College Football: BCS hints at a playoff
By Ralph D. Russo
Associated PressNEW YORK ó Big-time college football never has been closer to having a playoff.
Don’t get too excited.
There are still plenty of obstacles standing in the way, and at best it’s probably seven years away from becoming a reality ó if it ever does. But, hey, at least the people in charge want to talk about it. In Bowl Championship Series terms, that’s progress.
“This whole postseason of college football, since going back into the mid- to early ’90s, has been an evolution. Significant change traditionally has not come speedily,” ACC commissioner and current BCS coordinator John Swofford told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview, chuckling at his obvious understatement. “I’ve often equated it to turning a battle ship.”
The commissioners of the 11 major college football conferences, along with the athletic director of Notre Dame, will dock in south Florida for three days of meetings starting Monday, and talk about steering their ship into previously uncharted waters. Namely, what would it take to implement the so-called plus-one model into the BCS.
What’s so great about a plus-one? Well, one version of it is essentially a four-team playoff, using the major bowls to host 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 semifinals. The winners would advance to the BCS championship game to be played about a week later.
Currently, the BCS’s 1 vs. 2 championship game is set after the regular season, which generally leads to much second-guessing, consternation and complaining from the camps of deserving teams that get left out.
While there’s no denying the BCS since its inception in 1997 has created championship matchups that would never have been possible under the old every-bowl-for-itself system, its imperfections have left many fans, players, coaches and members of the media to wonder aloud: “Is this really the best we can do?”
Now the people who count most are asking the same question ó Swofford, Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe all have said they want to talk about the plus-one.
The plus-one idea has been floating around since ABC proposed it to the BCS in 2004, when the two sides where trying to work out a new television agreement. But this will be the first time the commissioners themselves have committed to giving it a good long look.
Why now? There are two answers:
– The BCS will begin negotiations on another TV deal with Fox for the rights to the Orange, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls as early as September. The current four-year, $320 million deal runs through the 2010 bowl season. Once another TV contract is set, the format is probably locked in for another four years (at least). So if the BCS wants to make a change that could go into effect for the 2011 bowls, now is the time to do it.
– Because the working relationship between the conference commissioners is far better than it was back in 2004, when ABC put the plus-one idea on the table and it was soundly rejected. At that point, the Big East was hanging on for dear life after the Atlantic Coast Conference had lured away Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. By raiding the Big East, the ACC had alienated itself, to some degree, from the rest of the group. And the five conferences that don’t have an automatic bid into the BCS games were fighting for more access.
Now the Big East is thriving, the ACC is no longer getting dirty looks from the other leagues and the teams that play in the Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West Conference, Mid-American Conference, Conference USA and Sun Belt all have a better chance of playing in a BCS game than they did before.
“All that adds up to the ability to have quality discussions about most anything,” Swofford said. “The challenge is that … this is not a simple majority rules kind of situation. It’s a full consensus situation.”
And there’s the reason why a plus-one, or any major format change to the BCS, is unlikely to be hammered out before a new TV deal is inked.
Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany have both made clear that while they’re willing to take part in a discussion about the plus-one, they are not in favor of it ó or any changes to the BCS that would interfere with their conference’s long and lucrative relationship with the Rose Bowl.
They’re also quick to point out that just because it’s called a plus-one, doesn’t mean it’s not really a playoff. And in major college football, playoff is a dirty word among the university presidents, who would have to sign off on any changes to the postseason.
“If it barks, and it has a tail and chases cats, it’s probably a dog,” Delany said. “If you seed teams and have the winners play the following week or two weeks away, it’s probably a mini-playoff.”
Mini for now, Hansen said.
“Every single playoff that’s ever been initiated in professional or college sports has quickly grown,” he said.
Also complicating matters is the Rose Bowl’s separate TV deal, an eight-year agreement with ABC that runs through 2014.
“I’m not going to be put in a situation where we have to break our contract,” Delany said.
Much to the chagrin of Delany and Hansen, the Big Ten and Pac-10 have been portrayed as obstructionists, standing in the way of BCS progress.
While Delany and Hansen have brought much of that criticism on themselves by taking such a firm public stance against the plus-one, it’s not accurate to say the Rose Bowl and its partners are the only thing standing in the way of a plus-one.
No other conference has ever come out in favor of a plus-one.
“No one even knows what my personal position is,” Tranghese said. “All I’ve ever said is I want to have a conversation about it.”
There’s also myriad logistical details that would have to be smoothed out to make a plus-one work, from travel to ticket distribution.
Also, a plus-one could cut into the BCS access that teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences gained three years ago.
Add this to the equation, too: There’s another version of the plus-one that’s been tossed around, one in which teams aren’t seeded. In that case, the BCS standings are still determining which teams play for the national title ó they’re just doing it after the bowls have been played.
That scenario is certainly NOT a playoff, and could be more amenable to the Rose Bowl supporters, guaranteeing an annual Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup in Pasadena.
Aside from the Rose Bowl, officials from the other BCS games seem willing to accommodate whatever changes the BCS undergoes.
“It’s certainly not the most desirable situation,” Sugar Bowl chief executive officer Paul Hoolahan said of a plus-one that could relegate his game to a step on the way to a championship game instead of a final destination. “But I’ve never been one to fight the system.”
The commissioners will get no pressure to change from Fox.
“When we signed up three years ago, we were comfortable with the formula they presented to us,” Fox sports president Ed Goren said. “If there is a major goal, a No. 1 goal of Fox sports, it is to continue this relationship. Whatever they present to us, we’re ready to move forward.”
The BCS, however, doesn’t seem ready to make the big leap right now.
If a plus-one is in the BCS’s future, 2015 would seem to be a more likely arrival date than 2011, with next week’s meetings in Florida being a small but important step in that direction.
Oh well, college football fans. You’ve waited this long for a playoff, what’s another seven years?