Everyone seems to agree major college football playoff is close to inevitable at this point. The discussions are happening outside of the normal NCAA structure though, since the NCAA does not run, but merely licenses the postseason in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That does not mean the NCAA is completely out of the loop.
Eventually, college football will need to have its playoff approved by the NCAA. Two small rule changes need to be made. First, the playoff will need to be added to the list of games that teams can play past the end of the regular season. Second, the playoff will need to be added as an exemption to the maximum number of games a team can play in a season.
Normally, these changes would be no problem. Despite being different organizations that must coexist, the NCAA and the BCS are both ultimately run by college presidents representing conferences. The NCAA Board of Directors simply has more conferences, and would be unlikely to put any significant obstacle in the way of a playoff.
These are not normal times for the NCAA though. On the one hand, reform has made a major issue of the length of a sport’s season, with the NCAA studying limits before likely holding every sport at current levels for a decade or more. Concussions and the health impact of repeated blows to the head is the most visible student-athlete health issue at the moment, with football being the most visible sport in that issue.
The NCAA might try to get something out of the bargain when they approve a playoff they are expected to police but which contributes almost nothing to that effort. With other sports clamoring for more games but unlikely to get it and basketball possibly facing a reduction, allowing football to expand their season in exchange for nothing would not sit well with much of the membership.
The Board of Directors will not ask for anything crazy, like demanding the NCAA run the playoff as the 90th NCAA Championship. More likely would be increased academic standards or competitive safeguards. Football players might be required to pass nine credits in the fall instead of the current six to play postseason football. Schools might also be required to put football players through concussion testing before postseason play and provide the results to the NCAA.
The other open question is the form the NCAA rule change will take. Naming the playoff and exempting just that event limits the new rules to just the national champion decider, but exposes the NCAA to antitrust challenges. Exempting any playoff or bringing playoffs into the bowl licensing system creates the possibility of a Football NIT or other lesser tournaments, although a move to seven wins for postseason eligibility would reduce this potential.
It’s almost assured at this point we’ll see the first playoff at college football’s highest level. That could be the catalyst for other changes in the sport, either on the field, in the classroom, or in the training room.