The Big LeadThe Big Lead

An Abbreviated History of the College Football Playoff

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 07: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers takes the snap against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the College Football Playoff National Championship held at Levi's Stadium on January 7, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. The Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 44-16. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

The first rankings for this season's College Football Playoff were unveiled this week, and created much controversy, as arbitrary ranking systems presided over by committees often do. Many asked why Clemson was left out of the top four, why Penn State was ranked below Alabama, why Penn State was ranked at all, and so on.

However, we should reiterate that today's fans are lucky. At the end of every season since 2014, we have had one undisputed national champion of college football. That has not been the case for every season before the inception of the playoff, as multiple schools have claimed championships for certain seasons depending on the results of certain polls.

Before The Playoff

Even the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, which set college football's hierarchy until the 2013 season, did little to establish a status quo. All it did was fan the flames of controversy and prove suspicions among commentators and fans that there was a sizable gap between the sport's biggest and smallest conferences. This came to a head when undefeated mid-major schools Boise State and TCU were paired against each other in the Fiesta Bowl, instead of giving each school an opportunity to take down a school from a major conference, as Boise State had done in the 2007 game vs. Oklahoma.

The final straw for the BCS came after the 2011 season, when two schools from the same division of the same conference - LSU and Alabama, who had played each other earlier that season - ended up in the BCS National Championship Game. TV ratings slipped as Alabama trounced LSU in the rematch and chants grew for a playoff, chants which could no longer be ignored.

The First College Football Playoff

Five months after the Alabama-LSU game, on June 26th, 2012, a group of 12 university presidents met at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, DC to approve a plan for a four-team playoff, which would later be dubbed (what else?) the College Football Playoff. The first tournament would be held after the 2014 season, with the final held in January 2015 at Cowboys Stadium (now AT&T Stadium) in Arlington, TX.

That first playoff would stand out from all subsequent seasons, as it is the only one to date in which Clemson did not participate, Alabama failed to reach the Championship Game, and a Pac-12 team - Oregon - reached the championship.

After trouncing Alabama in the first-ever College Football Playoff Semifinal at that year's Sugar Bowl, the Ohio State Buckeyes outplayed then-undefeated Oregon 42-20 to claim the first Playoff-era National Championship, and the only one to date for a Big Ten school.

Since then, the Playoff has come under the complete control of Alabama and Clemson, who have each won two of the past four national championships. In every one of the past four playoffs, the two have played each other in either the semifinal or final round, splitting the four games. For much of this season, the Tide and Tigers were considered locks to face off once again in the National Championship Game-- until the announcement of this week's playoff rankings, which surprisingly left defending champions Clemson out of the top four altogether.

Playoff Controversies

While by no means as loathed as the BCS, that still doesn't mean the College Football Playoff has been free of controversy in its own right.

One of the key selling points from the Playoff's inception was the decision to schedule semifinal games on New Year's Day whenever possible. When the schedule for the first set of games was announced in 2013, CFP executive director Bill Hancock said proudly, "The culture of New Year's Eve will change in this country."

Hancock did not account for the millions of working people who would not be able to see the afternoon games if New Year's Eve fell on a weekday - thus, ratings for the Cotton and Orange Bowls slipped 16% from 2014 to 2015. Initially, the Playoff Committee stuck to their decision to hold games on New Year's Eve, but finally relented starting with the 2018 season.

While fans initially welcomed the four-team playoff, there have been calls to expand the bracket to eight or possibly 16 teams. After all, college basketball's premier tournament holds up well with a bracket of 68, and the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) has a championship bracket of 24. However, expanding the college football playoff would be difficult, as the semifinals are built into existing bowl games, and further expansion would have nightmarish ramifications on the schedules of competing schools, TV networks, athletes and coaches.

The current four-team system is built into ESPN's contract with the College Football Playoff which runs through 2026. That, at least, will give the conferences and the organizing body some time to conjure up a workable system. Still, anything would be better than a return to the BCS.