As Andy Schwarz points out, a college football playoff cannot exist under current NCAA bylaws. Teams' postseason options are by rule restricted to playing in one and only one NCAA-licensed bowl game. Undoubtedly the bylaws setting that restriction are going to be wiped away once a playoff format is settled on.
Wiping away those restrictions, however, opens up a whole new world of opportunities according to Schwarz:
This is the secret victory for competition. Now, anyone can develop a playoff format and shop it around to schools. Prior to this, no matter how much someone wanted to make a better mousetrap, no schools (at least not in conferences with a championship game) could try out a playoff because the NCAA Bylaws said if they did, they would be kicked out of the NCAA and boycotted by the rest of the schools. Now, anyone can try to make a perfect playoff and sell it to teams. If some of the schools not chosen by the BCS 4-team system want to play in a traditional bowl game, great. But if maybe teams 5,6, 7, and 8 want to have their own 4-game playoff, or if the BCS snubs a non-AQ school that people think is more like a #3, we can start having competing playoff systems.
I'm not quite ready to jump to that particular conclusion. The rules could be changed in such a way that prevents competing systems from existing, such as the NCAA only licensing the BCS playoff. Schwarz thinks that would land the NCAA in antitrust court, and it might. In that case, I suspect the conferences would get together and tell their members not to participate in competing tournaments in order to protect the bowl system.
Let's put that idea aside for a moment and imagine what the sport could look like if all restrictions on postseason games went away.
Just as college basketball has multiple postseason tournaments, so could college football. Travel logistics could be a challenge (they're always a challenge with opening up college football's postseason), but staging first rounds on campus is the obvious solution there. The national championship wouldn't be on the line, of course, but sign up good teams and the viewers will tune in.
It's not just tournaments that could open up. If a team has a long layoff between its last regular season game and its bowl, what's to stop it from lining up a tune up game? The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is played on December 15 this year, and its tie-in includes a MAC team. Why couldn't someone like Ohio State or Michigan offer that MAC team $1 million to drop in on December 23 to give the team a chance to shake off the rust in advance of the January 1 Rose Bowl? It's another line of revenue for both teams, and it could benefit the team playing in the Rose.
Those are the first two ideas that spring to mind, but there could be others. Ultimately, I don't think the postseason will end up a free for all because the bowls have tremendous mind share among college football's leaders and fans. They also have a history of greasing enough palms to keep their system going in one way or another. I think it would be fun to see what people come up with in the future if the postseason was truly unfettered, but I have a feeling those in charge will work to keep it from getting that way.
Then again, the defining characteristic of college football is that no one person or entity is in charge. We just might end up with the greatest market experiment in college sports history, and it would be quite the sight to behold.