As College Football Playoff Grows, It Doesn’t Need to Be Super


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Clockwise from top left: Michigan State’s Enoch Smith Jr., was interviewed at the Cotton Bowl; the Kilgore College Rangerettes welcomed the Alabama team to Texas; Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard met the Orange Bowl mascot; and workers prepared the field for a meeting between the Clemson Tigers and the Sooners.

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LM Otero/Associated Press; Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News, via Associated Press; Lynne Sladky/Associated Press; Joe Skipper/Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Last year at this time, Bill Hancock was confidently but nervously anticipating the first four-team playoff in big-time college football.

Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, needn’t have worried. The games — featuring Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and Oregon — were an attendance and ratings hit.

As he anticipates the second year of the Playoff, which begins Thursday with semifinal games in Miami Gardens, Fla., south of the news media headquarters here, and in Arlington, Tex., Hancock is equally confident, but not nearly as nervous.

“Last year, we thought it was going to work, but we didn’t know for sure,” he said Tuesday. “This time, we know for sure.”

College football, with its loyal followers who had long pined for a championship playoff, is gobbling it up.

Yet for a number of reasons, there is a different feel to this year’s final four. The inaugural tournament seemed sexier. There was the matchup between last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, and the previous winner, Florida State’s Jameis Winston. There was the compelling story of Cardale Jones, a third-string quarterback who came off the bench to lead Ohio State to a Big Ten title, a stunning semifinal win over Alabama and a victory over Oregon in the title game.

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The showdown between Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, left, and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, right, helped make last year’s college playoff special.

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Icon Sportswire, via Associated Press

Beyond that, last year’s tournament also reflected the most significant refinement in the process of determining a national champion.

“It was the birth of a new baby last year — it was the firstborn,” Hancock said. “There was a palpable excitement last year over that aspect of a new event.”

I have never been a fan of the universe of irrelevant bowl games in college football. (I was 0-3 in bowl games as a player; maybe that’s why.) The advent of the Playoff makes the smattering of bowl games more irrelevant than they were when we used to argue about mythical championships. The only games that matter now are the two semifinals and the national championship game.

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This year’s playoff lacks a compelling story of a third-stringer rising to hero, like Cardale Jones did for Ohio State last year.

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Stacy Revere/Getty Images

While the scheduling of the Playoff around the antiquated bowl system was an early hurdle for its organizers, one of the most frequently mentioned criticisms of the new system is that it adds more commercialism to intercollegiate athletics. That’s true, but that horse was reported missing decades ago.

I have no problem with the so-called commercialization of college sports. The players and coaches who participate in nonrevenue sports aren’t conflicted, either; they know they are kept afloat because of money generated by football and men’s basketball.

The reality is that every industry, including journalism, is trying with varying degrees of success to figure out ways to sustain itself without compromising its values. In some instances, we have had to reconfigure our definition of values.

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The challenge for administrators like Hancock is to preserve the collegiate atmosphere even as the event grows. I enjoy the N.F.L. playoffs, but there is a difference that should be preserved between top-tier college football and the N.F.L.

For a traditionalist like Hancock, this means using marching bands, rather than headliner acts, at halftime. It means making sure that the colleges, not corporate sponsors, receive most of the tickets, ensuring that most of the fans in the seats actually — and passionately — care about who wins the game.

That was why last January’s Ohio State-Oregon title game in Arlington, even though it sold out, felt like an enormous college football game, not a Super Bowl.

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“That was the highest praise that I heard last year,” Hancock said.

Given the money involved, there is clamoring for more teams to be added to the tournament when the current contract expires in 2025. I’d like to see as many as eight teams. Hancock wants to keep it at four.

“It’s important to those of us who are stewards of the game to resist the outside pressures to make it something other than college sports,” Hancock said. “We do not want this to become a Super Bowl or even talk about it as a Super Bowl. We want to create a collegiate feel about the game so that when people leave the event, they knew that they were attending a college football game.”

That’s a tough task, but an achievable one, if university presidents can wrest college football away from the conference commissioners and business interests that have controlled it for decades.

Basketball’s Final Four has grown in popularity and prosperity without sacrificing the collegiate feel. College football can do the same, even if it will be a wilder beast to tame.

“In 25 years, people will look back and say, ‘Wow, look how this thing has changed,’ ” Hancock said. “I hope they’ll be able to say, ‘Look, we still have a college sports event.’ ”

I’m eager, as well, to see what sort of enormously successful event this tournament can become.

Correction: December 30, 2015

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the direction of Miami Gardens, Fla., from the news media center in Fort Lauderdale. It is south, not north.



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