For the last 15 years, the term "Big Six" in college football has referred exclusively to the six major conferences – the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC – whose champions were guaranteed a spot in one of the prestigious BCS bowls, with a generous payday to go with it. Now, with the BCS on its way out, it looks like the label is about to take on a whole new meaning:
According to Bill Hancock, the "Big Six" bowls will be played three each on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, around 1 pm/4:30 pm/8.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) June 28, 2012
Under the new definition, the "Big Six" refers to the as yet undetermined bowls that will rotate as host sites for the semifinal rounds of a four-team playoff beginning in 2014. The four "Big Six" bowls that aren't slated for a semifinal game in a given year will maintain their traditional roles as destinations for the top non-playoff teams. It's like the BCS if the BCS made sense. And if Hancock is right about the proposed schedule – three games on Dec. 31, three on Jan. 1, with a primetime semifinal on each night – it stands not only to restore New Year's Day as an annual showcase for the best of college football: It could make the turning of the calendar more meaningful, and more successful, than ever.
That's saying a lot, considering the soft spot almost every CFB fan past legal drinking age has for that date. But even nostalgia for hangovers past is beginning to wear a little thin. Aside from USC's insurgent victory in the 2004 Rose Bowl, the annual Jan. 1 smorgasbord hasn't featured a game with any sort of national championship implications – insurgent or otherwise – since 1998, when the newly formed BCS began spreading the major bowls thin across the first week of January. Since the addition of the fifth big-money bowl, the BCS Championship Game, in 2006-07, the winner-take-all, 1 vs. 2 showdown for the title has come at least days into the new year, and has naturally tended to blot out the sun for everything else that happens between that date and the end of the regular season. The result has been increasingly pathetic ratings across the board, culminating last year in record lows for both the title game and the Series as a whole.
The promise of at least one semifinal game on Jan. 1 is a good start to reversing that trend. Staging the other on New Year's Eve as part of a wall-to-wall, 36-hour college football block party over two days on which the vast majority of Americans are not working has the potential to be a master stroke. Initially, Dec. 31 looks like a tough sell for traditionalists; it's never been a traditional date for any of the big, nationally relevant bowls, and attentions are obviously elsewhere. But if there's a concerted effort to truly own both days, a 36-hour marathon climaxing in a pair of semifinals could quickly earn back the ground the big bowls lost in the BCS era, and then some. Imagine college football's version of the first two, all-consuming days of the NCAA basketball tournament in March. For those two days – not just one – the American sporting universe will revolve around college football and nothing but college football.
If nothing else, at least casual fans will no longer be asked to remember to tune in to a perfunctory matchup in the Orange Bowl on a random Tuesday night; it will be firmly entrenched again as part of the smorgasbord. And hey, considering that the same selection committee that plans to select four teams to fill the playoff bracket also plans to select the match-ups for the "Big Six" bowls itself, for maximum impact, the Orange Bowl might actually wind up with something interesting. Can you remember the last interesting game in the Orange Bowl? Kansas over Virginia Tech?
Since 2005, only one Orange Bowl in the last seven has featured a matchup of two top-10 teams. It's been the lowest-rated BCS game five of the last six years; West Virginia's 70-33 obliteration of Clemson in January was the lowest-rated game in BCS history, and the most lopsided. (Which is saying something, considering five of the last 10 Orange Bowls have been decided by at least 28 points.) Before the BCS, it was arguably the most consistently relevant bowl in the lineup; since, it's become an annual afterthought that hasn't lived up to its elite pedigree since at least 2004. The new format is a golden opportunity to revive it, along with the suddenly resurgent Cotton Bowl, and to lift another game into the same class.
In other words, it's another positive step toward transforming the most haphazard, anticlimactic postseason in major American sports into something that does justice to its edge-of-the-seat regular season. Or at least something that makes sense. One of the chief complaints about a playoff in college football is that it would be organized and run by the same out-of-touch, money-grubbing conference commissioners who spent the last 15 years tweaking and defending the BCS. If anyone can screw up a playoff, it's these guys, amirite?
But the more we hear about the transition from the current debacle, the more it seems that, somehow, they're going to get this … kind of right. The adoption of a playoff was a no-brainer that probably ranks as the most dramatic, progressive innovation in the sport since the forward pass. The decision to ditch the decrepit, obsolete opinion polls in favor of a selection committee will guard against another clumsy string of unintended consequences that few sentient humans would ever sign off on. Condensing all of the biggest games into a two-day showcase on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day resuscitates a beloved tradition and expands on it. In the short term, at last, this is a blueprint for a postseason that is significantly better than what we've had for the last two decades.
If you prefer a more cynical conclusion, of course you can always rest assured that the commissioners are still more concerned with maximizing revenue streams than sating fans' appetite for an undisputed national champion or just about anything else. That will never change. It just so happens that, in this case, making a ton of money finally correlates to producing a better product.