The so-called "plus one" is coming. At least that's what you hear over and over in conversations with people inside college football.
"I think it's inevitable at this point," Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby told Sports Illustrated.
That was echoed in speaking on and off the record with more than a dozen conference commissioners, athletic directors and television executives this week. Some say it directly. Others just come to the conclusion because, well, it makes too much sense. Best anyone can tell, there aren't more than a few opponents: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, BCS executive director Bill Hancock, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and some (but not all) bowl executives.
"There is a strong sense that it's time to push back," said one Big 12 athletic director. "This should've been done long ago."
This is potentially great news for college football – players, coaches and fans – which has needed something better than the current BCS, whose only positive is that it's not as bad (a debatable point) as the old system. The future of the postseason will be determined next year at meetings between the 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame.
So we'll eschew our normal how-to-stage-a-playoff column this year in favor of this: What, exactly, is a "plus one" and how should it be set up to so it can get through the dicey political process?
Yes, even one Delany can live with.
We're still in favor of more, but the landscape has changed and compromise is in the air. This is a good thing.
[Bowl talk: Dan Wetzel's Week 15 podcast]
Let's start with this: The term "plus one" is both confusing and confused. It came from the idea that you stage all the traditional bowls, run the BCS formula again, then have one more game – a "plus one" – between 1-2.
That isn't what people are looking for here, and for good reason. It makes little sense and only extends many of the current problems.
This "plus one" is actually a seeded, four-team playoff. It's just that people don't want to say "playoff," so they call what is undeniably a playoff by another name. Whatever. Let's call it the "Football Final Four" and let everyone who said there'd never be a playoff save face.
Here are the hurdles to getting this done:
1. You have to include existing bowl games. (I wouldn't, but that's the reality of the bowl industry's power over the sport.)
2. You have to protect the Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup in the Rose Bowl. (It's mostly all that Delany cares about.)
3. You have to make more money. (Done, no problem whatsoever.)
4. You have to have the illusion that you're protecting the regular season. (A playoff actually would increase interest and TV ratings in the regular season, but the head-in-the-sand crowd argues otherwise. Even they can't claim a four-team playoff changes much of anything, though.)
5. All other bowls need to survive. (Easy, this never was in question.)
Here is your setup:
You eliminate the term "BCS bowl" – currently the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls. All bowls are equal. All can contract with whatever leagues they want and are not tied into any kind of BCS standings or arbitrary rules. Allow the four former BCS bowls to host the Football Final Four.
I'm not opposed to letting Jerry Jones (or any other game and/or city) bid his way in and bump one out. After all, who is against the free market? Actually, college athletics is, which is why they may stick to their old bowl cronies. Either way, this is not a deal-breaker. If you want to grandfather these four in, go for it.
The four bowls would rotate hosting a semifinal and the championship game. You need three sites each year to accomplish that (two semis, one title game).
The Rose Bowl would sit out its turn at the semifinals, preferring to instead host a traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup on Jan. 1 every year. As they do now, they would "double-host" once every four years – the traditional Rose Bowl and the title game a week later. This is a plan the Rose itself expressed interest in during a meeting last summer between Big Ten and Pac-12 athletic directors, as first reported by the Seattle Times.
It is the single most important compromise to date.
[Wetzel: Flawed BCS process must be scrapped]
Here's how it would look this season. All the other bowl games would continue as is; nothing would change there. But this would be your Jan. 2 schedule:
Is that a day of football you might be interested in?
On Jan. 9, the winners of the Orange and Fiesta then would meet in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.
Next season, it would rotate. Since the Rose would be involved only once every four seasons, over a 12-year period the other three games would be left out of the Football Final Four just once each.
That season, they would have to go out and find two non-tournament teams to play in their game. It's a small price to pay for having a meaningful (and hugely profitable) game 11 of the other 12 seasons. That's an exponentially better setup than the current one, where in off years, they struggle to sell tickets and generate interest.
