Sunday, April 29, 2012

Goodbye BCS, hello playoff

It's finally coming: a college football playoff. Seriously.
After years of resisting calls from fans, sports pundits and even President Barack Obama, key conference commissioners announced Thursday that they'd propose some variation of a college football playoff. 

The leaders of numerous interscholastic athletic conferences -- including the Big 12, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference -- and Notre Dame released a joint statement Thursday signaling its intentions following ongoing deliberations about postseason play in college football.
In it, they stated that an eight-team and a 16-team playoff were not going to happen because doing so would "diminish the regular season and harm the bowls." That refers to the existing system, in which winning top-level teams traditionally get the chance to play in one postseason bowl game after they've finished their regular season.
 Yet the conference commissioners opened the door to a pared down playoff. "We will present to our conferences a very small number of four-team options, each of which could be carried out in a number of ways," the commissioners said. 
Anybody who has read this blog over the last few years knows how much I hated the cynical, elitist and outrageously unfair Bowl Championship Series (BCS). I will not shed a tear when it goes away after the 2013 football season. But as welcome as it might be, I'm not jumping for joy about this impending college football playoff just yet, as a lot of questions remain to be answered:
There's still plenty left to figure out, though. First of all, where and when to play the games and how the bowls fit in. After that, Slive and his cohorts have to come up with a way to select the four teams. The new postseason format would go into effect for the 2014 season.
As for the 14-year-old BCS, it's on life support. Any chance that it survives past the next two seasons? "I hope not," Slive said.
"This is a seismic change for college football," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said after the 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame's athletic director wrapped up three days of meetings in south Florida.
Hancock said the commissioners will present a "small number" of options for a four-team playoff to their leagues over the next month or so at conference meetings. He estimated that between two and seven configurations are being considered.
It'll be up to each conference to determine which plan it likes best. The commissioners will get back together in June and try to come up with a final version, and eventually the university presidents will have to sign off on it. Hancock has said they'd like a new format ready for presidential approval by July 4.
The biggest issue in my mind is how the four teams will be selected. Will it be based on a formula involving human polls and computer rankings, like the current BCS? Will only conference champions be eligible, or will more than one team per conference be able to participate? Is this the first step towards the dreaded 64-team superconference that many college football pundits foresee? Or will every school that is a current member of the FBS get a fair shot at a playoff berth?

The answer to that last question, of course, is "no." Teams from the "power" conferences will always have the upper hand over the underdogs from the weaker conferences on the basis of strength of schedule, just as it is under the current BCS arrangement. And teams from the power conferences will studiously avoid playing the best teams from the weaker conferences so as not to provide a boost to their strength of schedule, as it is under the current BCS arrangement. In that regard, I can't argue with anybody who thinks that a four-team playoff is worse than the current BCS for teams from "lesser" conferences.

However, I have a feeling that this is only the beginning. They'll do the four-team playoff for a few years, and there will be plenty of controversy about which four teams are the most deserving of participation. An undefeated program from lesser conference will be left out one year; a strong one-loss runner-up from a powerhouse conference will be left out in another. Eventually there will be threats of lawsuits and congressional hearings, just as there are now. Meanwhile, network execs, conference commissioners and school presidents will take note of the amount of viewership and advertising revenue the playoff is generating. Dollar signs will flash before their eyes, and, around 2020 or so, they will expand the playoffs to eight teams under the pretense of making it "more inclusive," which will give schools from the weaker conferences better access to the playoff. From there, it's all but inevitable that they'll eventually get to 12 or 16 teams, even though all the while they'll save face by continuing to pay lip service to the importance of a regular season and the "tradition" of the ever-more-irrelevant bowl system.

In other words: it might be only four teams right now, but the camel's nose is already under the tent. "Baby steps, y’all.  Baby steps," John Taylor of NBC Sports writes. "A four-team playoff may not be perfect, but it's a perfect step in the right direction," Yahoo! sportswriter and Death to the BCS! Author Dan Wetzel writes as he lays out some suggestions for the playoff's groundwork.

The Chronicle's UH beat writer, Sam Khan, discusses what this means for a UH program that is going to be one of the BCS's "haves" for only one season. Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel explains that the BCS is being replaced with a playoff because the BCS, quite literally, just got too old.

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