After a century-plus of pushing, the immovable object has been nudged out of its entrenched position. Now it's time to get that sucker rolling.
That's the mindset as college football power brokers descend on south Florida this week for the annual BCS meetings. The beginning of a sea change in the game's postseason is at hand.
The monolithic impediment to a playoff – the bowl system and all its apologists and cronies – finally has given ground in recent months. When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany voiced his own playoff plan in February, it was like a Baptist minister drinking a shot of bourbon and declaring it good. When Delany saw the light, that was the signal that major change was inevitable.
These meetings will begin the process of turning change into something tangible. It won't be easy. Here is a brief primer on what will – and will not – happen in Florida this week.
Who is invited: The commissioners of all 11 FBS conferences, plus one athletic director from each league. Among the ADs expected in attendance: Jeremy Foley of Florida, Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin, Joe Castiglione of Oklahoma, Dan Radakovich of Georgia Tech, Pat Haden of USC, Tom Jurich of Louisville and Jack Swarbrick of independent Notre Dame. The bowls also will be represented, as will ESPN, which has the BCS TV contract. BCS executive director Bill Hancock is scheduled to address the media Wednesday and Thursday with updates on the talks.
Lots of power will be concentrated in the conference rooms. Lots of egos. And lots of competing agendas.
"It won't just be interesting," said one of the attendees, who asked not to be named. "It will be fascinating."
Who will be the most fascinating characters: SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Delany, as usual. When the commissioners get together, the rivalry between the two guys with the most clout comes out. Slive has been championing a playoff (or plus-one) since 2008, while Delany has successfully led the resistance on behalf of the BCS status quo. Now that dynamic is changing ... but how much?
What will be discussed: A playoff, and how it will be implemented. A BCS memo acquired by USA Today says there are four primary alternatives for a four-team playoff:
1. Semifinals and final that are hosted by traditional bowls.
2. Semifinals and final that are played at neutral sites, independent of the bowls.
3. Semifinals at bowls, with a championship game that is bid out to a host city.
4. On-campus semifinals hosted by the top two seeds, with the final at a bowl site.
There are other plans that have been broached, including one floated by the Pac-12 and Big Ten that potentially would force the Rose Bowl into the semifinal mix as a sort of third semi. It's complicated, cumbersome and not completely embraced even by those that brought it up in the first place. And it has little chance.
"No friggin' way," was the characterization of that plan by one person who will be involved in the meetings.
What format looks like the leader: With most principals hugging their cards to their chests, it's hard to flag one plan as the favorite. But while a four-team playoff seems inevitable, so does a spirited bid by the Pac-12 and Big Ten to keep the Rose Bowl in a preferred position.
"We're not interested in any system that's going to diminish the equity of the Rose Bowl and our frequency of playing in it," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. "That's the only way the Pac-12 and Big Ten are interested in participating."
The Big Ten might hold the line on that but lose on Delany's proposal for semifinals played at home sites. Delany championed that format largely to reverse the geographic reality of his schools traveling to play semi-road games in warm-weather sites against warm-weather schools. But the Chicago Tribune reported this week that Delany's plan is "on life support" because of logistical problems caused by potential host schools with small stadiums (limited seating capacity) in small towns (limited hotel rooms).
What other logistical hurdles are facing the new formats: Fan travel.
Asking a fan base to pack a huge stadium in, say, Arizona one week for a semifinal and then Florida the next for a championship game would be asking too much, several administrators say. Especially if those fans already have gone to a conference championship game at a neutral site.
"People are kidding themselves if they think fans are going to follow their teams to both games," one prominent athletic director said. "You'll get some, but you're not going to get 30,000 all traveling twice after New Year's Day."
What will be the big revelation from the meetings: Most participants say very little, if any.
"Don't expect much in the way of news," Hancock said. "The next big step is for conferences to review the formats during their meetings in May and June."
Until then, there are a lot of elusive agreements to be sought.