During the seasons in which they are hosting the title game, they could even stage another game a week earlier. Just find two teams. Again, it's not that important. These bowl games just got the most sweetheart contract of all time. One complaint out of them and the Cotton Bowl gets called in. Or someone lets Indianapolis or Tampa/St. Pete or wherever offer a bid, the way the NFL does with the Super Bowl.
Now, on a side note, college football would be wise to re-work their contract with these games, demanding a far greater cut of the revenue from the playoff and ending the sea of cash these guys currently swim in – best exemplified by the Fiesta Bowl scandal. These games are often corrupt, out of control and an embarrassment to the sport and any public institution that funds them.
That's a side issue, though. If Delany is fine with corruption and cronyism now, he isn't going to oppose the Football Final Four because it continues.
Most of all, this plan is the olive branch to the Big Ten and Pac-12, who own access to the most valuable of the bowls. Every single season, it guarantees the Rose Bowl matchup those leagues care so deeply about. Even if one (or two) of their teams makes the Final Four, the Rose would be allowed to pick the next-best Big Ten or Pac-12 team. No more teams from other leagues in the Rose. It always will be 1955 in Pasadena.
It's possible Delany will remain steadfast against it anyway. He suggested to SI.com's Andy Staples on Thursday that if pushed, the Big Ten might sit out the Football Final Four. Good luck with that. How quickly will coaches from other leagues point out to recruits that if you sign with a Big Ten team, you won't have a chance to compete for the national title?
"I like that," texted one ACC assistant Thursday. "[I] might start using [it] now."
Urban Meyer, Bret Bielema and the others are going to stand for that?
The Rose Bowl also benefits from this plan. Not only does it keep its historic ties, it now will enjoy the ratings bump of having a must-watch playoff game as its lead-in programming. Allowing the Rose to maintain its exclusive late-afternoon window is a considerable, but worthwhile, concession.
Who loses in this? The Gator Bowl, the Outback Bowl, the TicketCity Bowl and the other games currently staged on New Year's Day. They'd either have to go up against a playoff game or move to a new date.
Guess what: Who cares? The executive director of the Outback Bowl made $808,000 in a single year recently for running a third-tier event. These guys have pillaged college football long enough. They can compete in the marketplace or just play it another day. If someone claims protecting the sanctity of the Outback Bowl is a deal-breaker, then maybe we do need a Congressional investigation after all.
The bigger question is whether fan bases will travel consecutive weeks in a row to neutral sites. Many may sit out the semifinals and save their travel and ticket money for the title game if they reach it. That is just one reason the NFL uses home fields until the Super Bowl.
I'm strongly in favor of using campus sites and cutting bowl directors out entirely, but there is staunch resistance to that at this time. The bowl lobby is influential. So this could be an experiment that needs to play out. The onus to sell tickets needs to be on the bowl games, which are getting one of the greatest deals in sports by having college football outsource its most profitable product (its postseason). No one wants to hear them complain.
Besides, the increased viewership should deliver a revenue bump that will offset some unsold seats. This is essentially a TV show anyway.
How do you select the four teams?
It would be best to scrap the absurd BCS standings in favor of a small, educated selection committee. If you must keep the BCS standings, at least make some obvious adjustments, such as not using season-long polls and secret computer formulas.
Again, that's not the issue that's standing in the way of the Football Final Four. Delany, et al, are fine with the BCS standings.
The bigger issue is not having any automatic bids. You simply can't do it with a four-team field; there are at least five strong conferences.
You have to open it up and take the top four, even if multiple teams come from the same league. Not having automatic bids also lessens the chance of an anti-trust lawsuit, which administrators fear because just defending it will cost millions of dollars and immense effort. If somehow, someway, a team from a smaller conference can reach the top four, hey, they are in. With conference realignment, this is extremely unlikely.
And while it may appear that you often could end up with two SEC teams in the field, last season it would've been two Pac-12 schools (Oregon and Stanford). This can work for everyone.
