How the College Football Playoff Will Decide National Champions

December 30, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

After years of disgruntled, bewildered, and outraged fans, coaches, and players, NCAA Division I college football has finally stepped into the realm of the post-season tournament in order to select a national champion. The tournament won’t solve all the bellyaching that follows college football and its attempt to crown an undisputed national championship team.ncaa

However, it will go a long way in satisfying the requirements of competition that everyone who loves sports relies on when determining winners and losers. Namely, that the teams in question face one another in a head-to-head battle. For the uninitiated in the brave new world of the College Football Playoff, here is a brief look at the troubled history of national champions within the NCAA’s bowl system, as well as an explanation of how the first-ever playoff is going to work.

Why It’s Necessary

College football is an enormously popular sport in the United States, with almost 50 million fans attending games throughout the season and another 216 million watching on television. The bowl games alone drew 126 million TV viewers and 1.7 million attendees last year, and gambling on the sport continues to grow, as does the list of online sportsbooks accepting USA players. With so much fanfare, loyalty, and interest in the sport, why is a playoff even necessary?

Historically within NCAA Division I football, a poll was conducted at the end of the season to determine the national champion, which means voting — instead of play out on the field — crowned an overall victor. For lovers of sport, this poll has always been problematic, because the only true way to know if any one team is better than another is to get them to face off in head-to-head competition. Unfortunately, in college football, a vote — not play — decided titles.

For decades, the Associated Press poll determined the national champion until the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) tried to alleviate some of the pressure by picking the top two teams in the country for a national championship game in one of the New Year’s bowl games. Of course, the country’s best teams were still decided based on a poll, which meant problems still arose. What if wasn’t clear which two teams were the top two teams in the country? What if there were multiple undefeated teams? Problems inevitably arose. 

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One such problem occurred in 2003, when different polls found the University of Southern California football team ranked at number one and number three. The BCS poll kept USC out of the national championship bowl game, but after they defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl, the AP poll declared them national champs, while the BCS crowned Louisiana State University, which resulted in a split national title. Other scandals emerged due to the lack of a competitive tournament in determining a champion as the years passed, which is why the NCAA has finally decided to try a small, end-of-the-year tournament in hopes of selecting a national championship team.

How It Will Work

Far from the 68-team, heady mayhem of NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball’s tournament known informally as March Madness, the CFP will feature the top four teams in two semifinal games. The winners of those games will then play in the College Football Championship Game. Six different bowl games will be included in the rotation to host the semifinal games, including the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Peach Bowl. Bowl games will still be played at the bowl sites not hosting — just with teams that aren’t vying for the national title. The bowls, plus the semi-final games, will still occur over two consecutive days, including New Year’s Day.

The winners of the two semi-finals games will face off in a championship game the first Monday that is at least six days after the semi-finals. Cities will bid on the championship game much as they do to host the Super Bowl, and the very first ever title game of the CFP is slated to take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on January 12, 2015. The winner of that game will receive the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy and will be crowned national champions.

The CFP won’t solve all of college football’s problems, but it does go further in acknowledging and trying to solve them than any previous effort. While it won’t be known until early January regarding who the eventual first-ever champion of the College Football Playoff will be, hope remains high that whichever team claims the trophy will be viewed across the country as the best team.