The reviews are in, and the first leg — the true test — of the College Football Playoff proved a smash.
The new system is much like the old, with a championship game and no alteration to the regular season. The great unknown occurred in between, on New Year’s Day. National semifinals had not existed in college football before Thursday.
Acceptance by the sport, the participants and the fans of this new layer looked promising given the teams and venues, but it wasn’t a given.
Then they happened, and the aftermath looked to the past and future: Why hasn’t this happened before, and when will major-college football add even more playoff games?
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As for the present, the numbers couldn’t have been more encouraging. Concern about empty seats, especially at the Rose Bowl, after Florida State returned some of its ticket allotment, proved unfounded when the announced attendance of 91,322 contributed to the usual gorgeous Pasadena setting.
The Sugar Bowl sold out, and the sport got the best of both worlds: Stadiums filled with passionate fans, and a record-setting television audience. ESPN reported the Rose and Sugar bowls were the two most-watched programs in cable TV history.
The newness of the event, mostly positive buzz heading into the semifinals and the national popularity of the teams all contributed to the big day. The games also delivered.
The nation’s lone undefeated team and defending national champion, Florida State, wears the sport’s black hat, largely because of the off-field troubles of quarterback Jameis Winston, who had never lost a college game as a starter.
As things turned sour for the Seminoles in the second half, and Winston contributed with a boneheaded play that turned into a fumble return for an Oregon touchdown, social media posted their digital delight.
One beast slayed, the nation turned its attention to the other. Top-ranked Alabama was a heavy favorite over an Ohio State team with a quarterback making his second start. To make it more of an impossible task, the Buckeyes dug themselves a 21-6 hole.
Back they came, improbably, marvelously against college football’s current standard of excellence, and an Ohio State-Oregon championship game was born.
A year earlier, this championship game could not have happened. Alabama and Florida State would have occupied the first two spots of the final Bowl Championship Series poll and faced off in the title game. Oregon-Ohio State would have settled third place in the Rose Bowl.
No system with subjectivity escapes without ire, and the inaugural anger comes from TCU. The Horned Frogs fell out of favor in the final playoff ranking despite an overwhelming final regular-season victory, and Mississippi paid for that frustration in a lopsided Peach Bowl.
But TCU’s argument was mitigated by Ohio State’s success, and the Frogs, with most of their starters returning, at least positioned themselves to be a strong favorite for 2015.
Otherwise, the College Football Playoff committee was the other big winner this week. The 12-member group chaired by Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long opened itself to criticism by announcing weekly rankings.
Never in the game’s history have teams been so analyzed, evaluated and bottom-lined for a weekly ranking. The committee members flew to Dallas from all corners of the country each week for a thorough airing. Some in the group griped about this exercise, but it contributed to the credibility of the process.
And when fourth-seeded Ohio State won, the committee could take a bow. It got it right.
A final game remains, and the buildup may be nothing like we’ve seen before. Oregon and Ohio State — Ducks and Bucks — prevailed on what felt like college basketball’s greatest day, the Final Four. And now they’re part of something that looks like a college football Super Bowl.
The talk of expanding the format won’t and shouldn’t end. An eight-team bracket makes sense on many levels. But in the glow of New Year’s Day and another week to talk about the championship game, what’s happening now seems about right.