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Playoff setup only a start

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So now we hear that major-college football will have playoffs after all, starting in 2014 with a four-team format to determine a "true" national champion.

And we're supposed to be happy. Finally, the masses have gotten their way.

Pardon me for not sharing in the thrill. There's only one way to analyze the decision announced last week to institute a playoff system.

It's a start. But it's no more than a feeble baby step in the right direction.

In case you missed the details, the playoff plan consists of two semifinal games using current bowls, almost certainly from the current Bowl Championship Series, somewhere around New Year's Day. Then the winners would play a week or so later, with major cities bidding for the chance to host that championship game, much as the NFL does now with the Super Bowl and the NCAA with its basketball Final Four.

One could define it as progress. Applied to last year, Oklahoma State and Stanford would have joined Alabama and Louisiana State in the semifinals, presumably with pairings to separate the two Southeastern teams. Then again, many might argue to avoid having two teams from the same league playing for the title. It's also true that Oklahoma State and Stanford played an instant-classic Fiesta Bowl in January, with OSU winning 41-38.

Granted, nobody challenged Alabama's right to No. 1 after how thoroughly the Crimson Tide dissected LSU, exposing the Tigers as being unworthy on offense. But an Alabama-Oklahoma State game would have been a great climax.

My preference would have been for a minimum of eight teams, if not 16. Then you force the title contenders to sustain their season-ending peak for longer than just one or two all-out efforts.

How would an eight-team tournament have looked after the 2011 regular season? To minimize the debate, let's take the top eight from the final pre-bowl BCS standings last December and set up the quarterfinal pairings with major bowls as sites, in bracket order, as we've done in other years:

LSU (1) vs. Kansas State (8), Sugar Bowl; Stanford (4) vs. Oregon (5), Rose Bowl; Alabama (2) vs. Boise State (7), Orange Bowl; Oklahoma State (3) vs. Arkansas (6), Cotton Bowl. If the idea would be to avoid teams from the same conference playing in the first round, then one quick switch could solve that with Stanford vs. Arkansas and Oklahoma State vs. Oregon.

Now, just imagine how sweet those four games would have been. Then the semifinals could've been at, say, the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix and the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., followed by the championship finale literally anywhere (but either in warm-weather cities or domed stadiums elsewhere).

So much for dreaming. We have to live with four teams at the start. So let's look for positives.

All we need, in the next few years, is a lot of parity among the top eight to 10 college teams. That can happen with plenty of one-loss teams, or even with some clearly capable teams who have two losses (as Arkansas and Oregon did last year). We need to have college fans across the country screaming in anguish because a four-team playoff still leaves out others who deserve a shot at the national title.

One other thing: We need the networks to line up, ready to write checks in the multi-gazillions for TV rights. More than the Final Four, comparable to the Super Bowl, and easily enough to provide a huge windfall for college athletics — perhaps with a commitment by schools to add sports, up to a minimum number. Think what that could mean, for instance, to baseball, women's softball, lacrosse and other sports.

When (not if) all that happens, the four-team playoff will turn into eight, maybe even 16 teams.

But it has to start somewhere. That's the only reason to applaud now.

routon@csindy.com

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