The easy part of negotiations over the future of the college football season is over. Once the conference that had most aggressively pushed for a college football playoff -- the SEC -- proved the value of its point by clinching both halves of the BCS National Championship Game, there was little doubt that the other conferences would rally to its side. (The ACC had joined forces with the SEC before, for reasons passing understanding given the likelihood that the ACC would have won a national championship in any of the years of SEC dominance.)
Again, the agreement to go to a four-team playoff is the easy part. The hard part is what comes next, which is to say, everything else. But there are a few things we can look at to try to gauge what changes are likely, or at least what questions have to be cleared up over the next few months.
It's a four-team playoff
One thing that is exceedingly clear from the BCS' statement on the negotiations is that anything more than a four-team playoff is non-negotiable.
Having carefully reviewed calendars and schedules, we believe that either an 8-team or a 16-team playoff would diminish the regular season and harm the bowls. College football's regular season is too important to diminish and we do not believe it's in the best interest of student-athletes, fans, or alumni to harm the regular season.
At another point, the statement refers to a larger playoff as "off the table." I take this as good news as someone who doesn't ever want college football to follow one of my other favorite sports (hello, MLB) and make its postseason too large to plausibly argue that only elite teams get in.
Setting that aside, the first ironic part of the statement is that Bill Hancock and Co. would have told us a few months ago that any sort of a playoff was the end of the world. The second part is that Hancock has repeatedly argued that a playoff of less than 16 teams was borderline impossible. Example 1:
But if, at some point in the distant future, those groups change their minds and the NCAA membership does decide it wants a playoff consistent with the other sports' NCAA championships, then a 16-team format seems to be the minimum-sized bracket that would achieve something close to the current balance of automatic qualifiers and at-large teams that participate in those other NCAA events.
Hancock also said -- while not in favor of a playoff system for college football -- any potential playoff system would have to include 16 teams.
"A 16-team playoff in the only way to have a playoff because it would include all of the conferences." he said.
So just for those of you who might still be wondering -- yes, the BCS will say whatever serves its interests best at a given time. Which is why I don't take too much comfort in the assurances that the four-team playoff will last for a long time; the BCS' stances on the size and viability of a playoff have changed radically in less than two years.
There will be a longer-term contract this time
The one thing that gives those of us hesitant about a large playoff a little room to hope is that it appears the conferences and presidents want to lock this thing in place for as long as possible. They're not talking about the ill-considered 15-year deals that have forced some of the conference realignment scramble, but something pretty close.
McMurphy,'The new deal will probably be for ten years instead of the current 5 yr contract. They do not want this to grow to 8 or 16 teams'— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) April 26, 2012
There's a downside to this: If by some terrible mishap Fox manages to get the BCS contract again, we're set up for a decade of gratuitous band shots. (And Charles Davis calling for run-pass options on every goal-line play.) The risks of that happening are pretty remote, though, so it's better to have some form of guarantee that any move toward a larger playoff will be old and I can be firmly in my rocking chair decrying the other ills of the world along with the fact that there are too many teams in the college football playoffs.
Everything else is top secret
In fact, the BCS statement makes it pretty clear that no decision beyond four teams has been made. Look at the remaining holes.
We have discussed in detail the advantages and disadvantages of in-bowl or out-of-bowl games. We have discussed in detail the advantages and disadvantages of campus sites or neutral sites. We have discussed in detail the advantages and disadvantages of various ways to rank or qualify teams.
That's a pretty broad swath you're cutting there.
Where are these games going to be played?
The battle over campus sites and neutral sites comes down to the classic fight against small schools and large. Alabama could snap up its allotment of tickets to a final and a semifinal game in relatively short order. Even a school like South Carolina probably wouldn't have much trouble selling out half (or less) of a bowl stadium twice in the run-up to the national title.
But for schools like Boise -- which has a relatively small alumni base and few fans outside of the state of Idaho and the city limits of Bristol, Conn. -- selling 20,000 to 30,000 tickets (conservatively) to a neutral site game for the semifinal and selling the same number of tickets to a neutral site game for the final is a pretty tall order.
At the same time, schools like Boise probably don't have the infrastructure to handle the crush of opposing fans and media members that would want to attend a semifinal game. Bronco Stadium holds 33,500 people. Now imagine an LSU-Boise semifinal played on the blue turf.
Who gets to play them?
This is maybe the trickiest topic of them all. As we mentioned, it's not really a secret that the SEC-vs.-SEC championship game played some role in getting the rest of the country to go along with a playoff. If that's replaced by a system where the SEC can take two slots in the final four on a somewhat regular basis, it's hard to see the B1G and the Pac-12 and others seeing that as an improvement.
In the "SEC golden era" that started in 2006, there have been three seasons (2006, 2008, 2011) in which the SEC would have taken up half the slots based on the last regular-season BCS rankings. That's half of the time, which might not be too annoying to fans of other conferences, but is probably going to get under the skin of guys like Jim Delany.
The battle here is over whether to go with the four top-ranked teams -- and how to rank those teams -- and whether to have some sort of conference championship requirement or hybrid approach. Larry Scott has been an open proponent of a conference championship rule. Make no mistake about it -- any discussion of a conference championship rule is mostly, if not solely, about how to make sure that the SEC can't gobble up at least two of the spots on a regular basis.
Or any other conference, for that matter. There might be a time when the B1G or the Big 12ish or another conference is the big dog in the college football house. Which is one reason why I'm not sure that Mike Slive and others should dismiss the idea out of hand if self-interest is the motivation. They should probably dismiss it after some consideration because it's a problematic idea.
What about the bowls?
The bowls will likely all survive whatever system is cooked up. You're still going to have dozens of very good teams that won't make the playoffs, and they'll still be open to playing a postseason game to boost their final rankings, get some extra practice and perhaps generate some national championship buzz for the next season if they're truly elite.
The big question is whether the bowls will get to host the semifinals or not. My guess is that they will get to only if the bowls are willing to make deep financial concessions that some of them might not be willing to make. In which case the semifinals and the finals will likely be bid out -- and that will truly be a titanic battle that will do little to staunch the increasing flow of money into college football.