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What We Mean When We Talk About Access in the New Postseason

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The issue of access for teams outside the Big Five conferences flared up some yesterday, with Jerry Hinnen writing the optimist's interpretation and Senator Blutarsky writing the cynic's dissent this morning.

I don't have a whole lot to add that those two didn't cover, but I do think there are a couple of layers to this that I hope we can get straight as the discussion goes on. For now, I'm calling the new system from 2014 on the CFC for "College Football Championship" for clarity's sake. That's Bill Hancock's suggestion, so I'll go with it until they pick the final name.

The commissioners lied to us.

It says it right there on the press release:

The [BCS Presidential Oversight Committee] also decided to... Eliminate the "automatic qualification" designation.

We've been hearing for months how the AQ status in the BCS wouldn't be carried over into the CFC. It should be crystal clear by now what that meant. It is nothing more a method of politely removing the Big East from the club of power conferences. "Oh no, we didn't demote the Big East. You see, no one has AQ status anymore."

Except that in practice, they do. The Big Five conference commissioners never intended to give up their favored spot at the table among the biggest bowls. The ACC's new Orange Bowl contract makes that obvious, as it stipulates that the ACC champ is guaranteed a spot in one of the other CFC bowls in years that the Orange Bowl is a semifinal.

That fact means it's no longer a mere arrangement between one conference and one bowl. Such a guarantee requires all interested parties in both the sport's leadership and the running of the six CFC bowls to sign off on it. You can bet that the other four power conferences will have similar clauses in the final deals.

AQ status is alive and well. It was never going away, and that means the commissioners (if not the presidents who signed off on this deal) lied when they said it was going away. Maybe the new contracts don't technically have the phrase "automatic qualifier" in them, but the construct still exists.

AQ status has grown to be more expansive.

Once again, the new ACC contract makes it clear that the new AQ status has grown in scope. The kicker is this line:

If the ACC Champion is identified as one of the top four teams by the Bowl Championship Series selection committee, then the ACC Champion will participate in the national semifinals and a replacement team from the ACC would participate in the Discover Orange Bowl.

BCS bowls have generally replaced tie-in teams lost to the national title game with the next available team from that league, but it was never explicitly guaranteed. The Sugar Bowl couldn't take an SEC team last year because of BCS rules. The Rose Bowl had to take Texas in the 2004 season instead of a Pac-10 replacement for USC because of BCS rules, and it had to take TCU in the 2010 season instead of a Pac-10 replacement for Oregon due to different BCS rules. The Orange Bowl lost both its ACC and Big East champion tie-ins in the 1999 season and no replacements from those leagues were available due to BCS rules. It lost out on both conferences in the 2002 season as well due to BCS rules.

BCS rules will not get in the way of non-semifinal Rose, Champions, or Orange Bowl games getting their tie-ins, assuming the Orange's provision will apply to the others as well (and there's no reason to think it won't). This is almost certainly how the Big Ten and Pac-12 got to "preserve" the Rose Bowl and go along with the new format. No longer can TCU or Texas be forced upon the Rose Bowl unless it's a semifinal game.

This is mostly just a discussion about Boise State.

When we talk about "access for teams outside the Big Five conferences", it can for the most part be shortened to "access for Boise State".

Notre Dame isn't in one of the conferences, but it will get special treatment because it always does. Beyond that, conference realignment has mostly taken care of the access issue. Only three schools actually won games as BCS Busters, and two of them got called up to the big leagues with Utah now in the Pac-12 and TCU now in the Big 12. Boise State is the only one of the three on the outside looking in. Louisville will be in that boat too, having won the 2007 Orange Bowl as the champ of the soon-to-be-demoted Big East.

Several other teams besides those three winning BCS Busters from outside the current Big Five conferences have finished in the top 12 of the BCS, and the top 12 of the selection committee rankings will be at-large eligible. The bottom few spots won't likely be getting CFC bowl bids if the committee must go down the rankings in order to pick the at-larges, though. The only ones to finish in the top six, which should safely be at-large territory in any given year, are again Louisville in 2006 and Cincinnati in 2009. That's two across 12 years.

Those Big East schools will, of course, have to go through Boise State starting the year before the CFC takes effect to achieve those high rankings. As long as Chris Petersen stays put, I like BSU's chances most seasons. He may not stay put forever though, and the school will have down years as all do. Louisville might get back up there, as Charlie Strong is a good coach and is loyal to the school for giving him a shot. Maybe one of these years USF will finally put it together. I guess BYU is still out there too as an independent.

It's hard to say what everything will look like 14 years from now when the current contract is up and we're assessing the access issue once again. After all, 14 seasons ago Boise State itself went 6-5 in the Big West with a loss to a 9-3 Idaho team. Then again BSU failed to win 10 games just twice in the 13 years after, and part of that streak predates Petersen's time even as an assistant. BSU looks like the safest bet in that league when every other school is (based on recent history) likely to promptly lose any coach that can get them into CFC consideration. It should go without saying too that the Big East will have a hard time getting teams high in the rankings anyway because of its loss of good teams (reducing strength of schedule) and subsequent drop from the power conference ranks (psychologically relevant to selection committee members).

As for the rest of the mid majors, access isn't much of an issue at all. Only Hawaii made a BCS game among the rest, and it did so with a horrendous schedule in an exceptionally crazy year. Its rude dismissal in the Sugar Bowl was a lasting lesson to be careful about who actually gets access. Their conference schedule strengths will be worse than the Big East's, so teams in those leagues will have to win all of the road games they get paid to lose in order to get access. Among the hypothetical fringe CFC bowl participants of the past, only '99 Marshall can claim that (sorry, '03 Miami University, and '98 Tulane: Rutgers of that era doesn't count as major), and even then it only beat a 6-6 Clemson team.

There can and probably will be a few exceptions here and there, but the access issue is mostly just about Boise State. When it's not, it'll be about a team that beat Boise State.