BCS Conference Commissioners Kinda-Sorta Settle on a Playoff

I'm kind of surprised it didn't take a White House intervention, in the end.

As a very strong proponent of a college football playoff (to the point I created an alternate universe one six years ago) you'd think I'd be more interested in this week's confab amongst the six conference commissioners who basically run college football's postseason. But I can't say I was; after being driven to consider a four-team playoff in the blind panic of a future of SEC-only BCS championships, the commissioners seemed destined to let the whole thing crash against the rocks over whether a conference championship should be a prerequisite or not. The Pac-12 and Big 10 were firmly in the pro-conference championship camp, while the Big 12 and the SEC preferred the four best teams, as ranked by a BCSesque formula. Team Speed Kills had a very good run down of the tug-of-war going on.

(As an aside, this shows how absolutely short-sighted conference commissioners can be. The Pac-12 and Big 10 have both had multiple teams in the BCS top 4 as recently as 2010 and 2006, respectively. But the fear of a dominant SEC that drove them to consider a playoff is also making them deathly afraid of one conference monopolizing the playoffs.)

But now a consensus has been reached! The conference heads have decided... to not tell us their decision. Instead, the proposal will be sent to the university presidents — who I'm sure have devoted a lot of thought to this and haven't all been consumed by their day jobs — who will be able to make alternate suggestions. Or bring back the much-maligned plus-one idea that Jim Delaney that everyone is so fond of. What is becoming clear is that the proposal involves a selection committee and not a BCS formula, because what we really need is more opacity and a second flavor of bracketology plaguing us year-round. Also up in the air is the role the major bowls would play, be it semifinal or national championship sites, or on the outside altogether.

Of course, the rumor is it's the best four teams with an emphasis of conference champions, which sounds like a polite way of letting everyone think their preferred method is the chosen one and guaranteeing that one conference will be pitching an absolute fit come December 2014. But i's worth looking at what such a playoff would have brought us over the past few seasons:

2011: The top four teams would have brought us LSU vs. Stanford and Alabama vs. Oklahoma State; most likely Oregon, as the Pac-12 champion, would replace Stanford if a selection committee was in the driver's seat. There's no way Alabama would be bumped for Boise State or Wisconsin, the next two teams not from the Big XII or the SEC. I don't really see many complaints here.

2010: The top four teams would have pitted Auburn against Stanford and Oregon against TCU, although again a committee would probably swap out Stanford for Big 10 champion Wisconsin. All three undefeated teams would have a shot at the title, which is a definite step up from TCU being ignored under the BCS.

2009: Here's where we have a problem. This season ended with five undefeated teams, and even under a playoff system, Boise State would have probably been shafted by a formula or a committee. And it would be a mistake, because out of Alabama vs. TCU and Texas vs. Cincinnati... well, Cincy was blown out by Florida and TCU would prove themselves to be slightly worse than the Broncos. Of course, under the impending conference realignment, a lot of this would have been settled before the postseason, but still, here's a place where a playoff would have fallen woefully short.

2008: And the first time we get a situation like 2008, that's when the whole playoff scheme breaks down. The top 4 four teams came from two conferences — the SEC and Big XII, naturally — and all had one loss. The BCS ranked them as Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and Alabama; the AP preferred the Gators to the Sooners. The next five teams included two undefeated teams (Utah and Boise State), two one-loss conference champions (USC and Penn State) and one-loss Texas Tech. Here's where the folks who enshrined conference champions would be furious if PSU or USC was left out. After all Texas didn't even play for their conference championship, and Alabama lost theirs. It doesn't help that from our vantage point of having seen the bowl games that we know that Utah would beat Alabama and USC would easily handle Penn State. (Texas barely beat 10th-ranked, two-loss Ohio State that year, as Boise State was denied a BCS bowl bid.)

2007 and 2006 aren't walks in the park, either. The former had seven two-loss teams in the top 9, along with one-loss Ohio State at number one (they'd lose in the title game), leaving practically every conference champion with an argument for why they should make the cut. And 2006 was the year Ohio State and Michigan from the Big 10 joined Florida and LSU of the SEC in the top four, only to have the Big 10 teams fall on their face in the postseason. The conference champions in spots five through eight (plus undefeated Boise State again at nine) would be lobbying for a rule change before the crystal trophy was awarded.

So I'm thinking we have a maximum of four years before the playoffs get expanded or someone threatens to take their ball and go home. And I can't decide if the new superconferences will make it better or worse. On the one hand, the Utahs, Boise States and TCUs of the world will have legitimate conference schedules, and no undefeated teams will be denied spots again. On the other, the odds of a one-loss team like Alabama not even making their own conference championship goes up, as everyone finds themselves in seven-team divisions or the like.

And somehow, I don't think the conferences are going to drop the whole "wait thirty days after the regular season ends before the tournament teams play" thing either. No, football will just extend further into January, leaving more time for endless, interminable talk. It is the sport's best product, after all.

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