The best thing about the new College Football Playoff
When Oklahoma State meandered through a freshly stormed field at Jack Trice Stadium at Iowa State in 2011, its collective head hung low because the Cowboys knew.
"This one stings. This one’s tough," Brandon Weeden said after throwing three interceptions in the double-overtime loss that dropped the Cowboys to 10-1.
The national championship chase was over, leaving OSU to one option: Wishing there was a magical fix to relieve a little of the pain from that sting.
The 2014 season brings good news for teams like Oklahoma State and dozens like them since the BCS began in 1998: The stomps on your heart won’t be nearly as crushing and college football’s about to get a lot better.
The season is four months away, and reality is still a little hard to believe. When you’re projecting 2014’s outcome, you’re not looking for the top two teams anymore. The College Football Playoff means four teams will play for a shot at the title. It hasn’t sunk in yet — for me, anyway — that fans of the game will get what they’ve dreamed of for decades. Even Texas coach Charlie Strong said Monday his team won’t be playing in the "national title game." For what it’s worth, he didn’t mention anything about missing the playoff.
How will the playoff change the game? I asked a handful of coaches across the Big 12 this week, but nobody seemed to hit on a rather obvious conclusion that should excite fans the most.
"The only thing that I can maybe anticipate is teams that maybe haven’t been playing a difficult nonconference schedule may step that up a little bit," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
True, perhaps, but that’s not it.
"With four teams in it, it’s going to make it more exciting," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.
Also true, but not quite what we’re looking for.
"They want to continue to treat it like a bowl game, which is great, but I would have a hard time having a five or six-day bowl game and then turning around and having to go home for a couple days and then turning around and having to do it all over again," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "My experience in going to 14 bowl games in 15 years is you’re pretty tired when the bowl game’s over."
More like Dana Downer.
College football’s a three-month grinder and cliche talking point or not, there’s something to the idea that the entire season is one long 12 or 13-game playoff, depending on your league membership.
Lose once, and you’re probably out. At best, you’re going to need a lot of help.
Nineteen of the 32 teams who played in the BCS National Championship Game were undefeated. Only six teams suffered losses in November or later and still played for a title.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t teams playing national title-caliber football who stumbled along the way. No team embodied that more than Oklahoma State in 2011. A comeback overtime win against No. 4 Stanford — another national title-caliber team who lost in November — proved the Iowa State hiccup was exactly that: A blip on an otherwise stellar season from one of college football’s best teams.
There’s also the matter of Texas in 2008, who tripped up in Lubbock on Nov. 1 as the nation’s No. 1 team and watched Oklahoma play for the Big 12 and BCS titles, despite beating the Sooners by double digits on Oct. 11 that season.
The Longhorns would still be salty without any Big 12 hardware, but they’d get a shot to take down the Sooners in a playoff.
The biggest difference in college football’s old world and its new one will be greater breathing room in the final month of the season for teams who sprint out of the gates to 9-0 starts and spots in the top two or three.
A four-team playoff relieves a little bit of the pressure, but not enough to negate the importance of the regular season.
Alabama’s not going to bench any starters or play any differently against Auburn to end a season, and they certainly wouldn’t do it with an SEC title on the line the next week.
Oklahoma State wouldn’t have sat Brandon Weeden down or put Justin Blackmon in street clothes at 10-0 against Iowa State and risked playing a winner-take-all game the following week for the Big 12 title against Oklahoma. They’d risk losing both.
If the Cowboys had dropped one of those games–which they did–they’d still be an easy selection to the playoff.
Gundy forecasted an eventual move to eight teams, which may happen and change that discussion a bit if the only goal is to make it in the top eight.
Until then, the four-team playoff is a welcome addition that expands the field of teams chasing a national title in November and adds a layer of breathing room to teams like 2011 Oklahoma State.
Only elite teams will crack the four-team playoff. Teams and fans will still feel wrung out by December.
Flukes will no longer stop great teams from getting a chance to play for it all.
The margin for error has widened. Fans’ collective blood pressure will benefit. Coaches might be able to sneak in an extra hour of sleep a night over the final month of the season.
Tougher schedules will be nice. College football’s continued growth will be, too.
They won’t have near the effect of watching or coaching late-season games with everything still on the line, but a ruined season no longer waiting on the other side of a loss.
Losing as a four-touchdown favorite to Iowa State will still hurt. The price will still be perfection. There will be work to be done to prove to the CFP committee that the loss was simply a fluke and you’ve earned one of the most coveted four spots in sports.
Who doesn’t love that?