College football has answered the prayers of frustrated fans everywhere, and it only took a century. This season, the national champion will be determined by the same method used in every other major American team sport: A playoff.

Four teams will participate in semifinals hosted by the Rose and Sugar bowls on New Year's Day, with the winners advancing to the final in Cowboys Stadium.

It sure seems like a grand and glorious development, but be careful what you wish for.

Will the four-team playoff be an improvement on the Bowl Championship Series? There are more skeptics within the sport's halls of power than you might think, but let's take a cautiously optimistic view -- yes, the playoff will be an improvement on the BCS.

A rising gold football-shaped trophy will be the prize for the national champion in the new College Football Playoff.
A rising gold football-shaped trophy will be the prize for the national champion in the new College Football Playoff. (Tony Gutierrez / AP)

Is it the ideal solution? No, it is not.

Not when there are four playoff berths for five major conferences.

Not when the members of the selection committee charged with picking the teams have a vested interest in those very teams and a recusal process that has yet to be tested.

Not when the committee plans to eschew the "the most deserving (teams) on the resume" in favor of what it deems "the four best teams," as chairman Jeff Long explained several months ago.

That alarmingly nebulous charge gives the committee enough leeway to make things up as it goes along. Controversy, consternation and frustration are sure to follow.

Consider the uproar that would have occurred last season had the playoff been in place.


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Based on records, resumes and rankings on the final day of the season, undefeated Florida State would have been a lock, followed by the one-loss champions from two power conferences: Auburn (SEC) and Michigan State (Big Ten).

But what about the fourth spot? The committee will purportedly place heavy emphasis on conference championships, schedule strength, head-to-head results and results against common opponents.

That all sounds great, but it would have resolved nothing.

Alabama only lost once despite playing in the nation's toughest conference, and the loss came on a fluke play on the road against a team in the playoffs (Auburn). But the Crimson Tide didn't win its division, much less its conference.

Stanford was the champion of the second-best league in the land and beat twice as many ranked opponents as Alabama. But the Cardinal had one more loss than the Tide, and it was a bad one: Utah.

Imagine the outrage in SEC country if the mighty Crimson Tide, its only loss coming on a 109-yard return of a missed field goal, had been squeezed out of the playoffs by a team that lost to Utah.

Imagine the outrage from Pac-12 territory if the Cardinal, despite its league title and six wins over ranked opponents -- more than any of the playoff participants -- had been left out in favor of a team that finished second in its division.

Then imagine the reaction when Stanford's omission is announced by Long, the chairman, who happens to be the athletic director at a school in Alabama's conference.

No, this is not going to be seamless.

(The best part of the new system, frankly, is the schedule: The six playoff-level bowls -- the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton, Peach and Orange -- will form back-to-back tripleheaders on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.)

In reality, the four-team playoff only gets us halfway to the promised land: An eight-team event that would render moot any real or perceived hypocrisies on the part of the committee -- or any other flaws in the system, for that matter.

Because the playoff is based on a three-year rotation of games, expansion is at least six years away -- and possibly 12, which would take us through the entirety of ESPN's reported $7 billion-plus contract with the major conferences.

The men in charge have been coy, naturally, but don't think they haven't discussed an eight-team playoff. The name they chose, College Football Playoff, is bland enough to work regardless of the number of teams. Future expansion would not force them to re-brand the event.

So let's cross our fingers for the future and be cautiously optimistic about the present, which sounds a lot like the state of things 16 years ago when college football introduced us to a postseason system called the BCS.

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

WHO WOULD YOU LEAVE OUT?

Had the four-team playoff been
implemented last season, the final playoff spot would have come down to Nick Saban (left) and his powerhouse at Alabama and David Shaw (right) and his Pac-12 champs at Stanford. Here's a look at both team's resumes heading into bowl season:

Alabama Stanford
SEC Conference Pac-12
11-1, 7-1 Record 11-2, 7-2*
@Auburn Losses @USC, @Utah
* -- won Pac-12 championship


Purdy: Stanford winning with old-school offensive attack. PAGE 2