New national championship format signals new college football era

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. (Richard Shiro/AP)

The first reminder we're starting a new era of college football: The national championship game won't be at the Rose Bowl or in New Orleans or Miami or any other site of the traditional big bowls.

On Jan. 12, everybody will watch the action from the place Jerry Jones built, AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, Texas. Probably around midnight, a champion will be crowned, and the first year of the new four-team playoff system will be in the books. Those four teams are as far as the sport's powers (i.e., the power five conferences) would go toward a full playoff system.

Make no mistake: This will exceed basketball's Final Four in ratings and excitement. The two Jan. 1 semifinals will reclaim New Year's Day as must-watch college football viewing. For all their tradition, the bowls played that day in recent years may as well all have been called the Tostitos Consolation Bowl. No more.

Four schools competing for a title is more than twice as good as two schools. With two, there were very real examples of a team being left out that may have been the best. Sure, there will be controversy deciding between fourth and fifth. There's controversy deciding between 36th and 37th when it comes to at-large basketball spots.

That kind of controversy will be a good thing, generating interest in the process. The overwhelming odds are that the team judged to be fifth-best slipped up somewhere along the way and has no real claim to be No. 1 going in. (Unless a Boise State, from a non-power-five league, is undefeated. Then it gets interesting.)

The football mini-tournament is taking a page from NCAA hoops, doing away with outside polls and computers deciding the teams, and going to a selection committee. If you've paid attention to this at all, you can at least name one person on the committee - Condoleezza Rice! There's been some derision, but if this were an unknown male academic who has helped pick successful college football coaches for a big-time school and whose father was once a football coach, would you think twice about it?

Of course, Rice wasn't picked for that reason. She was chosen because she is . . . Condoleezza Rice! Surprising that the powers that be chose to draw attention to themselves this way, but we're pretty sure that it will be a nonfactor, that the former secretary of state won't suddenly decide to make a case for New Mexico State.

The committee's mission, first sentence, is to "select the best teams." Good thinking! What does that mean? There are "principles" set out: conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head, common opponents. Injuries to key players can be factored in.

It still comes down to a human vote. There will be jockeying. Some power brokers say there shouldn't be more than one team from a conference. The Southeastern Conference probably thinks it should get three spots and the rest of the nation can fight out it out for the fourth. (The other power five leagues are the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the Atlantic Coast Conference.)

The odds of a non-power-five team getting through? If there were eight teams, there would be a real path, and an extra element of interest based on rooting for an underdog. It's unlikely in this setup.

The bowls still will be involved, with six of them rotating the semifinals. (The Rose and Sugar this year, with those games on Jan. 1, and the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, and Peach in the future semifinal rotation.)

There already is one flaw that differentiates this process from March Madness. The committee will meet in person every week starting Oct. 27 and it will rank teams starting then. "Interim rankings," it calls them. The issue is that humans form an opinion and sometimes find it hard to get away from it. The school that is first in the initial interim ranking will have just a slight advantage.

Overall, the selection process seems to be in good hands. Former Nebraska coach and athletic director Tom Osborne? Sure. Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese? He did a great job heading the basketball committee. Former USA Today sportswriter Steve Wieberg? He represents the best of us scribes, in terms of knowledge and integrity.

In setting up this group, there seemed to be a purposeful disavowal of the former system of including computers. Within the guidelines: "Ranking football teams is an art, not a science."

If the committee's criteria filter to ground level, it could be a positive thing for regular-season college football, since head-to-head and common opponents should be strong tiebreakers among, say, one-loss conference champions. There is great risk to scheduling a nonconference powerhouse opponent, but there could be great reward, too.

A guiding principle for this setup is that the "regular season is unique and must be preserved."

It could have added, "the power-five regular season," but we all understand what they mean. And if this system of determining a national champion isn't perfect, it's the best one yet.