First of all, it is my belief that we will see a playoff system in Division 1 college football and it may happen as soon as the current BCS contract ends and a new one starts. My reasons for believing this are as follows:
Too much demand: There is simply too much demand for a playoff. Fans of college football have been clamoring for a playoff since before the inception of the BCS. Every poll that has been conducted on the subject shows that the majority of fans want a playoff and that majority seems to get larger every year.
The players are also in favor of a playoff and it is “their game” after all.
Most of the major media are in favor of a playoff as well. This is what, I believe, will ultimately drive the start of a playoff. More and more writers, television analysts, etc. are becoming extremely critical of the current system. It is becoming increasingly difficult for BCS proponents to defend the system.
Ultimately, it is my belief that the pressure applied by fans, players and the media will eventually force college football to come up with a playoff system.
Too much money to be made: Every study that has been done, indicates that a playoff system would be more profitable than the current system. Once the university presidents, conference commissioners, etc. come to grips with the amount of money that a school can make, they will sign off on a playoff.
Now, assuming that we get a playoff, how might we get there?
I believe that it will start with the often talked about “plus one”, which in reality is a “final four”. I think that we will see a system put in place where the top 4 teams according to the final BCS poll will play each other in what would essentially be a “final four” using 2 of the BCS bowls followed by the National Championship game. I believe that these games will be played, either in a BCS bowl close to the higher ranked team or on a rotating basis. If we had a “plus one” last season using a BCS bowl game close to the higher ranked team, it could have looked like this:
#1 Auburn vs. #4 Stanford in either the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl
#2 Oregon vs. #3 TCU in the Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl
Once we have had a “plus one” for a few seasons, I believe that a couple of things will happen that will cause the “plus one” to be expanded to an 8 team playoff.
Complaints from other top 10 teams: As with the expansion of the NCAA basketball tournament, there will be teams and fans who are upset when they feel that their team was improperly ranked or has improved enough to feel that they could win a playoff, but are left out. While this will not be the deciding factor, it will likely be the impetus that gets the conversation started. There are those who use the expansion of the NCAA Basketball Tournament to what is now 65 teams as an argument against a football playoff. I believe that the very nature of football (a game that can only be played once per week) will prevent any expansion beyond 16 teams and I have my doubts that it will ever expand to include 16 teams.
The real reason will be money: We all know that in the end, money drives big time college sports, especially football and basketball. When the conference commissioners, university presidents and other powers that be, see how much interest and money is generated by the “plus one” they will decide that an 8 team playoff will generate even more interest and money. I believe that the first round of an 8 team playoff would be played in the home stadium of the higher ranked team. University Presidents and Conference Commissioners will see how much more money could be generated by having one more game in their home stadium (especially an important game like a playoff) and they won’t be able to resist. An 8 team playoff using a combination of home games for the higher ranked team may have looked like this using last seasons BCS rankings:
#1 Auburn vs. #8 Arkansas at Auburn
#2 Oregon vs. #7 Oklahoma at Oregon
#3 TCU vs. #6 tOSU at TCU
#4 Stanford vs. #5 Wisconsin at Stanford
From there we would follow the format of playing in a BCS bowl that is close to the higher ranked team.
Many people actually favor a 16 team playoff. While I am a proponent of an 8 team playoff, I believe that a 16 team playoff is possible, albeit unlikeley. Getting to a 16 team playoff system can be a bit dicey, mainly because of the number of games. However, I could see an agreement being made in which teams are limited to an 11 game regular season schedule in order to accomodate a 16 team playoff. Essentially, it would mean eliminating one of the early (or even mid-season) cupcakes that the vast majority of teams have on their schedule in exchange for a 16 team playoff. Seems like a good trade off.
Any of these playoffs could co-exist with the other bowl games with little or no issues. The non-BCS bowls that are out there would still be there for teams who have successful seasons, but were not ranked highly enough to qualify for the playoff. This would ensure that those teams are still rewarded for their successful playoff. The BCS bowls already are seperated from the other bowls and a playoff would be no different.
Each of these playoff systems would use the BCS polls to determine which teams made the playoffs. This would serve the purpose of getting the most compelling matchups in the playoff as it would include only the highest ranked teams (no 8-4 UConn’s) and it would keep the polls in use. Thus keeping alive one of the college football fans favorite pastimes, arguing over polls.
Virtually every other sport at virtually every level, including the lower divisions of college football, uses a playoff system to determine it’s champion. The one exception to this is Division 1 college football. The clamor by fans, media and players has reduced Division 1 college football to looking like the person who says: “It’s not me that has the problem, everyone else is crazy!”