Big 12/SEC bowl deal shows ACC, Big East were remiss in not lobbying for eight-team playoff
There remains consternation that the ACC, Big East and, who knows, even the NCAA itself is in danger – real or imagined – following last week's news that the SEC and Big 12 were creating a new bowl game in 2014.
At its most terrified, the speculation has power being consolidated into just four conferences, which can/will expand, leaving everyone else with second-class citizenship and dwindling shares of revenue. It could even lead to major schools splintering from the NCAA itself. Or so the talk goes.
From here, that seems overdone. We're talking about the private ownership of a second-tier bowl – something akin to the Outback or Cotton. It's a move that doesn't bode well for the bowl industry, but not one that will automatically trigger Florida State and Notre Dame to leap to the Big 12.
I could be wrong, though. I could be completely wrong. I'll concede that the ACC and Big East are primed to be plucked. I'll acknowledge the trend toward bigger being better (true or not). I'll agree that even if this isn't a giant step toward four super leagues, it is a step nonetheless.
That is why for the ACC, Big East and other conferences, the risks are enormous here, the stakes considerable.
They still have their best stability card left to be played, one move that can strengthen their leagues, assure their future and likely stem the realignment tides that don't bode well for them: They could scream, politick and push relentlessly for the creation of an eight-team playoff that features six automatic bids and two at-large selections, with the quarterfinals and semifinals played on campus and the title game bid out.
[Related: Creation of SEC-Big 12 bowl game separates the haves from the have-nots]
The odds of getting that done, at this point, are slim to none, if not impossible. Too much time probably has passed. If these leagues ever do die, it'll be because of passivity, inertia and complimentary his-and-her Caribbean cruises courtesy of the bowl lobby.
A four-team playoff is coming, and it's a terrific step for college football. All of the college power brokers, including the lesser leagues, essentially have agreed to it, with the final format still to be hashed out.
Even if it's not ideally set up or continues to outsource semifinal games to third-party bowls, the playoff will make 2014 the best season in college football history. It's a huge upgrade from the BCS, which caused the demarcation that produced so much conference instability.
Four is better than two. I'm fine with it. I've accepted that change comes slowly in college sports. Then again, I'm not a Big East or ACC school staring at an uncertain future, soon to realize four might not be enough, that slow isn't an option.
Eight teams provide not just far more profit but also the opportunity for each of the six "major" conferences (ACC and Big East included) to get an automatic bid to the tournament.
That guarantees access, revenue and power. Every major conference's regular season (and conference title game) now would matter more. (When was the last time the ACC title game had any national impact?) The two at-large spots provide a chance for powerful non-champs, independents or smaller programs to make the field.
The regular season isn't damaged. It's strengthened. More games matter, not less. Most important, if you are the ACC and Big East, more of your games matter.
If the Big East had an automatic bid to an eight-team playoff, then it would have made less sense for, say, Pittsburgh to leave. If Florida State had a guaranteed road to a lucrative playoff, that's one less reason for the school to flirt with the Big 12, where there is stronger competition.
Yes, there is a disparity among conferences for regular-season television money, but it is significantly offset by a playoff that could generate additional hundreds of millions per season.
If you are in the ACC or Big East, whether you think a four-, eight- or 64-team tournament is best is immaterial. This is about plotting the best course for survival.
For too long, administrators in the ACC, Big East and Big 12 (which will survive only because of dodged bullets, great fortune and circumstance) failed to see a football playoff for it really is: not some postseason system but a lifeline.
Give the Mountain West credit. It did realize what was at stake. It fought hard. And while it undoubtedly was stripped down and left behind in the process, at least it fought.
The playoff money is the single biggest pile of available revenue in college sports. With access to the money comes stability, and with stability there is less reason for member schools to fret about the future, develop a wandering eye and jump to supposed greener pastures out of panic.
The BCS has acknowledged that it played a major part in the most recent conference merry-go-round. A four-team playoff softens the problem of the BCS, but it doesn't end it.
Four years ago, the ACC smartly aligned with the SEC and pushed for the kind of four-team event that is about to become reality. It should have asked for more, but at least it tried something.
The Big East, meanwhile, should've demanded the aforementioned eight-team playoff plan, trying to ride its fleeting momentum that it was some kind of equal with the others. Instead, it opposed even discussing the ACC/SEC plan.
Mike Tranghese, the commissioner at the time, even echoed the oldest and most ridiculous of the BCS talking points: that rather than add even a small playoff, the sport would return to the old bowl system (and actually decrease revenue to the schools). As we've seen, that never was going to be an option.
