It took four decades, but the great playoff debate is down to this: The Big 12 and SEC have their plan for a four-team bracket, and the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC have their plan. Two formats enter. Only one may leave.
Given the tenor of the conversation over the past month, it's easy to mistake the process for a burgeoning cage match rather than a long-awaited step forward on which everyone ostensibly agrees. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany went out of his way earlier this month to diss defending champ Alabama for failing to win its own division last year en route to the BCS crown, with an eye toward filtering out also-rans in the proposed playoff; 'Bama coach Nick Saban responded, without a hint of irony, by defending a poll-based plan from "self-absorbed people" looking out for their own leagues. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, a power broker in Saban's camp, promised today that there will be no compromises. With the money on the line in a playoff, make no mistake: If necessary, this means war.
It's just that, with the proposals that actually seem to be on the table, it seems wholly necessary: In terms of making the cut, Delany, Saban, Dodds and just about anyone else you can name are all facing virtually identical prospects under both plans. For the record, the battle lines have formed like so:
1. "Best Four" Plan: Admits the four highest-ranked teams according to the BCS standings, regardless of affiliation or finish in the conference standings. (Favored by the SEC and Big 12.)
2. "Championship" Plan:Admits the four highest-ranked conference champions according to the BCS standings, with a cutoff at No. 6. If there are fewer than four conference champions ranked in the top six, the remaining spot(s) is filled by the highest-ranked at-large team. (Favored by the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big East.)
I'll state right up front that my sympathies are with the "Championship" model, for the simple fact that whatever differences exist between the top six teams in any given year are usually too negligible to leave to a poll or committee* or any combination thereof. Requiring (or at least strongly preferring) a golden ticket in the form of a conference title imposes a more consistent, more democratic and less arbitrary standard: You must win this to win that. That's even more true now that every major conference – pending the inevitable expansionof the Big 12 – is already or soon will be staging its own championship game, which ideally carries the stakes of a de facto play-in round.
But that's just me. At the same time, for all of the head-butting and maneuvering and even my own personal preferences, I'm not really convinced that the eventual decision is going to make any difference. Since the inception of the BCS, the best four teams and the best four conference champions tend to be one and the same:
First things first: The years marked in red are years that produced the exact same conference breakdown under both formats. So in nine of the last 14 seasons, the question is moot. (They don't always produce the same teams, necessarily: Last year, for example, No. 5 Oregon would have represented the Pac-12 under the "Championship" plan instead of No. 4 Stanford, which would have gotten the nod in the "Best Four" format despite finishing behind the Ducks in the North Division. From a conference vs. conference perspective, though, the result is the same.) True, the field is slightly less democratic over the last six years than it was a decade ago, when Florida State and Miami still served as national anchors for the ACC and Big East. But even since 2005, with very few exceptions, there is no real debate.
To the extent that there is a difference, sure, the "Best Four" plan looks like a slight boon to the Big 12 and especially to the SEC: Since 2006, the latter has finished the regular season with both its champion and a runner-up ranked in the top four in three out of six years. (No other league has managed it more than once in that span.) It rewards a concentration of power at the top. Going back to 1998, the "Best Four" plan would have admitted two teams from the same conference nine times, most notably in 2006 and 2008, when all four teams in both seasons would have come out of just two conferences. The "Championship" plan, on the other hand, makes it almost impossible for one league to double up: Alabama in 2011 would have been the first at-large outfit to sneak in since 2005.
But over time, the difference is actually quite small. Under one plan, the Big 12 would have produced 14 playoff teams in 14 years; under the other, 11 playoff teams in 14 years. The SEC goes from 14 playoff teams in one plan to 12 in the other. The Pac-12 claims nine if you do it this way, 11 if you do it that way. For the ACC, Big East and Big Ten, it doesn't really matter – they're all behind the curve any way you slice it. Notre Dame would not have qualified for a single berth under either plan. The only two "mid-major" programs that would have made the cut under either plan (Utah in 2004 and 2008; TCU in 2009-10) have both made subsequent leaps into the major leagues. From any farsighted perspective, no conference can claim an inherent advantage or disadvantage either way.
The only way that isn't true is if one conference asserts such a permanent stranglehold on the top of the polls that it can realistically expect to get a second team into the "Best Four" format most years. Right now, obviously, we're in a window where that conference is the SEC. But with a long-term plan at stake, it's worth remembering how quickly those assumptions can change.
If we were having the same discussion in 2005 – after both Penn State and Ohio State finished No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, and SEC champ Georgia barely cracked the top ten – the current Big Ten and SEC positions probably would have been reversed. The following year, it was the Big Ten that hosted the apocalyptic 1 vs. 2 showdown in November, an entertaining Ohio State win over Michigan, which also produced a serious push for a rematch in the title game. The narrative of SEC dominance might have looked very different over the last five years if the Buckeyes and Wolverines had gotten it, instead of sending OSU into an ambush against underdog Florida.
That was not long ago. And it should go without saying that the landscape will have shifted even more dramatically five years from now, in surprising, unpredictable ways that turn the status quo in the summer of 2012 on its ear. By then, the virtues of a more democratic field, competitive and otherwise, should be apparent to everyone. Of course, by then, the blueprints will be underway for an expansion to a six or eight-team format, and we get to do this all over again.
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* Of course, I'll make an exception if I get to be a member of the committee.