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The Rose Bowl Will Survive a Playoff

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CBS's Brett McMurphy wrote a great piece this morning about two aspects of the future of the BCS. Part was about how the money will be divvied up, certainly a critical part of the process. The other is about the Rose Bowl.

If you remember, the BCS leaked a set of four options for the future that included a preposterous construction in which the Rose Bowl's Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup is preserved at the expense of making the semifinals complete nonsense. McMurphy spoke to a couple of sources who confirmed that it's not really a serious option. One told him it was proposed by the Big Ten merely to show some kind of symbolic effort to the Rose Bowl officials of keeping the traditional matchup around. As far as I can tell, that's what everyone thought that particular proposal was anyway.

I think a lot of the worry over the Rose Bowl is overblown. I can remember as a kid recognizing how cool the Rose Bowl is without needing too much help. The site is beautiful, the stadium reeks of history, and the pageantry leading up to the game is unparalleled in college (and most, if not all, pro) sports. I knew the Rose Bowl was special long before I knew that it was always supposed to match up the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions.

And that's another thing: it wasn't always supposed to match up Big Ten and Pac-10 teams. The organizers staged 32 Rose Bowl games before the Big Nine (as the Big Ten was known then) joined the PCC (Pac-10 predecessor league) as the second official supplier of contestants in 1946. Back then, the purpose of the game was to match up a good PCC team (not necessarily the champ even) against a good team from the east. Creating a great game was priority No. 1. The Big Nine only got the nod as official eastern conference because it aligned with the PCC over integration and the politics of amateurism at the time.

The two conferences with the Rose Bowl tie-ins didn't stay their sizes for long. The Big Nine became the Big Ten with the addition of Michigan State in 1950 and added Penn State and Nebraska in the past 20 years. The PCC (the Pac-10 minus the Arizona schools plus Idaho and Montana) dissolved in the late '50s over a pay-for-play scandal. It re-formed slowly over the years as the AAWU (a.k.a. Big Five/Big Six) and the Pac-8 (added the Oregon schools back). It then became the Pac-10 (added the Arizona schools) and now the Pac-12.

At most times in the history of the agreement, a Penn State vs. Oregon Rose Bowl game would have been a break with the sacred tradition. In 1995, it was the game according to tradition. Had the Pac-16 come into existence in the summer of 2010, four teams with zero Rose Bowl appearances absent the BCS would have been allowed to play in the game according to "tradition". Don't you see how absurd this is?

Having teams from outside the Big Ten and Pac-12 play in the Rose Bowl five times hasn't devalued the game in the BCS era. Twice, in 2002 and 2003, the game wasn't great. In '02, it's because the dumb BCS formula of the day screwed up. In '03, well, there wasn't much that could have been done because the teams (OU and Wazzou) were one spot apart from each other in the polls going into it. However in 2005, we got a great 38-37 game between Texas and Michigan, and in 2006, we saw the best BCS title game ever with Texas and USC. The 2011 game with TCU and Wisconsin was another instant classic. USC 49 - Illinois 17 in 2008 did far more to tarnish the game than those non-traditional matchups did (which was precisely nothing).

If we do get a four-team playoff that doesn't involve bowls, the Rose Bowl will indeed be just an exhibition game. It's always been an exhibition game though, except for the 2002 and 2006 games. In the BCS era, it's always been a step below the BCS National Championship Game except those two years, and it lost nothing as a result. Just look at that game with TCU. The team worse a special rose helmet for it, not because it's a BCS game but because it was the Rose Bowl. After all, no one would have ever though to put a sombrero on the helmet frog for the Fiesta Bowl the previous year.

The Rose Bowl has a gravitas that no other event can match. Other bowls have nice settings, but none are in Pasadena. Other bowls have extravagant parades, but none are a national event like the Tournament of Roses is. Other bowls have long histories, but none are the Granddaddy of Them All. Absolutely none of that goes away if we have a four-team playoff, just as none of that went away because of the BCS.

When a four-team playoff is unveiled, the first round will happen a day or two after Christmas with the title game a few days after New Year's. In between will be the Rose Bowl, and it will still be the grand stage it's always been. The only way it will lose its luster is if, like in 2007, it strays from the part of its original mission that consists of setting up the best game it can.

If, hypothetically, the Rose Bowl lost conference champs Ohio State and Oregon to a four-team playoff in 2015 but replaced them with No. 5 Texas and No. 8 LSU, would that ruin the game for you? If your answer is yes, then I wonder just how much you care about the actual football part of the sport you say you love.