The College Football Playoff is far from perfect. Hardly a week goes by during the regular season when I don’t lament the inadequacy of the four-team format, the politics of the committee and the jockeying of Power Five conferences for dominance as Cinderellas from the Group of Five struggle for recognition.
And yet, the Playoff format remains a marked improvement over the days of yore. Remember once upon a time when there was no College Football Playoff, BCS title game (or BCS at all)? Some older millennials might even remember a time when the championship game wasn’t even determined on the field of play, instead being appointed by a selection committee.
In actuality, the Playoff system we have today is just a blip on the timeline of college football overall. It’s not even a decade old, as Ohio State fans well remember, with the first iteration being played at the conclusion of the 2014 regular season.
To get a taste of how far we’ve come, let’s go back all the way to the beginning, when the National Championship Foundation (NCF) retroactively named champs following the regular season — no postseason required. Remember? It was when Princeton, Harvard and Yale won all their titles, starting all the way back in 1869.
During this period, there was possibly even less parity than we see in college football now. The aforementioned trio won a share of the first 25 granted national titles. (Of course, Rutgers won a share of the first-ever title in 1869.)
However, this period of history had its perks. We all (or at least fans of Big Ten and Pac-12 programs) know the history of how the college football postseason began: the Rose Bowl game in 1902. While the Tournament of Roses Parade had been around for more than a decade, the parade organizers had the brilliant idea that establishing a football game could bring in additional revenue (if only they could see the current ticket prices for Rose Bowl games…). In that first game in 1902, originally titled the Tournament East-West football game, Michigan beat Stanford 49-0.
The Tournament of Roses took a break from football until 1916, but at that point, the game returned for good, breaking only once at the height of World War II. The pageantry and glamor of the Rose Bowl served as a model for the proliferation of bowl games that would follow — though none quite capture that magic of the original.
The Helms Athletic Foundation (HAF) joined the fun in 1883, largely naming the same champs year in and year out as the NCF, similar to the AP and Coaches Poll champs we might be familiar with from more recent years.
Things started to get wild in 1919, when the College Football Researchers Association began naming national champions. It didn’t help that in that same year, Harvard, Illinois, Notre Dame and Texas A&M all got title nods. Except, fun fact, the CFRA was founded in the 1980s and retroactively named these champs from 1919-1981 — way retroactively.
The NCF and HAF (and I guess the CFRA) collectively named champions until 1936, when the Associated Press (AP) began naming national champions all by itself, with the title going to the first-place team in the final AP Poll of the season. Ohio State earned its first national title under the AP in 1942. The Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl made their debuts during this time as well, each holding their opening games on Jan. 1, 1935. The Cotton Bowl started two years later in 1937.
However, the AP’s monopoly on championship titles didn’t last long. United Press International (UPI) — predecessor of the Coaches Poll — started making its own title calls in 1950, also retroactively.
Interestingly, these early polls picked their champions before bowl games were even played each season.
Other organizations — the Football Writers Association of America, National Football Foundation, USA Today/CNN and ESPN — also began naming national champions from 1954-1997, with up to five organizations at a time naming teams for the title. While those groups largely agreed upon who would be the champ, there were some years where things seemed to go awry, like when three different teams won titles (Alabama, Arkansas and Notre Dame in 1964; Nebraska, Texas and Ohio State in 1970). The final two would-be New Year’s Six bowls also kicked off during this period, with the Peach Bowl debuting in 1968 and the Fiesta Bowl in 1971.
It was obvious that a change would be needed to sort out all the chaos and name one champion to rule them all.
Thus began the Bowl Coalition (1992-1994) and Bowl Alliance (1995-1997), the predecessors to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) we all know and love. The Bowl Coalition was the first time a postseason game was used to determine who would be the national champion (there had, of course, been occasions where the top-two teams in the nation found themselves paired in bowl matchups, but the game itself had not been scheduled for that purpose).
Granted, neither the Big Ten nor the Pac-12 was not part of this new phenomenon, given their contractual obligation with the Rose Bowl game. That flaw was particularly poignant in 1997, when Michigan, who finished the season No. 1 with a Rose Bowl win over Washington State, shared a title with Nebraska, who beat Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.
Things got more familiar after that with the advent of the BCS following the 1998 season, which brought together the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls under the same postseason umbrella, with the national title game rotating among these four major bowls. The BCS was in some ways better than previous systems because it relied on unbiased computer rankings, but the lack of a human element often led to some head scratching results in the final polls.
The BCS added a fifth game starting in 2006 to allow for two more teams in the major bowls, especially given the 2003 season where there was disagreement over the title for the first time in the BCS era (USC vs, LSU). We try not to think about those first two championship games as Ohio State fans.
Of course, the rest is history. The BCS era lasted 16 seasons before folks gave up on the computers and called in a committee, thus bringing the Playoff to life.
As much as we like to poke holes in the current CFP system, we must acknowledge that things could be worse — because they have been. Most of college football’s historical champions were named retroactively, and it took many of the puzzle pieces — the advent of bowl games, the establishment of polls, actually playing a title game, the search for a consensus champion — to lead to the College Football Playoff being able to be established this century, and possibly soon paving the way for the next great iteration of the postseason.