The playoffs may just be starting in baseball, but the hunt for playoff spots is just getting started in college football. That’s right, this year starts a brand new postseason format with four playoff spots up for grabs at the end of the year. Even just a few weeks into the college football season, there appears to be some confusion on just how this will all work or even if it is worth the extra effort to determine a national champion this way. Only time will tell just how effective this new method is.
Here is what you need to know about the College Football Playoff. There is a four-team playoff that will be seeded by a selection committee. The selection committee has been established and, starting in late October, the committee will release its own ranking so fans can have a general sense for which teams are doing the most to catch the eye of the committee. This season, two semifinal games will be played in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, and the winners of those two games will meet the following week in North Texas for the first College Football Playoff National Championship. Next season, the semifinal games will be played in the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl and the championship game will be played in Glendale, Arizona. In the 2016 season, the semifinal games will be played in the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl and the championship game will be played in Tampa. After that, the semifinal cycle returns to the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl games in the 2017 season, but a host city for the championship game has yet to be determined. Host city locations are determined through a bidding process similar to the NFL’s Super Bowl host city bidding process.
All six of these bowls will be used under the College Football Playoff set-up starting this season, similarly to the previous BCS model. The selection committee will choose the top four teams to play in the designated semifinal games and then fill the remaining four bowl games with the best possible options leftover. First, the committee will honor any conference bowl tie-ins where applicable before moving to at-large options. There is even a guaranteed spot in these bowls games reserved for the highest ranked champion from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the MAC, Mountain West Conference or Sun Belt Conference. As a result, the importance of the regular season for schools from these conferences becomes more important than ever, as there is a guaranteed opportunity available to play in a big bowl game rather than an outside chance at best.
The new playoff format has introduced us to a pair of new phrases as well: Power Five and Group of Five. The Power Five refers to the traditional power conferences: the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. The Group of Five refers to the remaining conferences. Notre Dame is considered a part of the Power Five conferences, thanks in large part to its standing as an athletics program over the years and its association and partnership with the ACC. BYU, Navy and Army are not considered a part of the Power Five conferences. The battle between Group of Five conference contenders will be something to keep track of throughout the season as the jockeying for that guaranteed big bowl spot is there for the taking. Right now, it would appear East Carolina has the inside track with key victories over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. No other Group of Five school has those kinds of wins on its résumé right now. Cincinnati can get in the mix with a win at Ohio State this week and a win at Miami after that.
So, which schools have the best chances to play in the playoff? After a few weeks of the regular season, it is still too early to suggest any team is in or out, but the list of viable contenders is starting to be formed. Florida State, after avoiding an upset bid against Clemson to maintain its number one ranking in the AP and coaches polls, seems on track to receive one of the playoff spots. Oregon also avoided an upset bid at Washington State to keep their playoff plans together out of the Pac-12. The Big Ten has struggled as a conference but Michigan State or Wisconsin still seem more than capable of making a run with a little help from around the country along the way. The Big 12 could be standing in the way though if Oklahoma or Baylor happen to go undefeated. The SEC is generally assumed to have one spot reserved for it in the four-team bracket, and some might even suggest the conference will have two teams in.
But there is still so much football to be played, it may be best to just allow everything to play out over the next month and a half before really diving deep into the “in or out” conversations.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.