The show Monday night was forecast to draw the largest audience in cable television history. A 30-second advertising spot was going for as much $1 million.
The cause of all this attention: the first-ever College Football Playoff championship game.
Ohio State upset Oregon, 42-20, before 85,639 fans in a game that failed to follow anything resembling the anticipated script. The champion Buckeyes were the last team to earn a spot in the four-team playoff field, and they fell behind almost immediately as high-powered Oregon bolted 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown the first time they had the ball.
In the end, however, it was Ohio State celebrating on the field amid a shower of confetti, the first champions of a new era in college football.
The championship, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the most modern and palatial of professional football venues, concluded one of the most scrutinized seasons in history. It was the first time that a major college football championship was settled by a playoff.
On New Year’s Day, semifinal matches between Ohio State and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon and Florida State in the Rose Bowl, like Monday’s game on ESPN, each drew record cable audiences of more than 28 million.
The game capped a season in which an already popular sport enjoyed a renaissance, scaling new heights in fan interest and flexing ever-building financial clout.
The playoff at least temporarily settled a rocky championship history that spanned decades.
For many years, teams from college football’s highest competition level were awarded national titles in votes by associations of reporters and coaches. Then came the Bowl Championship Series, a 16-year era in which computer data were added to voting tabulations in a vexing formula that resulted in the two highest-rated teams at the end of the regular season meeting in a winner-takes-all final game.
It was a controversial — and, it turns out, flawed — system. Had the BCS been used this season, Alabama and Florida State would have been the top-ranked teams and met in the title game. Instead, they lost in the semifinal round.
This season, the final four teams were selected by a 12-member committee of college officials and other dignitaries — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among them — who met weekly near Dallas and, beginning in the ninth week of the season, issued a weekly top-25 ranking.
“The anticipation of the weekly rankings, the crescendo that built ... is something I hadn’t seen in my experience,” said Pat Haden, a committee member who played quarterback at USC, was a broadcaster for Notre Dame and is currently USC’s athletic director.
The new system, like the old, has stirred debate — right from the start. College football’s top teams are spread over five “power conferences,” and with only four semifinal spots available, at least one champion is always going to be left out.
This season, Texas Christian and Baylor, co-champions of the Big 12 Conference, were the odd teams out. It was particularly disappointing for TCU, which was No. 3 in the next-to-last ranking but was jumped by Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor on the final list even after a 52-point win in its last regular-season game.
“No matter what the system, the teams that finished outside the cutline are going to feel they were treated unfairly,” Haden said. “No system, even this one, is going to be without critics.”
Dan Guerrero, UCLA’s athletic director, likes the new championship process because every game of the regular season is important, and the programs that didn’t line up competitive nonconference games — the knock against Baylor, TCU and other playoff contenders — were held accountable at the end.
“The regular season has really become one that is really scrutinized,” Guerrero said. “From the very outset there was that sense that one loss could get you out of the derby. That created a whole new level of interest.”
Winning right along with Ohio State on Monday was every member of the nation’s five most powerful football conferences — the Pac-12, Southeastern, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Big 12. ESPN paid $7.3 billion for the broadcast rights to College Football Playoff-affiliated games over a 12-year period, with each of the five leagues splitting about $50 million annually.
“Money drives the bus,” said Keith Jackson, who announced college football games for more than 50 years. “That’s just the underlying factor that drives all that stuff.”
How the money is distributed will be watched closely. There is an arms race in college football that prompted massive increases to coaches’ salaries and the construction of opulent training facilities at a time when tuition at most of the nation’s universities is on the rise.
The four coaches whose teams participated in the semifinals have combined salaries of about $17 million, not counting bonuses, and recently college athletes have advanced toward claiming their own slice of the riches.
In April, Northwestern University football players seeking better academic support, medical protection and scholarship enhancements voted on whether to unionize. In August, a District Court judge in Oakland ruled that the NCAA’s policies “unreasonably restrain trade” by prohibiting athletes from profiting from their own names, images and likenesses.
The wealthiest of college programs will soon begin offering “full cost of attendance” stipends, accounting for miscellaneous out-of-pocket expenses that had never before been covered. And some conferences have already announced their schools will guarantee athletic scholarships for four years rather than leave them up for renewal each year.
The success of the football playoff has already brought additional change. In the run-up to Monday’s championship, the NCAA acted with unusual speed in allowing the playoffs’ organizers to reimburse each parent or guardian of a player participating in the game up to $1,250 for travel to Texas. That was followed by a decision to approve a pilot program for similar reimbursements to families of players headed to the men’s and women’s basketball Final Fours — college sport’s other cash cow.
In the end, Monday’s football final was worthy of the attention and buildup.
Ohio State, which barely made it into the playoffs, held Oregon’s usually unstoppable offense to a season low in points and won featuring a third-string quarterback and a sophomore running back who ran for nearly as many yards in the title game as he gained all last season.
Like the changing landscape in college sports, the game offered plenty of subplots and proved very unpredictable.
©2015 Los Angeles Times
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