John McGrath

McGrath: College football is back — with a new format

Everything you need to know about the new playoff system college football will implement this season.

Q. How does it work?

A. The top four teams, to be chosen and seeded by a 13-member committee, will participate in traditional New Year’s Day bowl games designated as semifinals. The winners will advance to the national championship game on Jan. 12, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Q. What bowl games will serve as semifinal sites?

A. The Rose and Sugar get first dibs this season, part of an annually rotating cycle that also will include the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and former Chick-fil-A Bowl, which has been renamed the Peach Bowl.

Q. Which bowl gets the top seed?

A. That depends on which team is ranked No. 1 on Dec. 7, when the committee announces its selections. If, say, Florida State is seeded first, it’ll be awarded “home field advantage” in the Sugar Bowl, where the Seminoles will play the No. 4 seed. The Rose Bowl then would inherit the other semifinal.

Q. What distinguishes this format from the generally loathed Bowl Championship Series?

A. Jan. 1 has been restored as a holiday of must-see TV for college football fans, who will be able to watch the two semifinal games consecutively — think of it as the college version of pro football’s conference-championship Sunday — beginning with the Rose Bowl, scheduled to kick off at 2 p.m.

By the way, the committee also will serve as matchmakers for the other four bowls in the rotation cycle, all of which will be played either Dec. 31. or Jan. 1. Two triple-headers goes a long way toward making New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day relevant again on the college football calendar.

“Whenever we go to our New Year’s Eve parties, they better have a television set, and it better be tuned into college football or we’re not going to be there,” Bill Hancock, executive director of the Football Playoff Championship, recently told reporters. “It changes the paradigm of that holiday for keeps in this country, and we’re proud of that.”

Another perk of the new playoff format is that it has removed the coaches poll and its smarmy little brother, the computer poll, as essential components in the determination of a national champion. (The coaches poll accounted for one-third of the points in the BCS standings, even though sports information directors — who have the time to follow games not involving their school — typically did the voting.)

Q. Can the 13-member committee aspire to maintain absolute neutrality?

A. It can try, of course, but there will always be some level of subjectivity. This explains why any of the nine committee members who’ve got a financial relationship with a university under consideration for a playoff bid — Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, for instance, or Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice — will be excused from discussions about those teams.

Q. Any early feedback on whether a committee is an improvement on the confusing and often controversial BCS system of identifying national championship finalists?

A. Not yet. The committee will meet in person every Monday and Tuesday, but won’t reveal its first standings until Oct. 28, following the season’s ninth week. Strength of schedule, common opponents, results of head-to-head match-ups — information that used to be fed into a computer — figure to be typical topics for debate.

Another subtle adjustment: Conferences such as the SEC, which was limited to a maximum of two teams in BCS bowls, won’t be impeded by a ceiling. If the committee concludes four SEC teams are worthy semifinalists, four SEC teams — perish the thought — will advance to the semifinals.

Q. If a four-team playoff achieves boffo TV ratings, is there any chance of expanding the format to eight or even 16 teams?

A. A 12-season contract worth $5.6-billion has been signed with ESPN. In order to expand the playoffs, unanimous approval will be required from the 10 football subdivision conferences that agreed to the deal, along with Notre Dame.

In other words, it’s not likely, or at least not like any time soon.

An obvious impediment toward arranging a more comprehensive tournament field is that it would extend the college season to a length associated with an NFL schedule. There’s a very good chance the opponents who clash outside of Dallas in January will have played 12 regular-season games, in addition to a conference-championship game and a bowl game.

That’s 14 games, and the national title contest pushes the total to 15. Considering the drum beats we’ve heard about college football players exploring the idea of a union, expanding beyond a 15-game season would seem to define the word “problematic.”

Q. Bottom line on the Football Playoff Championship replacing the BCS: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

A. Thumbs up, if for no other reason than the Rose Bowl’s luster will be back on Jan. 1, 2015. No matter that the contest might not feature the usual Pac-12-Big 10 showdown.

The Rose Bowl means something again, and the Suger Bowl means something again, and best of all, New Year’s Day means something again for those of us who’d come to think of the holiday as a chance to to watch hockey players skate on a temporarily frozen pond installed on the infield of a baseball park.