Why We Have A College Football Playoff – Explained

The top four teams were revealed in the very first final College Football Playoff ranking Sunday, and just as expected, a frenzy emerged. 

In case you’re wondering why it’s all such a big deal, here’s a very brief summarized timeline of the history leading up to where we are today in college football.

1869 – The Genesis 

Princeton and Rutgers are credited with playing the first ever college football game on Nov. 6. However, back then, a season usually consisted of just one or two games.

1905 – The game almost gets banned

Between 1890 and 1905, hundreds of lives were lost to the violent sport. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the game before helping to form the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States in 1906, now known as the NCAA — the original rule-making body of college football. This was also the year of the legalized forward pass.

1936 – The AP Poll is formed

After a few years of arbitrary mathematical systems ranking teams to declare a national champion, the Associated Press declares 7-1 Minnesota their first national champion, becoming the first widely recognized voting system. LSU, Pittsburgh and Duke are also named “national champions” by other organizations.

The votes are cast at seasons end, without an actual “championship” game being played. It should also be noted that LSU and Alabama went undefeated that season. 

1950 – A “consensus” national champion?

Likely to combat local bias and form an even more organized ranking system, the first Coaches Poll is established in conjunction with the AP, Football Writers Association and the College Football Hall of Fame to declare a “consensus national champion” for the first time. Although — just as in other years — many teams are declared national champs from multiple organizations, the first overall consensus champ is given to 10-1 Oklahoma, who lost to Paul Bear Bryant’s Kentucky team in the Sugar Bowl.

This system is not only broken because it is vote-driven without a championship game, but also because votes are casted before Bowl games are even played — a practice that would last until 1969.

National champions which subsequently lost in the postseason


1950 Sugar: No. 7 Kentucky beat No. 1 Oklahoma 13-7

1951 Sugar : No. 3 Maryland beat No. 1 Tennessee 28-13

1953 Orange: No. 4 Oklahoma beat No. 1 Maryland 7-0

1960 Rose: No. 6 Washington beat No. 1 Minnesota 17-7

1964 Orange: No. 5 Texas beat No. 1 Alabama 21-17

1998 – Birth of the BCS

It isn’t until nearly 50 years later — and multiple years of split mythical champions — the Bowl Championship Series is born.

The BCS is controversial because not only does it rely heavily on votes from media, but also uses computer algorithms to determine the rankings; the split is 50/50.

Upon the final rankings, teams ranked No. 3-10 are split up into the four major Bowls: Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange. The top 2 teams play each other in the first ever national championship game, with the host Bowl rotating between the four aforementioned Bowls. 

The mythical national champion is over, but the system still isn’t perfect. Division-I football is still the only NCAA sport without a tournament to declare a champion.

2003 – But we still have a split champion?!

While LSU (13-1) is declared the BCS champ, USC (12-1) is voted in as the AP Poll champion. Considering the BCS was created to declare one consensus national champion, chaos ensues. The BCS “forumla” is re-written.

2011 – SEC dominance or SEC bias?

Alabama defeats LSU in the national championship, a rematch from two months previous in which LSU won. This was also in the middle of a stretch where a team from the Southeastern Conference won the national title 7 years in a row.

Many believe this dominance by one conference — along with situations like the 2004 undefeated Auburn team who didn’t get considered for the title game — created the urgency to add some kind of playoff system.

2014 – The College Football Playoff is born

Similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, a committee is organized to vote on the top 25 teams in college football. The final ranking at the end of the season will pair the top 4 ranked teams against one another (No.1 vs No. 4 and No.2 vs. No. 3). Those two games will be played in two of the four major Bowls with the winner advancing to the national championship.

It’s the most fair system ever given to the sport, actually allowing four teams to compete on the field to earn the right to be called champion.

December 7, 2014 – TCU, Baylor or Ohio State?!

The first final College Football ranking comes out: Alabama, Oregon and Florida State keep their slots within the top 4. However, TCU falls from No. 3 to No. 6, Baylor — who beat TCU earlier in the year and shares a Big 12 title with them — is held out, while Ohio State jumps both of them for the No. 4 ranking, entering the College Football Playoff top 4 for the first time all year after a throttling Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. 

Some praise the decision; others give heavy criticism. 

Now instead of fighting over who should be No. 1, we argue over who should be No. 4!

This makes us all go insane.

Oh well, at least we no longer determine our national champions by a vote!

Josh Helmuth is the editor of CraveOnline Sports.

Photo Credit: Getty