In the ensuing years, the Big East was pillaged, in part because even founding members Syracuse and Pitt couldn't trust in its football future, i.e., a BCS automatic bid.
[Also: Big 12, SEC strike up postseason bowl agreement to combat Rose Bowl]
This time around, the Big East should've led the charge for a big playoff. The ACC should've realized that it's in the same spot the Big East was the last time around and partnered up.
They should've been united in arguing that an eight-team playoff is inevitable. Once the four-teamer's contract ends in eight to 10 years, the wildly successful playoff almost certainly will expand. As such, why not get out in front now, when there aren't just four 12- to 16-team super conferences left?
After all, super conferences aren't good for anybody. Rivalries are diluted, traditions weakened. They will produce more money, but none of it is going to the student-athletes. About the only beneficiaries are the construction contractors building even more opulent "facilities" and the athletic directors who get more time flying around on private jets.
Officially, the leagues always have just parroted whatever talking points the bowl industry and Ari Fleischer were drawing up.
They've brought up preserving the regular season. Nice concept, but when has the chase for the top two nationally done anything to fuel interest in the ACC or Big East regular season? The BCS actually curbed excitement in their games and made their conference title races less important than if there had been a playoff.
They've talked about preserving the bowl system, but that always was a joke, a line that only works on those blissfully unaware of how the bowl industry actually operates. Besides, if the playoff was going to kill all bowl games, why did the SEC and Big 12 just create one that is so potentially powerful it might cause massive realignment?
Mainly, they've sat around and plotted a new postseason like there was no urgency, like their survival wasn't at stake, like the concerns of some cronies in the bowl lobby overrode their own schools. There never has been any indication that they were willing to rock anyone's boat.
The two leagues even appear on board with using bowl sites, rather than college campuses, for the semifinal games in the four-team playoff, a move that will allow a few favored bowl games no-bid access to hundreds of millions in revenue generated by mostly public universities.
Put it this way: If that deal goes through, the future of the Orange Bowl, now sitting pretty with access to the sport's richest games, may be stronger than these leagues.
Of course, it's that same Orange Bowl that sent athletic directors (and spouses) from 11 ACC and Big East schools, plus conference officials, on an all-expense-paid Caribbean cruise in 2010.
Perhaps it's just a coincidence.
To repeat: The greatest cause of realignment has been uncertainty.
While not the impetus behind every move, for the most part schools have cited concern over the future of a particular conference for the need to explore other leagues and do the proverbial "what's best for [insert school]." Perception (be it strength or weakness) often was reality.
You hardly can blame the schools. They're making decisive decisions in the face of uncertain times, trying to do anything they can to maintain their spot at the dinner table. Hard feelings come with the territory.
The conferences could do the same. While they can't change market dynamics, on-field success or historic results, they could've been battling harder for an automatic bid in a lucrative tournament. The Big Ten is attempting a similar thing by pushing for a conference-champions-only clause in the proposed four-team playoff. It's a way to make it easier for its teams to get in the field even in the face of superior SEC candidates.
It's almost certainly too late to get any movement for an eight-team playoff. The chance to carve out a real future likely has passed. They've settled on four. You don't know if you don't try, though.
The threatened leagues could reverse course and show how much more money there is in a bigger event, including more money for the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12. They could demand a plan that is good for all of college athletics. They could question why hundreds of millions in no-bid contracts are about to be handed over to bowl CEOs who have plied public employees with gifts, graft and golf.
They could stand up and prove it will enhance, not hurt the regular season. They could point out that with just two at-large bids, a single loss still could ruin a season. They could use political pressure and point out things, such that 6.2 percent of student costs at Virginia Tech are to support athletics. Or that Rutgers athletics hit up taxpayers and students for $26.9 million to cover costs in fiscal 2009.
They have facts, numbers, logic and common sense on their side.
Mostly, they could threaten to hold up the NCAA legislation needed to expand the postseason into a four-team event (under current rules, schools can play only one game, not the needed two, after their conference title game).
Essentially, they could pull out every stop while they still can to assure maximum stability, profitability and survivability. They could realize, in the final minute, that this is a high-stakes decision.
I doubt they will, of course. That's a bold, confrontational course, and that isn't how commissioners act.
They'd rather all be buddies. They'd rather leave their best card in their hand until it can't be played.
They'd rather not worry about the long-term future of their schools and instead instinctively work for the future of the Belk Bowl while closing their eyes and hoping that the Big 12/SEC deal isn't a sure sign of a pending four-super conference end game.
An end game leaving them with nothing but regret.
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