TAMPA — It’s finally here.
The College Football Playoff — the Final Four, pigskin division — arrives this season. It’s the closest thing the sport has had to determine a true national champion. And it officially ends the 16-season reign of the Bowl Championship Series, which continually worked fans and coaches into a lather.
A 13-person selection committee will determine weekly rankings, beginning in late October, once everyone’s midseason body of work has been established. It will use the eye test and common-sense principles, leaving the often baffling BCS computer metrics as an antiquated memory.
On Dec. 7, the four top teams will be announced. On New Year’s Day — a holiday, indeed — national semifinals will be staged at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. And on Jan. 12, 2015, winners meet in the playoff’s first championship game at cavernous AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“College football is flourishing at so many levels, but the one thing that has held it back has been the championship format,’’ ESPN’s Chris Fowler said. “The BCS, as a brand, was viewed negatively by the overwhelming majority of fans.
“Thirteen humans sitting together and doing their homework is a better method of selecting four teams than we’ve ever had before.’’
Better than ever before? Most would agree on that point.
“It will not be controversy-free,’’ Fowler said. “This is college football. We don’t want it like that.’’
So as the playoff era begins, here are areas expected to generate the new era water-cooler arguments of college football.
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Expanding the field: There is constant talk about expanding the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 68 teams to 96 — or beyond.
Expect football to have a similar backdrop.
“I sort of think maybe someday it will go to eight teams,’’ South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director, is adamant that an expanded field can’t happen soon. The contract runs through the 2024 season.
“There were always arguments when the BCS matched up the top two teams, and now that argument will be between the fourth and fifth teams,’’ ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said. “If it was an eight-team playoff, the ninth team would be mad. That factor would always be there no matter how far you stretched it out.’’
According to Alabama coach Nick Saban, the playoff shouldn’t be expanded.
“We would be getting to the saturation point when it comes to how many games a college football player can play without overdoing it,’’ Saban said. “In our league (this season), there’s the potential to play 15 games with the (SEC) championship game and two playoff games. … I think we have to take the student-athlete’s well-being into consideration.’’
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Conference champions: In the so-called “Power Five’’ leagues, only the Big 12 lacks a conference championship game. There’s concern that, say, Oklahoma could get left out of the semifinals because it doesn’t have the opportunity to claim another quality win, while the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are staging their title games.
“I like our path to the championship,’’ Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “The fact that we play everybody in our league is a nuance that is not going to be lost on the selection committee.
“When you play that (conference championship game) at the end of the year, you have two of your better teams presumably playing each other and one of them becomes damaged goods. And it may not be the one you want.’’
Earning a power-league conference championship is no guarantee of a spot in the national semifinals, either. In fact, most observers said they wouldn’t be surprised if two of the four semifinalists are from one conference.
“I think everyone should play in a conference championship game or no one should,’’ Herbstreit said. “It’s not fair that some teams have that bonus game and others do not. That has never made sense to me.
“I hope the committee doesn’t get caught up in picking just the conference champions. I want to see the best four teams, regardless of where they play.’’
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Potential bias: There are recusal rules in places that prohibit a selection committee member from discussing their team or participating in any votes regarding that team. Fowler, for one, said he believes in the committee’s integrity.
“Fans find it impossible to believe anyone can operate without bias or agenda,’’ Fowler said. “There are a lot of people on the committee with character. Whether they get it perfect or not remains to be seen. It’s not going to be because somebody has a bias in there.
“I think there’s a good chance you’ll get two teams from one conference more often than not. That’s going to be the rub, the controversial aspect of this, if there’s a second SEC team rather than the champion of the Big 12 or Pac-12.’’
At that point, some fans will question the committee’s motives. Other fans will howl about an injustice. Still others — and this will include conference commissioners and coaches — will begin the drumbeat for an expanded playoff if their team has been overlooked.
“It’s just the way it goes,’’ Herbstreit said. “It’s impossible to do it perfectly. But it’s a lot more perfect than it ever has been. As a fan of the game, I’m excited. I can’t wait to see how it’s going to unfold.’’