"Many, many details remain to be discussed," Hancock said. "This will be another round of talking about the details. I think people don't realize the intricacy of something like this."
And that could be a problem. Even if everyone agrees that change is needed, there must be an agreement on what kind of change will occur.
"My fear," one college insider said, "is that the fighting over the details leads to something nobody wants."
Outside of wealthy older men in suits, what other voices will be heard at the meetings: Those of the players, believe it or not.
Some college administrators believe the Pac-12's Scott is a bit of a grandstander, but the man did actually go to the grass roots to inform his opinion heading into these meetings. He actually talked to athletes and said he will bring their perspective to the bargaining table this week.
"I wanted to reach out to the actors in the play, so to speak," Scott said.
Scott said he has spoken with departing Stanford stars Andrew Luck, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, USC star quarterback Matt Barkley, several players at Utah and others about their feelings on the postseason. The consensus?
"They'd like to see it earned more on the field," Scott said. "They love bowl games, and some of the guys cherish the Rose Bowl. The Stanford guys didn't get to play in it in four years, and they were recruited in part on the aspiration of playing in the Rose Bowl. But they said they'd like to play an extra game if it settled [the national title] on the field."
Can anything be done about bowl creep: Hopefully so. The postseason has bled well past the traditional New Year's Day celebration, last season extending to a Jan. 9 BCS Championship Game. The hunger for television exclusivity has had negative side-effects, especially on fans and players.
Attendance for last season's Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 was disappointing, despite the presence of notably devoted fan bases from Michigan and Virginia Tech. But part of the problem was that with the game scheduled past the Christmas holiday season, fans couldn't escape from work or school as easily. Most bosses and teachers are ready to go after the holidays and don't look kindly on hastily scheduled vacation days after an extended period of light workloads.
Then there was the problem Scott said Stanford ran into with the Fiesta Bowl, which was played Jan. 2. Because of bowl preparation, the Cardinal players did not have a Christmas break to speak of, so many of them wanted to take time after the game to go home and relax for a while (especially since so many Stanford players are not locals to the Bay Area). But school resumed Jan. 9, which meant that players either had to curtail their break or start the next quarter by missing the first few days of class. Neither is a good choice.
What about the move to outlaw 6-6 teams from bowl games: That will definitely spur some discussion and debate. In that scenario, several bowls likely would be put out of business.
On one level – the Vanderbilt/Washington State/Syracuse/Duke/Indiana/Iowa State level – getting to 6-6 and going to a bowl is an accomplishment. Commissioners are cognizant of that and don't want to keep their lower-echelon programs from hitting a high point on occasion.
That's also a concern for conferences such as the Mid-American and Sun Belt, which need some 6-6 teams from larger leagues to offer up opponents for their teams in bowls such as the Motor City and New Orleans. If the number of bowls decreases, the loss of bids will directly affect some of the better teams in those lower-tier leagues.
But on a macro level, most people agree that 35 bowls is too many and 6-6 teams are too lousy to justify the expense and effort of going to play on a Tuesday night in December for ESPN's programming pleasure.
"We've reduced the value of bowls by having so many of them. "You don't want them to be meaningless wallpaper," Scott said.
"It has put so much strain on the entire system," one athletic director said. "Teams, conferences, sponsors all feel it. Typically these bowls have been hanging by a thread, and somebody's having to bear the cost of keeping them going."
When is the earliest date we can reach playoff paydirt: After these meetings, the commissioners will take their findings to their conference constituents at their spring meetings in May and June. Then they'll presumably develop a consensus on what the league wants and report back to the BCS and TV folks during the summer.
If change is going to happen, look for major announcements sometime in July – probably timed to coincide with, or slightly predate, conference media days.
Then sit back and enjoy two more years of the BCS as we know it because the contracts don't expire until then. So while we might come to an historic agreement on the shape of the college football postseason this summer, it won't become reality until 2014.
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