Recurring Offseason Themes: Portrait of the BCS in winter
What you'll be reading for the next seven months.
Despite what you may have read this week, the Bowl Championship Series isn't ready for its last rites. There are still more years on the current BCS contract, and there will be four more years after that on the next contract, up for formal renewal next summer. There's no end in sight for the influence of human polls or secretive algorithms no one trusts, or the fact that a team's postseason fate could hinge on a decimal point or two in some guy's laptop. Oversight remains in the hands of the same cabal of conference commissioners. The bowl games aren't going anywhere. The ticket and hotel scams that justify the existence of bowl games aren't going anywhere. For the foreseeable future, the BCS is The System.
It's just that, by the time the 2012 season kicks off, that system may be on the verge of becoming a playoff. Excuse me, they still don't like that term: It may be on the verge of becoming a Plus-One. Which is (for all intents and purposes) a four-team playoff. There may be "50 to 60 possibilities" on the table during ongoing discussions between relevant conference commissioners, but on the heels of the lamest "championship game" of the BCS era — a miserable affair that directly contradicted the results of the regular season the BCS has so stridently vowed to protect — all roads lead to this: Four teams. Two rounds. One championship game. One more step between the arbitrary dominion of the polls and a legitimate national championship decided on the field.
That's the same "Plus One" format SEC commissioner Mike Slive brought before his fellow commissioners four years ago, in January 2008, which was swiftly shut down without discussion. This time, Slive is leading the push with considerably more manpower on his side: Big 12 athletic directors are for a Plus-One, the NCAA president says he'll back a "Final Four approach" and "a high-ranking BCS official" just told the Sporting News that some version of a playoff "gets done." Among the opposition in 2008, complacent Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen has been replaced by the much more forward-leaning Larry Scott, and even Big Ten commish Jim Delany realizes his longstanding anti-playoff stance can't hold much longer: "Four years ago, five of us didn't want to have the conversation," Delany said this week. "Now we all want to have the conversation."
So: Let's have it. I mean, we've been having it for most of the last decade, usually accompanied by at least one person in the crowd insisting a playoff will never happen. But I can't remember not thinking college football was headed for a bracket. It's too obvious: The big conferences formed the Bowl Coalition, which became the Bowl Alliance and then, after the SWC was sacrificed to make way for the "super conference" concept in the Big 12 and SEC, the Bowl Championship Series as we know it — all of them ostensibly geared toward producing a "true" national champion and putting an end to decades of competing crowns and controversy.
Instead, in a little more than a decade, the BCS had become a fat target for fans, coaches, columnists, announcers, economists, late-night comedians, grandstanding politicians, antitrust lawsuits, hostile Congressional committees , the Department of Justice, the President of the United States and not one, not two, but three separate bills in the House of Representatives that threatened to ban the entire operation by legislative fiat.
Now, though, the Series faces two threats it must actually take seriously: Steadily declining attendance in both regular season and bowl games — average postseason attendance this year hit a 33-year low — and plummeting television ratings in bowl games. The audience for Monday night's Alabama-LSU rematch was easily the smallest ever for a championship game in the BCS era, significantly down even from the BCS' debut on ESPN last year; the audience for last week's Clemson-West Virginia was the smallest ever for a BCS game. Suddenly, the usual insistence that college football is growing in popularity under the BCS isn't viable. Suddenly, the skeptics are at the table. Now they're ready to get this thing done.
Even if it does get done this year, there won't be a playoff — or a plus-one, or a "Delany Dozen," or whatever they want to call it — until 2014, the first year under the next contract. With their track record, it's as likely as not that this group ends up screwing it up, anyway. But the pervasive frustration that has loomed over college football for the last decade has reached a critical mass: If the point of the BCS is to serve as the missing link in the glacial transition from the old, pell mell bowl system and a bona fide playoff, the next phase in its evolution is already underway.
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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.