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The BCS Overton Window

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This post is not an invitation to discuss politics in the comment section. Repeat: not.

In the realm of political theory, there is a concept called the Overton Window. It is named after its originator, Joseph Overton. The window represents the realm of what people consider to be the acceptable range of ideas on a particular issue. Sometimes when a politician's position is on the fringes of the window, he will espouse an idea well outside the window in hopes that his preferred position will seem more reasonable in contrast. The politician is said to be trying to expand or move the window so that what he wants is firmly inside of it.

I believe that some power conference leaders have been trying to adjust the college football postseason Overton Window to make the BCS's successor system fit their goals. Primarily it's the Pac-12 and Big Ten power brokers doing it, although the SEC has done some of it as well.

Think of the spectrum of possible college football postseason formats. I exclude the pre-BCS bowl system because that's never coming back (it's not lucrative enough). This is roughly what it looked like from January through late May:


Click any graphics in this post to embiggen.

From left to right you've got the BCS, a true plus one, a four-team playoff with all four teams being conference champions, a four-team playoff with three conference champions and one at large, a four-team playoff with the four best teams, an eight-team playoff, and a 16-team playoff. The window of consensus for those five months seemed to surround the four-team playoff and only the four-team playoff.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 are dead set on preserving the importance of the Rose Bowl. They've made no bones about it.

The Rose Bowl is arguably more important in a plus one than it is even in the current BCS. Under the present system, the Rose Bowl stadium hosts the national championship game once every four years. The Rose Bowl Game, however, is merely a consolation contest for teams that aren't playing for all the Tostitos. Under a plus one, the Rose Bowl Game can serve as a deciding battle for one or both participants' hopes to play for the national championship. Its outcome can have a direct impact on the national title with a plus one, whereas its outcome does not (generally) have such an impact with the BCS.

Based on reports I've seen, any four-team playoff will have its semifinals played in bowl sites. Specifically, it will probably be the preferred bowl sites for the conferences of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams (however they end up being chosen). If the semifinal sites were chosen ahead of time by bids or rotation, we could hypothetically end up with No. 1 Ohio State playing No. 4 LSU in the Sugar Bowl or No. 1 Alabama playing No. 4 USC in the Rose Bowl. I don't know what they'd do for the No. 2 team if the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs ended up Nos. 1 and 2, but that's for them to figure out.

Here's a hypothetical season-ending top five ranking, and it could have been determined by whatever system they end up choosing. I think this scenario best makes clear the order of preference in playoff models for the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Conference champions are denoted by asterisks.

  1. LSU*
  2. Alabama
  3. Oregon*
  4. Oklahoma*
  5. Ohio State*

The Pac-12 and Big Ten would most prefer a four-team playoff with four conference champions. In this situation not only would it give OSU a bid when it otherwise might go to Alabama, but it would also mean the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal when it otherwise wouldn't. This, by the way, is the model the Pac-12 presidents endorsed when they first said they were open to a playoff back in March.

The two leagues' next preference would probably be a four-team playoff with three conference champions and one at-large team. Presumably, they'd argue that the three champs should get the top three seeds with the at large team getting the fourth seed. In that case, it's the same situation as above. They lose Ohio State from the field, but the Rose Bowl is still special.

Under a four-team playoff where the four best teams are selected, the Rose Bowl is no longer special. LSU would host one semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, and Bama would host the other in, say, the Capital One or Cotton Bowl. Here the Rose Bowl is relegated to second-class status, and it would have that reduced importance any time both the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs are outside the top two spots. With the other two options as laid out above, one of those champions could trigger a Rose Bowl semifinal from the third rank as well.

* * *

So that graphic above shows generally what the window of discussion looked like for quite a while. Based on this report from late April that said the conference champion requirement was dead, you could even argue that the window looked like this:


The outcome that does the Rose Bowl the most favors was well outside the window, and the second-best option was outside of it too. So what did the leaders of the Pac-12 and Big Ten do about it? They did what many skilled politicians would do: they began tugging on the window.

First, Larry Scott exhumed the plus one idea on May 24. A couple weeks later on June 4, Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman pulled harder on the window, stating that the Big Ten presidents' preferences would be the status quo first and a plus one "a strong second." A four-team playoff was their third choice according to Perlman, provided his conference could maintain its tie to the Rose Bowl somehow.

You could see it in Perlman's statement, about how he could live with a four-team playoff and that he's not drawn any lines in the sand, that the Big Ten knows it won't get its first or second choice. As Andy Staples explained, we're going to get a four-team playoff because it's what most fans want and what will bring the most money. All that's left is deciding how it's going to work.

I don't think Scott or Perlman made their statements in order to actually fight for a plus one. Instead, they just used the plus one as a device to drag the window back over. Here's basically how things stand now as best as I understand it:


BCS executive director Bill Hancock has said over and over that the status quo is off the table, and they've ruled out a playoff greater than four teams. The wings of the diagram can be eliminated. The Pac-12 and Big Ten can promote a plus one to make sure the window includes their favored four-conference-champions model. The SEC, on the other hand, had to say that it would not compromise on the four-best-teams model because it has nothing outside to the right of the window to pull with. Making an ultimatum was the only thing it could do to respond to Scott.

The SEC and Big 12 obviously prefer the four-best-teams model. The Pac-12 said in March that it favors conference champions only, and based on its recent statements, the presidents out there probably still do. The ACC still counts as a power conference because it hasn't lost any teams yet, and commissioner John Swofford says the focus is on a playoff. He's been all over the map as to which playoff model he prefers, however, so it's hard to place his league.

The Big Ten is also hard to pinpoint. Jim Delany is in favor of the four best teams with a selection committee, and Perlman said he and his fellow presidents could live with that. Perlman also brought up potential issues with that model immediately after saying he could deal with it, and apparently the conference is siding with the Pac-12 on one side of the discussions' "impasse". That league is also hard to place, but its presidents are closer to the Pac-12 side than the SEC/Big 12 side.

With the puzzle framed like this, it looks to me like a four-team playoff with three reserved spots for conference champions is the favorite to end up the final compromise. It throws a bone to the Big Ten and Pac-12, as the Rose Bowl will probably have a chance to be a semifinal more often. It throws a bone to the SEC and Big 12 because one of the two of them will be able to put multiple teams in the field in a given year. For the record, I side strongly with the SEC, Big 12, and Delany on this issue.

After today's meetings both Delany and Scott said their presidents prefer a plus one, so the posturing is still going on. Meanwhile, another official said that the group is in reality "very close to consensus" on a four-team playoff. Three of the power conferences want a playoff, Notre Dame sounds comfortable with one, and as for the mid majors, the Mountain West actually wants a huge playoff. Two people at the meetings can only hold out against the other ten for so long.

The four-team playoff is what we were always going to get, but it also was always going to involve a lot of negotiations among the sport's power brokers. Each side of the divide has waged a war of words to preserve its preferred model as one of the possibilities, and I hope this breakdown helps you understand how they've been doing it.