CHICAGO — College football is headed toward a new era, with a four-team playoff deciding the champion starting in 2014. As the conference commissioners have said over and over during the six months it has taken for them to come up with a playoff plan to present to university presidents for approval, "The devil is in the details."
Let's explore those details.
Why now? For years, the Big Ten and then-Pac-10 were adamantly against a playoff. What changed? Well, the Pac-10 and its commissioner for starters. Larry Scott has pushed the league to be more progressive and its members have reaped millions of dollars in rewards because of his bold moves. With Scott at the helm, the Pac-12 became less of an obstacle to progress.
"From our conference's perspective, historically we've been very conservative, protective of the status quo, but we've had a complete cultural transformation," Scott said Thursday.
In the Big Ten, as much as Commissioner Jim Delany has been against a playoff, he realized the BCS just wasn't worth fighting so hard for anymore. "No system can stand that much criticism and be sustainable," he said Thursday.
Once he realized change was inevitable, he made sure to play a major role in shaping it.
"I don't think there is any question we didn't lead the parade, but we tried to be a part of it," Delany said.
Money, money, money ... money! BCS supporters would often boast they were leaving money on the table for the good of college football. Whether their motivation was quite so noble is debatable, but there was never any question that a playoff would bring in more money than the BCS, with its hit-or-miss bowl games and often controversial championship matchup. With budgets being slashed at universities all over the country, the people in charge could no longer justify leaving so much behind. Just in television rights alone, a playoff stands to bring in at least $300 million a year. The current BCS and Rose Bowl deals are worth about $155 million annually. Cha-ching!
What becomes of the bowls? The bowl system will never be the same. The BCS championship game had already made the high-profile bowls less relevant. Now take the four best teams out of the bowls and put them in semifinals and a bowl bid will feel like even more of a consolation prize. Think of it this way: The loser of the Big Ten championship game is more likely to play in the Rose Bowl than the winner.
Winners. If it's college football, the Southeastern Conference must be winning. The playoff negotiations were no different. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, whose teams have won the last six BCS titles, has been pushing for a playoff since 2008. It took longer than he would have liked, but he got his way.
Losers. As much as the BCS seemed stacked against the so-called little guys — those teams from conferences outside the six founding member leagues — a playoff-driven post-season could widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. While a playoff will increase the amount of revenue the post-season generates, those funds might be distributed more unevenly. Leagues such as the Mountain West, Conference USA and the Sun Belt will make more money in total, but could get a smaller percentage of the pie. And if schedule strength is going to be emphasized for picking the playoff participants, how do those teams fortify their schedules to match what the teams from power leagues already have built-in?
Not so Big East. There have been six major conferences. The Big East, after being plundered by expansion, is on the verge of being demoted to second-tier status. How much less it gets in revenue from the playoff than the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC will be something to watch.
A few good men. So who will be on this committee given the task of picking the best four teams in the country?
The commissioners aren't sure yet, though it will probably be similar to the basketball selection committee, which is comprised of commissioners and athletic directors. Of course, it is one thing to hand out 34 at-large bids to a basketball tournament and quite another to determine which 12-1 football team to leave out of a playoff.
"I think you need a thick skin and an honest heart" to be on the committee, Delany said. A secret bunker to hide out might help, too.
Ultimately, who is on the committee might not matter as much as the parameters they are given to make their decisions. The commissioners want to stress strength of schedule, give conference champions some preference and provide the committee with an RPI-like rating system to guide them and make it less of a guessing game.