College football, more than any American sport, is fundamentally shaped by perception. It offers so few data points that we often have to settle for what we think instead of what we know.
The College Football Playoff has provided a portal to what's really there. It shows an Ohio State team beating mighty Alabama in New Orleans with its third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, and putting up record offensive numbers in the process. It shows that Oregon isn't soft and can overwhelm a defending national champion with fifth-gear offense and opportunistic defense. It shows that the SEC's unprecedented reign of dominance is over, and that the Big Ten, left for dead in Week 2 and justifiably lambasted for much of the last decade, isn't so bad after all.
Without the playoff, college football has an obstructed-view seat to its own show. Thursday's semifinals instead have set the stage for a can't-miss performance that all can see.
The biggest benefit of the playoff can be boiled down to this: Oregon and Ohio State, the teams that earned their way into the Jan. 12 national championship game, would likely have met in the Rose Bowl on Thursday. Both teams would have ended their seasons, the winner never knowing whether it could have won it all.
If the BCS were still in place, the system almost certainly would have spat out Alabama and Florida State in the top two spots, according to the season-ending BCS proxy standings. (The formula, however, is not an exact replica of previous years.) It would have set an appealing title game but not a reflective one. Alabama would have ridden the SEC perception wave into the championship ahead of Oregon, which, despite a tremendous résumé, would have been penalized by its league affiliation. The Pac-12 hasn't won a championship since 2004 and appeared in just one BCS title game since 2005.
Florida State also would have landed a spot in the championship. As much as the Seminoles scraped by this season, undefeated teams from Power 5 leagues don't get shut out of the BCS title game unless other such teams are available to take their spots. The championship game would have spawned from conjecture. It would have paired the lone FBS unbeaten team, just because, against the champion from the presumed premier conference, just because.
Ohio State would have been an afterthought. The Buckeyes could have won the Big Ten title game 159-0 and still missed the national championship game. An unquestionably bad loss to Virginia Tech combined with a seemingly bad Big Ten would have cropped Urban Meyer's team from the title picture. The incredible subplots -- Jones' big-game brilliance, the emergence of stars like Ezekiel Elliott and Darron Lee, the ultimate coming-of-age team -- would have been overshadowed.
Instead, fans get a championship matchup based on real, recent evidence.
Oregon completely outclassed Florida State in the semifinal, setting Rose Bowl records for points (59) and yards (639), while recording 34 points off turnovers, a bad habit for the Seminoles that finally blew up in their faces. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota did his thing and got plenty of help from Thomas Tyner, Darren Carrington, Erick Dargan, Derrick Malone and others.
"Oregon won by 40?" Meyer asked at the postgame news conference, raising his eyebrows in genuine shock. "Whoa, I've got to go get ready for that one. My goodness."
Ohio State's semifinal win at the Sugar Bowl wasn't as definitive, but it may have been just as impressive considering the opposition and the quarterback situation. From third-down conversions (10 of 18) to between-the-tackles rushing to 28 unanswered points midway through the game, the Buckeyes did things to Nick Saban's team that almost never happen.
Both championship participants are playing their best ball. The coaching staffs are pulling the right strings. There are bodies and minds to rest and a challenging and unprecedented preparation ahead. This is an evolution, after all. But unlike some BCS championship game participants -- hello 2003 Oklahoma Sooners -- neither Oregon nor Ohio State is backing its way into Jerry World on Jan. 12.
There's a greater authenticity about this championship matchup. Is it perfect? No. TCU might be the nation's most complete team, perhaps its best, but the Frogs will never know how high they can jump. A bad stretch against the wrong opponent (Baylor) kept Gary Patterson's team out of the playoff. TCU's pummeling of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl suggested it belonged in the field.
In a perfect world, Patterson's crew could make the 19-mile drive from Fort Worth to Arlington, watch Oregon and Ohio State beat the snot out of each other and proclaim, "We got next." An eight-team playoff seems like the sweet spot, but for now we're at four, which is unquestionably better than two.
When the championship pairing crystalized early Friday morning, the prevailing national sentiment was: What took so long?
Oregon finds itself on the doorstep of its first national title, one that would shine a light on the Pac-12, the league most often hurt by the limited access of the BCS system. Ohio State is back in the championship for the first time since 2007, thanks to Meyer, who triggered the Ohio State/Big Ten slump while coaching Florida in 2006 but has fast-tracked the Buckeyes in just his third year.