pro sports but aren't factored into playoff berths—play an important role. This isn't even a system like the NCAA basketball tournaments, which guarantees an opportunity for each conference tournament winners.
Four teams. That's it. How are they determined? Let's take a quick look at the format and break it all down.
College Football Playoff Format
Pretty much nothing changes about the college football regular season. Teams play their schedules, go through the motions and then see where they end up. However, instead of there being only two slots to compete for a potential national championship, the number has doubled to four.
Even the general gist of the past BCS era stays the same. Similar to how the computer rankings would start publicly trickling out midseason, the same goes for the College Football Playoff poll. Each week beginning Oct. 28, the 13-person panel tasked with selecting the four finalists will release a Top 25.
"The concept will be, if the season ended today, these will be the rankings," College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told reporters in May.
This creates a few problems. Notably, part of the point of creating a committee rather than using computerized polls was eliminating the week-to-week headaches of percentage points. The committee is required to use a generalized criteria featuring the same tenets of the BCS: strength of schedule, head-to-head record, conference strength, etc.
By releasing a poll every week, some of the more methodical nature will be eliminated. The NCAA college basketball committee, for instance, does not release a top 68 the entire season until it is time to select the final field. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as schools should immediately get an idea of what the committee is judging.
The final rankings are released the week of the conference championship games. The four teams selected are then seeded based on their ranking—like a general bracket. The top-ranked team in the country plays No. 4, with No. 2 and No. 3 going head-to-head.
Semifinal matchups take place on New Year's Day, with the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl playing host this year. (The semifinals will be on a rotation between the six biggest bowl games—Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Peach and Fiesta.)
On Jan. 12, the two semifinal winners will go head-to-head for the national championship. This year's game will be played at Arlington's AT&T Stadium. Each title game is subject to a bidding process and will take place on the second Monday in January in most cases.
College Football Playoff Predictions
No. 1 Florida State
The Seminoles are atop nearly everybody's preseason poll for good reason. That reason being that they are very good at playing football. Florida State returns 13 starters from its 2013 team—a unit that happened to, surprise, be very good at playing football as well.
Jameis Winston enters his sophomore season as the favorite to become the second back-to-back Heisman winner in history. While his offseason has been ripe with controversy, Winston has never shown any signs of breaking on the field. He threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions last season.
Those numbers should provide a benchmark for the Seminoles, who return nearly all their firepower from last year's attack. Four of the five offensive linemen who protected Winston return and so does leading receiver Rashad Greene and his 1,128-yard producing self. Losing Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Devonta Freeman hurts, but Jimbo Fisher has enough talent in the stable to make it work.
Karlos Williams and Ryan Green should be a strong one-two punch in the backfield. Jesus Wilson's suspension and arrest were ill-timed, yet he still has the potential to be special out of the slot. Christian Green, a redshirt senior, will finally get his opportunity to shine.
The concerns in Tallahassee are surprisingly more on the defensive side.
The Seminoles lost five starters from last year's world-beating unit and might not possess the complete lockdown dominance they did against the pass. P.J. Williams is going to have to come back from his national championship Defensive MVP status and become one of the nation's best cornerbacks.
Between Williams and Ronald Darby, Florida State might have the most talented defensive back duo in the nation.
This is a reloading season, not a rebuilding one. Florida State remains the title favorite until proven otherwise.
No. 2 Alabama
Another year and it's another awesome Alabama team. The College Football Playoff feels like it was designed for Nick Saban. No one in the sport is better at meticulously breaking down an opponent's strengths than Saban. He's lost just two bowl games since arriving at Alabama and holds an 8-4 bowl record since the turn of the century.
It also helps that he consistently works with the best talent in the country. Alabama has come away with the best recruiting class in the country each of the last four years, per 247Sports, and is now becoming fully reliant on those players' development.
The Tide return eight starters on offense, though one that is missing is arguably the biggest.
For the first time in three seasons, someone other than AJ McCarron will be playing quarterback. Who that signal-caller will be, though, is perhaps the biggest offseason storyline for Alabama. Jake Coker and Blake Sims have been battling all spring and summer to land on top, with neither player having much of an edge.
