AUBURN, Ala. — College football is on the eve of a new era.
Sixteen years of the Bowl Championship Series is now giving way to the College Football Playoff. No longer will the two teams playing in the national title game be decided by a mathematical formula. Instead, a 13-member selection committee will choose who they deem as the four best teams in the FBS and place them in a bracket, slotting the one-seed against the four-seed and the No. 2 team versus No. 3.
At this point, that's about the only thing set in stone.
"I think this first year we're going to learn a lot about the new system," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I think it's safe to say the SEC champion will be in the final four. If you look at the last few years, numerous times there would be two teams from the SEC in the final four. I think the first year especially there will be a lot of learning about the new process and how everything is handled."
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After the Southeastern Conference dominated the BCS era — winning the national title nine times in 16 years, including seven of eight from 2006-14 — some are worried the introduction of the playoff may level the playing field.
Les Miles believes the opposite will hold true.
"I think that the playoff will be equally kind to the SEC," LSU's coach said. "The reason I say that is because there's just such quality competition here. The teams week in and week out are so prepared, so capable and talented. For them not to include one and possibly more in that playoff would be, I don't know, maybe shortsighted."
But Steve Spurrier said beginning to speculate on how the selection process will unfold is absurd, especially considering the season hasn't even begun. Teams should only start to worry about that once the clock has struck zero in the SEC championship game. That's not to say he isn't excited about the introduction of the playoff.
"I think it is a very good idea to have four. I sort of think maybe someday it will go to eight. But four is pretty good," South Carolina's coach said. "I know several of those years at Florida, we would have been in the top four even if we had lost to FSU (Florida State) the last game of the season because they were always in the top five in the nation 11 of 12 years that I was at Florida. We played them last game. One of us sort of knocked each other out of maybe getting in the final game."
Dan Mullen isn't as interested in how teams will get selected as he is about the format itself. As Mississippi State's coach noted, there's a four week gap between the end of the regular season and the two semifinal games Jan. 1. Then there are 11 more days until the national championship game kicks off in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12.
"I'm sure there's a lot of preparation and issues that you have to deal with in getting ready for those two deals," Mullen said. "As far as scheduling, how much is scheduling going to be involved, I'm not sure."
Nick Saban was similarly skeptical that any major overhauls need to be made in terms of determining a champion. More often than not, Saban said, the BCS "usually got it right." The only time controversy arose was when people believed more than two terms were deserving of playing in the title game.
Alabama's coach cautioned that will carry over into the playoff.
"The same thing is going to happen with a four‑team playoff because there's always going to be a fifth team that could have been deserving that will create controversy," Saban said.
Still, he believed that the playoff is "good for college football" from a fan standpoint, and should only continue to help the game's popularity. But Saban brought up another issue he thought should be looked at: When does college football reach critical mass in terms of game played?
"We're sort of getting to the saturation point when it comes to how many games can a college football player play without sort of overdoing it relative to the responsibilities that he has academically and the other things that are going on in their life besides just playing football games, because there's a potential for a player to play 15 games in our league, with a championship game as well as two playoff games," he said. "There's only going to be a few teams that do that, and I'm sure every coach would certainly like to be one of those teams that had an opportunity to do that. But I think we have to take the student‑athlete's well‑being into consideration if we continue to play more games."
That's the last thing on C.J. Uzomah's mind. Auburn's senior tight end is simply looking forward to what the playoff can do for the sport.
"Our goal is to win the SEC championship and I believe that would put us (in) a good spot to compete in the playoff," he said. "I think it is a better way of determining who the best team is (each) season."
In the end, that's everyone's goal, Mullen said. As long as the team holding the trophy in the national title game is widely viewed as No. 1 squad in the country, the playoff will have done its job.
"You always want to look back on a season and say, 'Hey, college football got it right. The national champion was actually the best team in the country,'" he said. "I think over the last several years, that's happened. The team that was the best team in the country has won the national championship for the most part. As the new playoff goes, you hope that continues."