April 28, 2008

BCS ready to take first steps toward playoff?

MORE: Peter: Government unlikely to help push for playoff

Mike Slive, the genteel commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, has heard the rage from college football fans seeking a new postseason system. He's been stopped at airports, been grilled by the media and had endless proposals mailed to him.

He understands the frustration. He's aware of the impatience. He feels the pain.

Monday, he is going to do something about it. While not the dramatic act playoff backers would dream of or even anything that ensures so much as a modest format change will be adopted by 2010, when the BCS television contract ends, Slive will at least take some action at BCS meetings in South Florida.

For the first time he will put forth for discussion a viable, detailed and intelligent plan for a seeded "plus-one" model (essentially a four team playoff) for determining college football's national champion.

A look at the issues and development of the Bowl Championship Series:
Power play: All 11 top college football conferences have agreed to the current system. But the six, so-called BCS conferences hold the power to make changes or maintain the status quo.

Shifting sentiments: Commissioners of the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big East all have stated publicly they're interested in examining the plus-one model, which essentially is a four-team playoff. The question is if those conferences will move forward without the support of the Big Ten and Pac-10, staunch opponents of the plus-one model and anything else that resembles a playoff.

History: In 1992, when the first multi-conference alliance was formed in attempt to create a national championship game, the Big Ten and Pac-10 remained on the sideline. Those two conferences held out until 1998 season, when the system was renamed the Bowl Championship Series, and they did so only after steps were taken to protect the traditional tie-in between the Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-10. Under pressure from a coalition of presidents from non-BCS schools in 2003, the power conferences increased access and payout to the non-BSC schools and headed off a possible lawsuit.

At stake: A growing number of fans are crying out for a playoff, which presumably would eliminate most of the controversy in determining a national champion. But determining a champion seems to be a secondary concern for the Big Ten and other power conferences. Why? A playoff could dilute interest in the regular season games and, as a result, reduce the broadcast fees raked in by the likes of the Big Ten. Each conference negotiates its own TV package, leading to the economic disparity between the BCS and non-BCS conferences.

Fueling debate: Questions persist as to whether the complicated BCS rankings consistently produce a championship game pitting country's best two teams. Last year was yet another example of the almost-annual debate. While LSU beat Ohio State in the championship game, USC and Georgia were considered by some as stronger teams, underscoring the potential value of a four-team playoff. Also, Boise State's victory over traditional power Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl deepened unrest among those who thought so-called Cinderellas deserved a chance to advance in a playoff system similar to that used in college basketball.

BCS conferences: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC, Big 12. Notre Dame also is considered a member of the BCS group.

Non-BCS conferences: Mid-American, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt, Western Athletic Conference.
"What will happen is we will have an in-depth conversation concerning a much more concrete plan than we have in the past," Slive said Friday. "My commitment when I started as (BCS) coordinator in 2006 is to get significant dialogue going. Where it goes or doesn't go, I don't know.

"But I think we will be able to discuss at a high level a tangible concept that has been (hashed) through."

Backed by ACC commissioner John Swofford and with the blessings of both the school presidents and athletic directors of the SEC and ACC, Slive hopes to turn college football's most impassioned controversy into a calm, collected and civil discussion.

It may not be the sea change coveted by playoff proponents essentially the overwhelming majority of fans, coaches and players or anyone who doesn't benefit financially from the current system but it is something.

Never before has someone with the gravitas and power of Slive introduced such a plan for even discussion. In fact, as incredible as it may seem, according to a number of conference commissioners they've never been presented any kind of real plan to discuss.

"This is really a checkpoint for conversation," Slive said.

Taking it slow

Slive is a Dartmouth, Virginia and Georgetown-educated lawyer, former judge and long-time defender of schools caught in the NCAA crosshairs.

He learned long ago you win cases with breadth, not breath. He both won and decided cases by building arguments one fact and one point at a time, following time-worn procedures and respecting the rules of the game.

For the cartel that clings to the arcane bowl system to be toppled and the obstructionists in the Big Ten and Pac-10 to abandon their entrenched positions, the force of change has to come from within the BCS. And it needs to be done tenderly.

So tenderly that Slive won't even say that he's in favor of the proposal that he is bringing to the table. He won't argue it is necessarily good for the SEC; even bringing up that it wouldn't have been last year. He won't say if it is feasible to be implemented anytime soon. He won't commit to anything but the discussion.

He is even quick to remind that while his university presidents have empowered him to get the debate going, they have not committed to supporting the plus one.

"What I will bring and John (Swofford) is very supportive of would be a seeded plus one," Slive said. "That is not the only possible plan, but both John and I believe that to start the conversation that is where to start."

The multi-day meetings will include the commissioners of the 11 top-division football playing conferences and Kevin White, the athletic director of Notre Dame. In talking to numerous conference commissioners last week, there is clearly an interest in seeking a new postseason model, but until someone like Slive proposed something real, progress was impossible.

