by | Senior College Football Columnist

Rules of Engagement: Memorizing new playoff system will take some effort

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DENVER -- Tylenol and a pillow are necessary after digesting all the details of the college football playoff starting in 26 months.

It seems the more you try to explain it, the more confusing it gets.

But the Rules Committee's goal here is to provide a playoff primer -- a laymen's approach to the mechanics of it all.

We'll start with the basics and go from there.

Playoff Rule No. 1: Start with four.

There are six bowls, 12 spots. It's important to separate the two semifinals from the rest, because the contract and host bowl setup can convolute things.

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Only two games (four spots) have national title implications.

The other four are sort of like BCS bowls -- they pay a lot to the schools and conferences involved, and they are within the framework of the postseason television dollars, but they have zero title influence once the selection committee has decided the top four.

Playoff Rule No. 2: Any team can make the playoff (in theory).

If you're in the selection committee's top four at season's end, you're in. On paper, a team from the Big East or the MAC has just as good a chance as the SEC.

Will it really work that way? Probably not. But every team can claw its way toward a semifinal.

Playoff Rule No. 3: Access to the top 12 is about guaranteed playoff money.

When it comes to the power conferences, the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC each have one guaranteed spot. In most years, either the Big Ten or the SEC will be guaranteed a second spot.

That the Big Ten and SEC have a second access point via the Orange Bowl was a major sticking point for the Pac-12 and Big 12. Their commissioners stood down when they figured there would be enough at-large berths (as many as five per year) to accommodate their teams.

As for the Group of Five -- Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt -- they share one guaranteed spot because they don't generate equal revenue.

The highest-ranked champion among the five gets a guaranteed spot among the six bowls each year. That differs from the current BCS in that a non-BCS school must reach a threshold to participate. Beginning in 2014, if Marshall is No. 37 and wins Conference USA, it is in.

If that champion participates in the playoff, the Group of Five doesn't get another team in the system.

Playoff Rule No. 4: At-large berths depend in part on the semifinal rotation with contract and "host" bowls.

The three contract bowls have their allegiances. The Sugar Bowl has the SEC/Big 12 champions. The Rose Bowl has the Pac-12/Big Ten champion. And the Orange Bowl pits the ACC champ against the highest-ranked team available among the SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame.

If those champions make the playoff, the conference can choose which team slides into their contract bowl.

But those games will each play host to four semifinals during the 12-year span. When they do, those allegiances won't matter. They are hosting playoff teams, regardless of conference.

So, let's say there's one contract bowl in a semifinal per year. Outside of the playoff, that leaves the two contract bowls (four spots), one team from the Group of Five and three at-large teams.

The three to-be-determined host bowls -- Chick-Fil-A (Atlanta), Capital One (Orlando), Cotton (Dallas) and Fiesta (Phoenix) are in the mix to win these -- also will be in the semifinal rotation.

Playoff Rule No. 5: The selection committee will select all 12 spots.

The top four will be seeded. After that, the committee will place teams in the various bowls based on geography and matchups.

Something to watch: Teams don't have to be ranked in the top 12 to be in one of the 12 spots in the playoff format. This is because of the contract bowls. The selection committee must take this into consideration during the process.

Playoff Rule No. 6: Independent schools will have their chances, even if it's an uphill battle for some.

Notre Dame will probably get a sizable chunk of television money for being Notre Dame. And in years when they don't make the top four, they have a chance at the Orange Bowl.

BYU and Army won't match Notre Dame's pot, but they can earn access as a semifinalist or an at-large. A move to the Big East could be tempting for BYU because the Cougars could be a part of guaranteed access.

Playoff Rule No. 7: In the game of matchups, there could be a few duds.

UConn-Baylor. Louisiana Tech-Oklahoma. Boise-Clemson.

These aren't bad games, but they might not ooze with big-bowl excitement if these teams are ranked somewhere in the high teens. Be prepared.

Playoff Rule No. 8: Make the playoff. Your wallet will thank you.

The BCS oversight committee has made clear playoff teams get more money. And there will be plenty to go around, reportedly up to $475 million per year based on early valuations placed on it by ESPN.

Playoff Rule No. 9: Watch the Pac-12 and Big 12 carefully. They'll have incentive to produce.

They'll be eyeing at-large berths extra hard after getting muscled out of a second contract bowl. As Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby pointed out, he's confident his conference can perform its way into at least one more spot.

They'll be eyeing those at-large berths extra hard.

Playoff Rule No. 10: There's more to come.

Among other details still to be finalized: Television deal, revenue distribution, national title game sites, structure of selection committee.

There just might be more confusion, too.


Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with CBSSports.com. Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.
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