ARLINGTON, Texas - Compared to the road to the Final Four, the road to the first College Football Playoff was like climbing Mount Everest. One slip is the most any team can afford when the field is limited to four teams as opposed to college basketball's 68-team field.
There was a time early this season when it seemed as if Oregon (13-1) and Ohio State (13-1), the two finalists in Monday night's inaugural championship game at AT&T Stadium, were the longest of shots. If not for the new four-team format, they almost certainly would have been watching the teams they beat in the semifinals, defending national champion Florida State and No. 1 Alabama.
So Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich understandably were delighted with how the system worked the first time around, although both have some reservations about the future. "I heard our players say thanks for the College Football Playoff, and that's real," said Meyer, who agreed Alabama and FSU would have been 1-2 in the BCS system.
"You've got a bunch of people trying to do it right. It's an imperfect way to do it, but this is the only way to do it. You can't start adding more games. That's not going to happen."
Count Meyer as a staunch opponent of moving to an eight-team playoff system, not only because of the length of the season, but because of the physical demands. "It's very uncharted waters now," Meyer said. "These are basically three championship fights one after the other. You went from Wisconsin to the last one against Alabama . Our linemen shared with me that was the most physical game they've played all year."
Helfrich obviously was concerned much of the season that a highly rated Big 12 champion -- which didn't have to play a conference title game -- might get into the field ahead of his Pac-12 champions, who won a rematch with Arizona, the only team to defeat the Ducks during the regular season.
"Sitting here, we're for it, and we're in favor of how the process worked," Helfrich said. "In a lot of ways, it was a necessary evolutionary process to get to this point. I think there's a bunch of other stuff on the front end of it that we have to solve, whether it's equity in scheduling, whether it's X number of conference games plus a championship or not. We have the toughest path in our conference to this final four."
With a sly nod toward the selection committee, which had Big 12 co-champ TCU ranked No. 3 and then dropped it to No. 6 in the final rankings despite a 55-3 win in the regular-season finale, Helfrich added: "Having the human element, it's the greatest thing for [the media] there is. Name your top four and start arguing. There's three hours of radio right there."
Big Ten champ Ohio State, which lost its second game of the year to relatively weak Virginia Tech, was the controversial fourth choice ahead of Big 12 co-champions Baylor, which was No. 5 in the final rankings, and TCU. Meyer called TCU coach Gary Patterson a good friend and acknowledged that TCU certainly was worthy, especially after its Peach Bowl pounding of the SEC's Ole Miss.
"It is imperfect, unless you go to 64," Meyer said. "There's going to be a time where Ohio State or someone is going to be left out. Coach Patterson went about his business and showed there were no excuses . . . They played great in their bowl game."
One thing Meyer and Helfrich agreed upon was the need to study and prepare for the physical challenge of a longer season for the top programs. Helfrich said he got together during the offseason with a "sports science research" group at Oregon that spoke with CFL, NFL and lower-level FCS schools about their long seasons.
"It's amazing how differently all those guys approach things," Helfrich said. "But this is a grind, absolutely."
At the same time, there's no arguing the benefit of a four-team tournament, especially for the chosen teams. "It's been great for college football," Helfrich said. "I think our logos have been on TV every 30 seconds for the last month."