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A BEAUTIFUL MESS

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WHENEVER I WANT to read something hilarious, I Google my way back to a time when otherwise intelligent people predicted doom if college football's top subdivision ever settled its championship with some form of a bracketed tournament.

"First, playoffs diminish the regular season," Bowl Championship Series executive director Bill Hancock wrote in a USA Today op-ed in 2009. "The interest of fans, sponsors and others is redirected into the playoff. Now, from August to December, fans nationwide shift their attention from game to game and conference to conference weekly, as teams move up and down the ladder toward the title game. Why would we want to dilute that?"

If that name sounds familiar, it's because Hancock currently serves as the executive director of the College Football Playoff. Beliefs have always been flexible for the people who oversee major college sports, so Hancock's decision to run something he once lobbied against should surprise no one. Still, as the playoff contenders reach championship week in the fourth year of the four-team playoff system, it's astonishing just how wrong the BCS version of Hancock was.

The regular season that he predicted would be ruined is instead a more thrilling roller-coaster ride, with more seats available. A game played on Sept. 9 (Oklahoma's 31--16 win at Ohio State) could influence who gets left out of the top four this Sunday. At least eight teams enter this weekend with a legitimate shot at making the playoff. The final four will be decided in an orgy of the elimination games the guardians of the status quo feared the playoff would erase.

Instead of rendering conference title games irrelevant, the playoff has enhanced their importance. Two of this Saturday's matchups (Clemson vs. Miami in the ACC and Auburn vs. Georgia in the SEC) are essentially playoff quarterfinals: The winners will make the bracket. If Oklahoma beats TCU in the Big 12's title game and Wisconsin defeats Ohio State in the Big Ten's, they too will get their tickets punched. But things might get even more interesting if TCU or Ohio State—or both—prevails on Saturday.

One of the most repeated (and oddest) arguments against a playoff was that it would create a more contentious atmosphere around the selection of the four teams that will play for the title. But that debate is the best part of college football. If you want a clean, orderly system for populating the postseason, go watch the NFL. The mess that is college football's selection process is far more riveting.

We argue for 11 months about which teams should make the next playoff. We parse schedules. We power-rank conferences. We play games in our heads to calculate the theoretical difference between teams with no common opponents. In the 12th month, when the field is finally set, we pick it apart. Then, the day after the national title game, we start all over.

Let's say TCU and Ohio State win this weekend. Would the 11--2 Buckeyes make the playoff? Not if that placed them above 11--2 Oklahoma, which has that head-to-head win in Columbus. Might such a scenario open the door for 11--1 Alabama? The Crimson Tide lost 26--14 at Auburn last Saturday; Bama probably needs Auburn to beat Georgia on Saturday to crack the top four. Forcing Tide fans to pull for the Tigers is the kind of delightful subversion only the playoff can provide.

When the leaders of the FBS conferences settled on the current format in 2012, I advocated for quickly expanding the field to eight. Now I'm not so sure. Watching those leaders squirm as they imagine the possibility of two teams from the same conference making the bracket is almost as much fun as watching the games. Perhaps in 10 years some writer will unearth this column and point out how shortsighted I was in my defense of the four-team playoff, but I'll take that risk. If the format keeps dishing out seasons like this ending in weekends like the coming one, it will stand the test of time.

The regular season that Hancock predicted would be ruined by the College Football Playoff has instead become a more thrilling roller-coaster ride, with more seats available.

HOW HAS THE PLAYOFF FORMAT ENHANCED COLLEGE FOOTBALL?

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