The College Football Playoff (CFP) is an annual postseason knockout invitational tournament to determine the national champion for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the highest level of college football competition in the United States. The inaugural tournament was held at the end of the 2014 NCAA Division I FBS football season which was won by the Ohio State Buckeyes. Four teams play in two semifinal games, and the winner of each semifinal advances to the College Football Playoff National Championship game.|
The two semifinal games rotate among six major bowl games, referred to as the New Year's Six: the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and Peach Bowl. In addition to the four teams selected for the playoff, the final CFP rankings are used to help determine the participants for the other four New Year's Six bowls that are not hosting the semifinals that year. The semifinal games, which take place on the same day, are usually scheduled on Friday, Saturday, or Monday close to or on New Years Day, with flexibility allowed to ensure that they are not in conflict with other bowl games traditionally held on New Year's Day. The National Championship game is then played on the first Monday that is six or more days after the semifinals.
The committee releases its top 25 rankings weekly on Tuesdays in the second half of the regular season. The top four teams are seeded in that order for the playoff. During the season, the committee meets and releases rankings six or seven times, depending on the length of the season (the number of games is consistent, but the number of weeks those games are played over can vary from year to year). The group, which meets at the Gaylord Texan hotel in Grapevine, Texas, reportedly meets in person up to 10 total times a year.
The committee's voting method uses multiple ballots, similar to the NCAA basketball tournament selection process and the entire process is facilitated through custom software developed by Code Authority in Frisco, Texas. From a large initial pool of teams, the group takes numerous votes on successive tiers of teams, considering six at a time and coming to a consensus on how they should be ranked, then repeating the process with the next tier of teams. Discussion and debate happens at each voting step. All votes are by secret ballot, and committee members do not make their ballots public. Each week's ranking process begins anew, with no weight given to the previous week's selections. In this fashion, the committee selects the four teams to compete for the national championship.
Due to the increased emphasis on strength of schedule, teams have considered playing more challenging opponents during the non-conference portion of their schedules. Some teams have traditionally played three or four "weak" non-conference opponents, but wins against such low-level competition are unlikely to impress the committee. For teams on the cusp of making the playoff four, "I think one of the first things the committee will look at is strength of schedule," said selector Oliver Luck.
The inaugural College Football Playoff games in January 2015 generated larger ratings than previous BCS games. The 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship had an 18.9 Nielsen rating and was watched by approximately 33.4 million people, the largest broadcast audience of all time on American cable television (non-broadcast), according to AdWeek. That was a 31 percent audience increase over the previous year's championship game and a 22 percent increase over the BCS title game's best rating on cable (a 16.1 rating in 2011). The semifinal games, the 2015 Rose Bowl and 2015 Sugar Bowl, saw 28.16 million and 28.27 million viewers, respectively. According to ESPN, these games also set (and briefly held) all-time records for cable TV viewership.
The average revenue to the new system over 12 years is to be about $500 million per year. After $125–150 million in expenses, the Power Five conferences split about 71.5 percent of the remaining money, for an approximate average payout of $250 million a year ($50 million per league) over the life of the contract. The "Group of Five" conferences split 27 percent, about $90 million a year ($18 million per league). Notre Dame receives around one percent, about $3.5-4 million, and other FBS independents get about 0.5 percent of the deal.
BCS Properties, LLC holds all properties related to the College Football Playoff. Previous BCS commissioner Bill Hancock is the executive director of the playoff organization, with former ACC Senior Associate Commissioner Michael Kelly as COO. Like the BCS, the playoff system's management committee consists of the conference commissioners from the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame's athletic director. The playoff system's headquarters is in Irving, Texas.
Another critique centered around a perceived bias against smaller conferences such as the Big 12 which used to not stage a conference championship game, but was reintroduced for the 2017 season. The American Athletic Conference addressed this issue by adding Navy to its ranks for 2015, bringing its membership to 12 teams, which allowed it to stage a conference championship game under then-current NCAA rules. Since the 2016 season, FBS conferences have been allowed to stage football championship games even if they do not have 12 members.
On July 28, 2016, however, Hancock reversed this stance and announced revisions to the scheduling for future College Football Playoff semi-final games. The games were rescheduled so that they will not necessarily be played on New Year's Eve yearly: outside of years when they are hosted by the Rose and Sugar Bowls (where they retain their traditional New Year's Day scheduling), they will now be scheduled primarily on the last Saturday or federally observed holiday of the year. In some years, this date will land on New Year's Eve. In 2021, the games will be played on Friday, December 31, because the day will be observed as a holiday. Viewership of the 2018 semi-finals were down by 25% over the previous semi-finals, which were played on New Year's Day.