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Don’t look now, but the Big Ten may be pointing the way forward in the playoff debate

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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First of all: Before we go on, don't get too excited, because it's nothing official or anything. But yeah, when perennial playoff opponent Jim Delany said earlier this year that he may actually be open to the idea of a four-team bracket, it turns out he wasn't just blowing smoke. Per the Chicago Tribune (emphasis added):

The Big Ten is not only ready to listen to proposals regarding a national four-team football playoff, league and school officials are kicking around an intriguing idea.

Sources told the Tribune that a Big Ten plan would remove the top four teams from the BCS bowl pool and have semifinal games played on the college campus of the higher seed. That would do away with the facade of "neutral" sites such as New Orleans, Miami and Pasadena, Calif., and ease travel concern for fans.

The championship game then could be bid out, like the Super Bowl.
[…]
"We have to listen to the fans; we cannot be tone-deaf," said Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips, who chairs the Big Ten's Administrators Council. "The Big Ten is open and curious."

No, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you: While they may still need to call it a "Plus One" to get to sleep at night, power brokers in the conference that has most consistently bristled at any hint of a college football playoff over the last decade are going out of their way to take the reins of the renewed playoff push. No, your ears aren't playing tricks on you, either: I'm pretty sure there really is a chorus of angels humming Handel right now.

[Related: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany gives approval to football playoff]

Not that the idea — again, we're not at a point that anything qualifies as a bona fide "proposal" — is lacking for opportunism: If a four-team playoff is as inevitable as it's beginning to appear, the B1G has a vested interest in getting on-campus semifinals on the agenda, because there is no other viable alternative that stands a chance of reversing the usual holiday migration pattern. In other words, it's the only way warm-weather teams can be compelled to come north for a change.

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As it stands, seven of the Big Ten's eight current bowl tie-ins are in Sun Belt locales: Pasadena, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Houston and Dallas. (The only exception is the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, a punchline of a game that matches one of the lowlier B1G also-rans against a MAC team in Detroit.) Under any other scenario involving traditional bowl sites, they're still traveling into SEC, Big 12 and/or USC territory. In some years — like 2011, when no Big Ten team would have qualified for a four-team playoff, much less a home game — it wouldn't make any difference. But in the years it does produce a contender, the Big Ten's only hope for a miserable, frostbitten struggle on its own turf/tundra is a system that embraces a literal home-field advantage.

But enough reading between the lines. As for the actual, stated criteria for a possible playoff, Phillips said the conference will apply four specific questions:

1) Is it fair to the student-athletes already suiting up for 12-13 games?
2) Would it undermine college football's vital regular season?
3) Would the teams be chosen in a way that reflects competitive fairness?
And of course, 4) Can the Rose Bowl be protected?

The first three questions are low hurdles for anyone who actually wants to clear them. The fate of the Rose Bowl is a bit thornier: A system of on-campus semifinals would interfere with the traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 match-up in most years, and would also knock the Granddaddy a couple more rungs down the ladder in terms of prestige.

But that was also the case when the Big Ten and Pac-10 reluctantly agreed to join the "Bowl Alliance," thereby forming the BCS in the mid-nineties, and it was the case when they agreed to create a "Championship Game" outside of the four traditional bowl games that make up the BCS, guaranteeing the Rose Bowl proper on New Year's Day would never be the marquee game in any given season. On both occasions, the Big Ten acquiesced. Now, it's time to see how it likes the view from the front of the train.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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