To no one's surprise, all those years of hand-wringing over the many-pronged challenges of hosting a college football playoff have proven to be a massive waste of everyone's time. As the buzz of the semifinal round wears off, the lofty rhetoric that opposed a playoff system fell flat on its face, upended by the thunderous applause of everyone who tuned in to watch.
All 28.27 million per game, to be exact.
It's hard to imagine the inaugural College Football Playoff getting off to a better start. Both games were high-scoring affairs. The top-ranked team in the land was upset by late-bloomer that squeaked into the playoffs on the shoulders of a third-string quarterback.
In a matchup of the past two Heisman winners, the villainous defending champs were defeated in glorious fashion by maybe the country's most exciting offense. And, as if bidding formal farewell to the BCS era, the two teams knocked out of the playoffs were the two teams that would have been placed in the BCS title Ggame, according to that system's formula.
You'd be hard-pressed to write a more poetic result yourself.
The excitement of the semifinal round almost overshadows the fact that there's still a game -- the most important one, believe it or not -- to be played.
But at the moment, it feels like a victory has already been declared. The playoffs are here to stay.
And they're only going to get bigger.
The concept of playoff expansion is nothing new. Even before a four-team bracket was set in stone, observers have insisted that a larger field was inevitable. Some considered the four-team version just a test-drive to make sure all the accompanying parts worked before rolling out the playoff on a larger scale.
Unexpected complications or failure could have threatened such a move. Instead, the opposite happened: College football's first playoff went better than anyone expected.
That success makes much of the anti-playoff whimpering sound even more baseless than it was. ESPN's Ivan Maisel complained last spring about how the playoffs were upsetting the traditional habits college football coaches employ to get their team ready for a single bowl game. The prospect of playing two bowl games, he argued, was an inconvenience -- and not worth the change, he suggested.
Evolving game preparation seems like an interesting storyline and a compelling new wrinkle of the playoffs, but it's a stretch to say that creates any disadvantages. If anything, it demands more from coaches. How does that do anything but create even more intrigue?
Concerns about the precious slate of bowl games proved to be largely unfounded. While it's true that games like the Fiesta Bowl -- which featured Boise State upsetting Arizona -- suffered a big decline in ratings from past years, the game also took a back seat to the playoff matchups and set a ratings record in his Wednesday afternoon time slot. Boise State on its own turned a $1.5 million profit for participating, after expenses.
Clearly, there's still enough money to go around. And money is what matters most.
There is, of course, the pretense that academics have been a major concern regarding any playoff system. The risk of having playoff games that overlap with end-of-semester finals is a genuine consideration for every team, but playoff participants aren't close to the scheduling crunch that is sometimes suggested. Even if another round were added to the playoffs, the timeline for such a playoff is easy to work out, even if it means spilling over into the winter semester (as is already the case for the national championship game).
School is no obstacle. No one complains about the sheer havoc a long March Madness run can have on college basketball teams. Players on those teams are forced to miss at least two school days a week for three weeks straight. Even the prescient placement of spring break can't account for all of that travel time. Let's not forget, either, the conference tournaments played one week earlier, which can take teams out of three or more days of school.
An expanded playoff system won't bring football players close to the levels of classroom absentia basketball programs live with every year.
"When people talk about being out of school -- there is nobody out of school less than a football player. Nobody," said Jay Bilas earlier this month in an interview with Sports Illustrated NOW. "Football players only play once a week, and half their games are at home (so they don't have to travel and miss class."
Big playoff money is waiting to be made. And with student-athletes poised to demand a payday from their schools in the near future, the stimulus package of expanded playoffs couldn't come at a better time. Everything is perfect right now, or pretty darn close to perfect, and in the logic of greed, that can only mean one thing:
Expand or die, College Football Playoffs. Just not too quickly. The current system has a 12-year contract with ESPN, so there's no reason to rush an altered product. Plus, if history is a template, there's little to be gained by instantly rewarding fans with the gratification they need.
Controversy is great for intrigue, after all, and it hasn't hurt college football's current product one iota. The exclusion of TCU does offer some fodder for why playoff expansion could breed even more excitement, but it's all speculative fun with no real implications.
The college football powers-that-be will let those gossip mill churn on as always, and they will likely proceed in the manner they have established for years prior -- a manner both slow and measured, excruciatingly so. Schools and conferences will see it coming around the pike from a long way off -- and many already do, convinced that the four-team bracket is just a transitional phase to a postseason tournament that features eight or 16 teams.
Eventually, the clamor for such change will rise. Fans are abuzz about this year's college football playoff because of what it replaced: An imperfect two-team championship whose participants were decided by a mix of imperfect formulas and questionable public perception.
Talk about a recipe for disaster. Expansion to four teams brought with it a sense of liberation, but that, too, shall pass. The four-team bracket is loaded with points of criticism. It ensures that at least one of the five power conferences will be absent from competition every year. Just imagine the chaos if Notre Dame fields a competitive team. Schools like Boise State would have to be all the more impressive to warrant their inclusion while an entire major conference goes unrepresented.
And no matter where you draw the line -- look at March Madness and its 68-team field -- debate will always rage about the last-ins and the first-outs.
A larger bracket could solve that by offering automatic bids to major conference champions. Such a system would alleviate the risks of nonconference losses and actually improve the early-season college football slate. Imagine if a team could start 0-4 and still play for a national championship by running through its conference? Teams would be incentivized to schedule challenging opponents instead of puff-pastry programs that are happy when they can keep their margin of defeat within 30.
A mix of automatic bids and a few coveted at-large bids would create an unbiased path to the playoffs for many teams, but the all-important imperfection of subjective selection would still be retained. Such a recipe is available even in an eight-team playoff: five conference bids plus three at-larges.
Logistically, that reality isn't that far off. But because it has no incentive, college football won't fast-track an expanded playoff. There's a brand to consider, and college football is at its best when it withholds from its fans their most precious desires.
There are practical financial considerations, such as how the increasing value of the postseason affects the value of the regular season -- expanding the playoffs too much, or too rapidly, could hurt the revenue earned during the regular season, which no one in college football wants.
Because the College Football Playoff is locked into a 12-year television deal, it wouldn't want to cut its per-game earnings -- and its future negotiations -- by giving ESPN a bargain on an expanded playoff. ESPN, for its part, has no reason to offer an enormous financial package when a long-term contract is already in place. Playoff expansion might not become a reality until the current TV deal nears its end, creating an even playing field where television networks are forced to pay a fair market rate.
By then, fans may already be restless for change. Great football teams will have been excluded, wounds inflicted, scars healed over. The four-team playoff will be loathed for its exclusivity, and the leaders of college football will be reviled as the slowest decision-makers in the history of the earth.
And then, one day, the playoffs will expand. Everyone will be happy. It will be the greatest thing to ever happen, and past will seem like a distant memory.
Few will realize that they've been there before.