"I think there is a chance that you would see dramatic movement by the first of the year," said one who asked his name not be used.

At the very least, Slive, among others, has pushed the issue to the forefront.

"A number of conferences have had discussions about the plus one at various levels, including the presidential level, since Jan. 1," Swofford said.

Others aren't so sure about change happening. There remains tremendous skepticism that any progress can be made because of the steadfast opposition by Jim Delany and Tom Hansen, commissioners of the Big Ten and Pac-10 respectively.

Those two leagues have a close relationship with the Rose Bowl and the three parties work hand in hand to cover each others' back.

The current BCS deal assures the Rose Bowl a sort of favored nation status. It has an exclusive contract with ABC (all other BCS bowls are with Fox), a guarantee to the coveted Jan. 1 mid/late afternoon time slot with no other bowl allowed to compete and protection from having to take smaller conference teams (Boise State, Hawaii) that don't generate big television ratings. It is also the only bowl that gets to waive a $6 million annual fee to be involved with the BCS.

In return, the Rose Bowl will select weaker teams from the Big Ten over better options from other leagues. Last year, for instance, a 9-3 Illinois team, ranked No. 13, was picked over higher rated teams such as Georgia, Missouri and Florida. It then got blown out by USC. The reason cited for the selection is "tradition" but it also conveniently assured the Big Ten an extra $17 million in BCS revenue.

A review of the plus-one model will generate more public interest than anything else on the agenda for the annual BCS meetings scheduled for Monday through Wednesday in Hollywood, Fla. But the 11 Division conference commissioners will tend to other issues, such as:
Television: The commissioners will meet with representatives of FOX and ABC. The four-year, $320 million deal with Fox to broadcast every game but the Rose Bowl runs through 2010. Fox is expected to discuss how much it would increase its offer if the BCS adopted a plus-one model, which would create an additional game as part of the four-team playoff. The Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl have a separate contract with ABC, and that eight-year, $300 million deal runs through 2014. A representative of ABC already has said the network would work with the BCS if the group decided to implement a plus-one model before 2014.

Bowls: The conference commissioners will meet with representatives of the four BCS bowls Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar. The BCS agreements with those bowls run through 2010. The plus-one model has opened the possibility of the BCS adding a fifth bowl to the rotation.

Rankings: The commissioners will review weighting of the Harris poll, coaches poll and computer rankings that determine the BCS standings, from which the top two teams are matched in the championship game. The standings were tweaked last in 2005 after the Associated Press announced it no longer would allow its poll to be used as a component of the BCS standings.
So the Rose Bowl provides the Big Ten a rather obvious kickback and the Big Ten vigorously defends the Rose Bowl's advantageous position.

That, more than perhaps any other single reason academics, season length, access is why we have had so little movement for a playoff and so little hope for any in the future.

All must agree

The question that keeps the BCS commissioners gossiping is if change could ever come in spite of the objections of the Big Ten and Pac-10. What if, for arguments sake, nine conferences and Notre Dame all wanted to go forward? Is that enough?

Maybe, maybe not.

"The BCS, the way we're structured now, to make significant changes (would) require full consensus," Swofford said. "It needs to be something all 11 conferences agree to be a part of."

But if the political tides changed, the Big Ten and Pac-10 could change too. There has certainly been plenty of bluster about those leagues opposition against a plus one or any playoff. Hansen, for instance, said the Pac-10 would just pull out of the BCS if that was the case and just play the Rose Bowl.

That's a quaint opinion but if he tried it he'd likely be forced out of office by the time rival recruiters descended on LAX to steal top prospects away to schools playing for the actual national title. Hansen and Delany are powerful people, but no one is powerful enough to tell, say, USC or Ohio State fans their program is no longer competing for the title.

Anyone attempting such a move presidents, chancellors, etc. would be overwhelmed and soon unemployed.

Right now, though, we only get a "discussion" on a "proposal." It's the best hope anyone has. The odds are still long and even a best-case scenario has little happening this week except conferences taking it back to their member schools for further debate and opinion.

But it's something. Slive is pushing it along in every appropriate way, slow, steady and within the system. He's willing to see where it leads. If push comes to shove, well, it would be interesting to see what happens then.

Would, at some point, Slive be willing to lead a break away group of the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East and Notre Dame to make a playoff happen? He says nothing and everything when answering that question.

"I get that a lot and I have said it is a question I don't have to address," Slive said. "The question is appropriate but it is beyond where we are as a mindset of where we are today.

"Depending on where things go, the question doesn't have to be answered yet," he continued. "I think the dialogue is going to be interesting. I don't want to go further down the road than I have to today."

Monday is the next step down that long BCS road.

MORE: Peter: Government unlikely to help push for playoff

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.


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