Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Playoff format gets it right, makes this skeptic a believer

Oregon head coach Mark Elfrich, left, and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer both have eyes on the prize as they shake hands at the conclusion of a news conference on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, at the Renaissance Hotel in Dallas. The two teams meet for the national championship on Monday.
Oregon head coach Mark Elfrich, left, and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer both have eyes on the prize as they shake hands at the conclusion of a news conference on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, at the Renaissance Hotel in Dallas. The two teams meet for the national championship on Monday. TNS

College football fans have been clamoring for this night since back when helmets were made of leather, letter sweaters were in fashion and the forward pass was a new and risky concept — or so it seems.

I’m glad the College Football Playoff finally happened, not so much because the sport was in desperate need, but mostly to mute the annual cry and complaint over the lack of a playoff.

The game at its highest level percolated swell and fine without one for close to a century and a half. Personally, I was OK with polls and bowls determining a so-called “mythical” national champion, and as for the rancorous debate over the occasional lack of consensus resulting in a “split” title, well, I thought even that controversy was good for the sport. I also was never one to pile on the now instantly defunct Bowl Championship Series, which for the previous 16 seasons arrived (via poll) at a No.1-vs.-No.2 title game that usually seemed legit.

If anything I always appreciated that major college football stood defiantly apart from every other sport in resisting a playoff. I was ready to mock as the panel of CFP selectors (incongruously including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) convened to determine the four teams that would be in the historic first playoff semifinals.

Well, now here I sit, feeling like a lifelong atheist who cannot help but acknowledge he has just seen the outline of Jesus in a piece of toast and is now a believer. What he has seen is not proof, but it’s enough for a willing convert.

Team Condi got it right.

College football is and will be better for its playoff.

Oregon Ducks vs. Ohio State Buckeyes is an immediate indication why.

Monday night’s first playoff-era college championship game, in Arlington, Texas, offers the perfect, instant validation. The CFP and its selectors could not have prearranged the semifinal results any better to drive the point.

See, if the old BCS system still were in place, the championship game we’d be getting almost certainly would be Alabama vs. Florida State. The Seminoles, as the defending champion and only major unbeaten, and the Crimson Tide, as champions three of the four previous seasons, were a tailor-made likely 1-2 based on how poll voters always have operated.

And that game would have been fine … except that those would be the same Seminoles and Crimson Tide who lost in last week’s playoff semifinals to Oregon and Ohio State by a combined 101-55. Anyone who watched the games has little doubt the two best teams advanced to play Monday night.

By the way, an average of 28.22 million did watch each of the semifinals, which beat the average of 25.57 million who watched last year’s BCS title game between Florida State and Auburn.

That also stands up pretty well to the average of 30.1 million that watched the four NFL playoff games the same weekend. The indication is that the onset of the college playoffs has broadened the sport’s appeal, made it less regional, more national.

Seasons used to end in conference-affiliated bowl games. Now seasons funnel to a four-team (for now) playoff that is open to all.

“You’re all in one big conference now,” as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio put it.

It helps that the CFP gets an interesting matchup for its first championship — and one that provides a refreshing from break the Southeastern Conference’s recent national dominance.

Oregon (from the Pac-12) and Ohio State (Big Ten) offer a contrast.

The Ducks have a little-known coach in Mark Helfrich but a star quarterback in Hesiman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. The Buckeyes counter with a star coach in Urban Meyer but a little-known QB in Cardale Jones, who is preparing for only his third collegiate start because of injuries to two others.

OSU getting here with its third-string quarterback casts the Buckeyes as the underdogs, figuratively and literally, even though the school from Columbus, Ohio, is much richer in football tradition than the school from Eugene, Oregon.

Ohio State has four Associated Press national titles, the last in the 2002 season, as Miami Hurricanes fans will recall with a wince or a snarl. The Buckeyes benefited from a late controversial pass-interference call that helped OSU score and eventually win 31-24 in double-overtime. That was the school’s first crown since the Woody Hayes era, though, so there is dust on OSU’s tradition as a top-tier power. That’s why Meyer was brought in on a white steed in 2012.

If Ohio State’s statement is, “We’re back,” Oregon’s is closer to, “We’ve arrived.”

Before departing for the NFL, Chip Kelly in 2011 coached Oregon to its first Rose Bowl victory since 1916. The Ducks have been 70-11 over the past six seasons and never ranked lower than No.11 in the final polls. This is an emerging elite power. But Monday would bring the school’s first national championship.

Oregon is renowned for its up-tempo offense and its love-’em-or-hate-’em bright green uniforms.

“The attention probably started a little bit with the uniforms and all that stuff, but hopefully we’ve moved beyond all that,” said Helfrich, the second-year coach. “The uniforms don’t give you points.”

As if to make that point, Oregon will wear its gray uniforms Monday night.

The Ducks would be the Pac-12’s first national champion since 2004, while the Buckeyes would be the first Big Ten national champion since ’02.

No matter the result, Monday night will be refreshing and a long time coming.

It will be enough to make someone who never thought college football needed a playoff admit he might have been wrong, after all.