Either way, four access points are better than two.
As for everything else, there aren't a lot of hang-ups. The increased pile of money can be divvied up. And an expanded playoff field (from two to four) will result in higher interest in regular-season games, especially in November and early December, as most teams still are alive for the postseason. TV executives are adamant about that, no matter that the BCS talking point says otherwise.
"I don't know how anyone could put that out there," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said. "It's the [opposite]."
Delany's chief complaint is that a four-team playoff will prove so popular and so profitable that the public will demand more and college football will have to expand the field.
How exactly do you argue against someone who is opposed to a new idea because he believes it will be too successful? Did anyone at Apple try to stop production of the IPad because they thought it might force them to make the IPad 2?
This is nonsense.
"Bracket creep" is the term that BCS executive director Bill Hancock throws out there. Of course, expansion because of market demand is hardly "creep." It's called success. Besides, it only happens if future generations of the sport's leadership deem it a good idea.
It doesn't have to happen. The NFL hasn't expanded its playoffs in 21 seasons and never considered it when negotiating its recent 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
Hancock also expresses concern that the "multi-day bowl experience" might be altered for the semifinal teams, but that, too, is silly. Players overwhelmingly want to settle things on the field, and the chance of winning a championship vastly overrides the chance to participate in a bowl-week pie-eating contest or some other frivolity.
The truth is the only reason bowl games force teams to come and hang out for a week is because for many games, the hotels they use are kicking them back a commission on all those rooms. The Sugar Bowl, one example among many, collected $191,587 in "hotel/motel commission," according to its most recently available federal tax filings.
The bowl "experience" is about money. Please stop insulting our intelligence and claiming otherwise.
You won't find too many who don't believe the above is not only an exciting, positive step forward, but might, in the end, be agreeable even to Delany. We'll see, of course. He remains the biggest obstacle, according to people throughout college athletics.
While Notre Dame's Swarbrick has expressed philosophical opposition and enjoys numerous benefits (financially and in access) in the current BCS, few believe the school has the juice any more to stop anything. Others don't believe he is steadfast anyway, and the elimination of automatic qualifying for major (non-playoff) bowls will put ND, the game's top TV draw, in demand.
Still, Delany, 63, is so entrenched on this issue that a number of power brokers believe nothing will be done until he retires.
And it's worth remembering that while optimism soars here in December, a decision won't be made until next spring at the earliest. A lot can happen. In 2008, SEC commissioner Mike Slive was confident he could get something done. He was shot down immediately.
This is a new day, though. The SEC and ACC have, in the past, been supportive of a similar concept. The Rose Bowl has found a reasonable alternative, according to people at that meeting of Big Ten and Pac-12 athletic directors.
The Big East, which opposed it in 2008, has been gutted as a result, and must be smart enough now to know its only chance at relevance is getting a team (such as Boise State) into the top four. The Big 12 once was opposed, too, but its interim commissioner and ADs have publicly expressed unified support for a "plus one" this week. The Mountain West and Conference USA are merging, and while they'd prefer a bigger playoff, they'll accept this.
Then there is the Pac-12, once an old-school outfit that walked lockstep with the Big Ten. It apparently has seen the light under new commissioner Larry Scott.
"I happen to agree with my conference colleagues about the plus-one game," Bowlsby of Stanford told SI about the support for a new system.
The Football Final Four is a simple plan. It's a better plan. It's a plan that stops worrying about the issues of the 1990s and starts looking at the realities of the 2010s, where the game is a national, not regional, pursuit.
This would be the clearing of college football's biggest hurdle. Once everyone settles in and watches a New Year's Day tripleheader of two playoff games sandwiched around the Rose Bowl, they'll wonder why the heck it took so long.
The Football Final Four may not be perfect, but it ought to be perfect enough for anyone that matters. And if not, hey, good luck explaining it to recruits.
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