Sims, a redshirt senior, has a ton of support in the locker room. He's kept his head down for four seasons as a backup and has worked tirelessly to earn his moment under center. Coker, a Florida State transfer, has a ton of talent. He is also more of the traditional Saban mold, a pro-style caretaker who won't be prone to many mistakes.
Once the quarterback situation is settled, the offense should fall into place. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry give Alabama perhaps the nation's best thunder/lightning situation at running back. Amari Cooper should be in for a breakout junior season after battling injuries and inconsistency in 2013. The Tide have enough talent that they should never have anything less than an elite offensive line.
While only five starters return on the defensive side, Saban's young unit has a ton of talent. A'Shawn Robinson, Dillon Lee and Bradley Sylve should be in for major strides this upcoming season. Plus...Nick Saban da gawd at defense. That perfect piece of prose is how we will choose to end this subheadline.
No. 3 Oklahoma
We follow Alabama with the team that waxed the Tide in last year's Sugar Bowl. After years of getting lambasted as being unable to win big games, Bob Stoops has quietly captured four bowl wins in the last five years—two of which came on the BCS stage.
The Sooners come into 2014 with national championship hopes, thanks in large part to a bevy of returning talent. Sixteen starters from an 11-2 squad are expected to be in the Week 1 lineup, including nine on the defensive side.
Eric Striker, Dominique Alexander and Frank Shannon comprise a linebacking corps that is quietly among the nation's best.
Mike Stoops has followed an interesting trajectory since coming back to Oklahoma in 2012, but he seems to finally be putting together a defense in his image. Oklahoma allowed just 22.1 points per game last season—pittance in the offense-oriented Big 12—and should be even better with so many young guys getting reps.
Worth noting: Only four projected starters are seniors. Barring early departures for the NFL, the Sooners are going to have an elite defense for at least the next two seasons. Times are good in the Stoops household.
On the flippity flip, the offense remains largely unsolved. After a largely miserable freshman season, Trevor Knight will again get to ply his trade at quarterback. Knight was marvelous in the Sugar Bowl, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns, but that performance was an anomaly when judged against his seven other appearances.
Take away the Alabama triumph and Knight was a 52.2 percent passer with one more touchdown than interception. Stoops will have to hope Knight's considerable talent starts shining through. Otherwise, Stoops' best team in more than a half-decade could go down in flames.
No. 4 Ohio State
Let's call this an obligatory mention. Ohio State, as is the case most seasons, is demonstratively better than any other Big Ten team. Wisconsin and Michigan State are the only teams within shouting distance, and the Badgers might have been a little overrated by the coaches at No. 14.
The Buckeyes return only 12 starters, but they do so at important positions. Braxton Miller has to become the superstar we've all been fed the last couple of seasons.
Miller's progress has been incremental since his breakout freshman campaign. He's still yet to show consistent accuracy with his ball placement, he's really struggled against top-level defenses and his injury-riddled campaign last season proved his body might not be up to playing Urban Meyer's style over the long haul.
Miller is also in the process of recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Miller told reporters at Big Ten media days:
I feel like it's stronger. Man, everything that was damaged in there has been cleaned out. So even if I didn't have that injury, I feel like everything from before that injury has been cleaned out. I barely had any rust when I came back. With my footwork and everything like that, I had been focused on that throughout the spring.
Devin Smith and Evan Spencer give Miller two senior wideouts to act as his top targets. While running backs Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott are largely unproven, both come with elite pedigrees and were effective in limited carries last season.
The big worry for the Buckeyes will come on the offensive line, which is undergoing a complete overhaul. If Miller, Wilson and Elliott start the season slow, we might want to start craning our necks at the big guys up front.
Ohio State has additional questions in the secondary, with Bradley Roby departing early for the NFL and Christian Bryant graduating.
The team will also be dealing with the loss of Ryan Shazier, which leaves a hole in the linebacking corps and the locker room. With the Buckeyes hosting Michigan and Virginia Tech and their only difficult road game coming against Michigan State, 2014 might be the season the Meyer era truly kicks off.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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