Sunday you can experience something we've all been claiming to desperately want for a decade now: You can watch a college football playoff selection show.
Next year, we will have our first College Football Playoff committee and an announcement of the seedings, with all the fanfare, all the debate, all the Condoleezza Rice. It will be exciting and fascinating and will certainly find a way to annoy Urban Meyer. But as a rough draft of how this might work, let's take a look at Sunday's big event: The FCS Selection Show.
Of course, FCS -- or Division I-AA, which is what old people like me will call it until the day we die -- has been running a championship tournament for its football teams for years. This year, in fact, is the 35th anniversary of the tournament, which is now called the NCAA Division I Football Championship, a name that keeps getting me excited that we're gonna see Baylor play Alabama and Ohio State play Florida State until this old guy remembers they changed the names again. Because the tournament has been going on so long, it's instructive to look at some of its formats and procedures, to see what the College Football Playoff can learn from, and what it can reject.
So, to prep for the 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday Selection Show (on ESPNU!), here's some stuff you should know about the FCS tournament and how it might apply.
There are 24 teams. Obviously this isn't something the FBS will enact -- at least not for another 30 years, until it reaches this natural expansion point -- but it's worth noting that having that many playoff teams doesn't, in fact, ruin the regular season. Eleven teams receive automatic bids for winning their conferences, almost half, similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. That's plenty of incentive right there. The other 13 teams are at-large picks, selected by a committee of athletic directors. Obviously, it's a lot easier to make this tournament than the FBS tournament will be. There are a total of 122 FCS schools, so with 24 playoff teams, roughly a fifth of schools make it. This also allows far more enjoyable bracketology.
Seeding is incredibly important. Sixteen teams play the first weekend, and the eight winners advance to play the eight top-seeded teams. Which means earning one of those top eight seeds doesn't just give you home-field advantage: It means you have to play one less game. Considering the sport they're playing is football -- which is known to take a bit of toll on the body -- this advantage is rather massive. So massive, in fact, that it's difficult to imagine the College Football Playoff ever having a tournament that doesn't have four, eight, 16 or even 32 teams. Still, this is another excellent argument against having so many playoff teams lessening the importance of the regular season. If you don't win enough, you'll have to play an extra game. Look at the difference it can make in the NFL (if you exclude the New York Giants, anyway).
Home-field atmospheres. Every FCS tournament game takes place on the home campus of the higher seed except for the championship game, which takes place as Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, home of the FC Dallas MLS team. This makes for a much more fun atmosphere than you would see if there were a neutral site and emphasizes once again how much the regular season matters. This has been ruled out for the College Football Playoffs, officially because of scheduling difficulties on campuses and unofficially because there's money to be made by having the games at bowl sites. It has become clear in the past few years how much the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament are hurt by dispassionate, sparse crowds, and it's not like all the non-BCS bowl games have been populated by 60,000 screaming fans, either. Of all the changes that FBS should eventually adopt from the FCS, it's this. Home-field advantage asserts the power of the regular season and will lead to lunatic environments. It feels like this will have to happen at some point, at least in the preliminary rounds once we inevitably get to eight or 16 teams.
The Committee. Let's do some math. The FCS committee has only athletic directors and features 11 people choosing 24 teams. The FBS committee features 13 people, some of whom have only a glancing connection to college football as currently constituted, to pick four. The FCS committee meets regularly throughout the season; the FBS committee promises to meet "several times in person."
The Teams. Even though the ground rules are theoretically more even in FCS than they are in FBS -- North Texas is never competing with Alabama, no matter how hard the Mean Green work at it -- there are more dynasties in FCS. The national championship game has been the same the last two years: North Dakota State over Sam Houston State. (Appalachian State also won three straight titles from 2005-07.) It is rare that FCS teams are ever undefeated because they usually play an FBS team or two for financial reasons. Eastern Illinois, which has dominated every FCS team it has played this year and is ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll, is 10-1, with its only loss coming to Northern Illinois, currently undefeated in FBS. The No. 1 team? North Dakota State again, which is undefeated, thanks to its upset of Kansas State to begin the season.
There won't be near the fanfare -- not a thousandth of the fanfare -- when the FCS has its selection show on Sunday morning as there will be when the College Football Playoff does its thing a year or so from now. But I think they're doing it the right way. They've had years to figure this system out and perfect it. Here's hoping it doesn't take the FBS as long.
(Also: GO PANTHERS.)