Good news, have-nots: Why the playoffs won't be "BCS 2.0" for non-AQs

By Jerry Hinnen | College Football Writer
Don't worry, Boise fans: the Big Six should be kinder than the BCS. (Getty Images)

The ACC champion is still going to go to the Orange Bowl, usually. The Rose Bowl is still hosting the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, usually. The SEC's and Big 12's champions will be well taken care of in the new Champions Bowl, usually. And if the Rose and Champions willingly abandon some of their places in the playoff rotation, "usually" will be even more often than that. These five leagues aren't "BCS" or "AQ" conferences any more, but where they're concerned, is there any functional difference? And if those contract agreements gobble up all the space in college football's coming "Big Six" New Year's extravaganza, is there any functional difference for the former "non-AQs"?

Much of the reaction to the ACC-Orange Bowl agreement has answered the latter question with a resounding "No." The Idaho Statesman's Brian Murphy, a Boise State beat writer, writes that the playoff is "starting to look like BCS 2.0." ESPN's Andrea Adelson asked "How is [the playoff] different than the system we have today?" and replied "It's not." And CBSSports.com's own Dennis Dodd wrote Tuesday that the playoff "is looking a lot like the old BCS" and wished the have-nots a pessimistic "good luck."

To which we'd respond: not so fast, our friends. If the best guesses as to what the brave new world of 2014 will look like for the have-nots, college football's regime change will bring them good luck. It will be functionally different. It will not be BCS 2.0. And to see why, you don't really have to go any further than the number of teams playing for a national championship increasing from two to four.

The BCS's 14 seasons-to-date have produced all manner of odd contortions where its championship games were concerned--league runner-ups, two-loss teams, a regular-season rematch, an exiled undefeated SEC team--but the one roll of the dice it somehow never managed to land on was the one where a non-AQ team played for the crystal football. Those 14 years were more than enough to prove that the best TCU, or Utah, or Boise State, or even Big East AQ Cincinnati could ever hope for from that system was a pat on the head and a green participation ribbon. "Oh, you went undefeated in the regular season and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl?" the BCS said. "How cute! Here's a lollipop."

But as this blog's Matt Hinton illustrated, boost the playoff field from two to four, and look what happens: a Mountain West team and a Big East team playing for a national title in 2009, and that same Mountain West team earning that right in 2010. Boise never quite broke through in Hinton's projections, but it's not like it was any better off under the BCS, where the Broncos were probably first-runner-ups even if they survive Nevada in 2010 or TCU in 2011. If the Broncos had gone undefeated either of those seasons, though, a playoff would have rewarded them with a shot at a national title.

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Isn't this reason enough for non-AQs to celebrate the BCS's dissolution? TCU and Utah have solved their problems by making the leap to AQ status anyway, but Boise -- and Cincy, and UCF, and San Diego State, and Nevada, and Houston -- has gone from starting every season knowing that the greatest prize it can reasonably win is a league or bowl championship* to knowing that with the right breaks, it could win a national championship. These teams now matter in a way they never have before.

This is a step back? This is running in place?

Of course, most of the "BCS 2.0" objections have been raised over the issue of Big Six access, rather than playoff access, and the specter of bowl contracts collectively squeezing the have-nots out of New Year's. It's true that, unlike with the BCS, there is no longer any specific guarantee that non-AQs meeting a specific rankings benchmark will receive a big-money bowl invite. It's true that there's nothing stopping the remaining Big Six bowls from signing further contracts, particularly the Orange with Notre Dame. It's true that, as Dodd points out, even the current set of contracts could see as few as three open slots in years where none of the the Rose, Champions, or Orange Bowls are hosting semifinals.

But it's also true that based on the best information we currently have, the playoff/Big Six system would have offered non-AQs more access in previous seasons, not the same, and not less. Per Murphy, the other three Big Six bowls (most likely to be the Sugar or Cotton, Fiesta, and Chick-Fil-A) are expected to be preserved as non-contracted "access" bowls. And per Bill Hancock's comments on Thursday's Tim Brando Show, those access points likely won't be filled by the bowls themselves--they'll be filled by playoff selection committee fiat, with the open slots awarded to the corresponding highest-ranked teams in the committee's rankings. (That's Murphy's understanding as well.) If that's the case, the days of the Sugar deciding to take No. 11 Virginia Tech and No. 13 Michigan over higher-rated teams are over.

In that decision's place? Boise State escaping the Las Vegas bowl last year for a New Year's Eve date. The Broncos would have landed in the Big Six in 2010, too**. According to this projection of the entire BCS era to-date by MGoBlog's Seth Fisher, other BCS exclusions like 1998 Tulane, 1999 Marshall, 2008 TCU and 2008 Boise State could have all found room in the Big Six instead of being shunted outside it. The bottom line: guarantee or no guarantee, a mid-major team that puts together a top-10 season under the playoff system is far more likely to see that season justly rewarded than it was under the BCS.

That's all hypothetical, of course. We don't know exactly how the selection committee will rank teams. (It could use "strength of schedule" as a cudgel against mid-majors and avoid using the "conference champions" clause to give them a boost.) We don't know for certain they'll use those rankings assign open bowl slots based on rather than creating a pool for the bowls to choose from. We can't say for certain that more contracts won't cut the number of open slots further.

But at this stage, equal or lesser access for the have-nots is even more hypothetical. All the strongest indications we have suggest that access will increase, not decrease. And that's on top of the all-but-incontrovertible fact that if the national championship door for the Boises and Cincinnatis and even Southern Misses of the FBS world isn't wide open yet, at least it's finally been cracked.

There may come a day when the optimism of men like Big East associate commissioner Nick Carparelli -- who told Murphy that "the notion there is going to be less access is a false one" -- is proven false, and the criticism of the playoff's openness towards the have-nots is justified. But that day hasn't come yet--and based on where things stand today, we'd argue that the day will come instead when the have-nots raise their proverbial glasses to the BCS's demise instead.

*And a pile of cash the players will never see.

**True even in the worst-case "Rose/Champions/Orange outside the semifinals" scenario. Using the final BCS standings with preference for conference champions, you get No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Wisconsin in a Chick-Fil-A semifinal; No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 TCU in a Fiesta semifinal; No. 5 Stanford vs. No. 6 Ohio State in the Rose; No. 7 Oklahoma vs. No. 8 Arkansas in the Champions; and No. 13 Virginia Tech in the Orange. That's three spots left for No. 9 Michigan State, No. 10 Boise, and No. 11 LSU. To avoid a Broncos-Hokies rematch in the Orange, you'd get LSU and Boise in the Sugar/Cotton. Would have been fun, huh?

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