SI's Stewart Mandel has provided clarity on a point that was a bit hazy when the playoff announcement was made Tuesday evening:
The selection committee will pick the teams for all six bowls. Theoretically, it could be the Top 12 spread over 6 games. Huge improvement.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) June 28, 2012
The "six bowls" here are those in the semifinal rotation.
I agree with Stewart. This is a huge improvement and I'm honestly a little shocked that the bowls were willing to give up some of their independence on this point. I suspect that not giving them a choice in the matter was the only way to get this through.
Now, automatic qualifying status isn't really gone even though it will no longer be mentioned in the don't-call-it-the-BCS contracts. The Big Ten and Pac-12 champ will go to the Rose Bowl if they don't make the semis (and the Rose itself isn't a semifinal), and the same goes for the ACC champ with the Orange Bowl and the SEC and Big 12 champs with the Champions Bowl. In practice, we still have AQ leagues and all that's different is that the Big East won't be one of them anymore. That status is just going to be codified in individual contracts between those conferences and their bowls of choice rather than in the overarching don't-call-it-the-BCS deals.
Having people concerned with creating the best matchups rather than who may or may not put the most butts in the seats is a good thing. Limiting the at-large pool to only the top 12 eliminates one of the worst abuses of the BCS era, but this should mostly clean up the rest. It likely means we won't see another Kids' Table Bowl. It likely means avoiding another Brand Names Bowl at the expense of worthier teams. It should mean no more sending No. 5 to the Holiday Bowl. We should get better games more consistently with this setup, and that's very good for us the fans.
Remarkably, it also means that a non-semifinal Rose Bowl won't automatically get a replacement from the same conference if the Big Ten and/or Pac-12 champ make the playoff. I expect there to be a lot of pressure on the committee to keep that conference matchup whenever possible, but it's not guaranteed and it's not in the bowl organizers' hands. If the circumstances allow the selection committee to pair up Alabama and Boise State in Pasadena and they want to do it, nothing will stop them from doing so.
Hopefully this change will allow more cross-pollination in bowl season, like seeing more SEC-Pac-12 matchups and having good Big 12 teams play good Big Ten and ACC squads more often. I was really hoping this was how it's going to work, and I'm thrilled it became a reality.