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There's much to be worked out, but thinking playoffs is real progress

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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In 2008, the ACC's John Swofford was one of only two BCS commissioners favorable to a playoff. (Getty Images)  
In 2008, the ACC's John Swofford was one of only two BCS commissioners favorable to a playoff. (Getty Images)  

"I don't want to sniff a playoff. The bowl system is the best thing that college football has going for it. There's a reason why college football's popularity has never been bigger."
-- Matt Hayes, The Sporting News, May 5, 2009

CHICAGO -- The testimonials, like the one above, have been featured annually in the BCS' media guides.

They are not-so-subtle suggestions that a playoff would be berry, berry bad for college football.

In the 2011-12 media guide, the anti-playoff propaganda can be found just nine pages after an explanation that each automatic qualifying conference will receive $22.3 million and the five non-AQ conferences will split $13.2 million, and eight pages after a two-paragraph chapter entitled "The BCS Is Fair."

Right there, as it is every year, the subliminal messages start on Page 14 in the 2011-12 guide under the heading "They Said It" (... just a sampling from many affirmative comments about the current postseason football system ...) are 17 quotes from college football players, coaches and journalists.

The statements range from former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke.

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The only quote not included was from the caveman who invented fire. At that moment, he reportedly said: "Fire good, playoff bad."

The anti-playoff testimonials fill up three pages of the media guide and they are in there for a reason: the powers-to-be didn't want a playoff.

But that has all changed. The Earth is no longer flat, as Hayes and others have grudgingly discovered.

Last week, the commissioners recommended a four-team playoff to begin after the 2014 regular season. The commissioners, with input from their conferences and schools, still must decide on which model to present to the Presidential Oversight Committee. They are still negotiating and jockeying where the games will be played, which teams will qualify and how they'll be selected, but they are actually using the P-word -- playoff -- and that's progress.

Four years ago, at the Diplomat Westin Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., the same hotel where they recommended the four-team playoff last week, there was a much different vibe.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed discussion about a playoff, which ACC commissioner John Swofford also endorsed. Cue the crickets.

Slive and Swofford were greeted with blank stares and silence. It was if they were suggesting the non-AQ conferences should haul in as much loot as the AQ conferences.

"The only place we were safe was in the men's room," Slive joked.

Added Swofford: "There was absolutely no interest. It was a very quick meeting. We were outcasts."

They are outcasts no longer. Now they're considered visionaries, wise men who were ahead of their time.

BCS executive director Bill Hancock said one reason for the change was the commissioners listened to the fans and changed their way of thinking.

At those BCS meetings four years ago "it was five against two who were not interested in a discussion," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Wednesday from Chicago.

Four years later, in part because some of the group (Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White, Pac-12 commissioner Tom Hansen and Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese) had moved on, Delany said he wasn't going to be the only one not open to discussing a playoff.

Delany said he was open to a playoff, if everyone else was open to it.

"People change, times change, tastes change," Slive said. "People are open to talking about what we were talking about four years ago."

Swofford said he didn't believe there was "any singular event" that changed the group's thinking about having a playoff. Perhaps, but I would argue the clinching score was last season's all-SEC BCS title game between LSU and Alabama -- a success in the Southeast, a snoozer most everywhere else.

"The idea of a playoff has evolved and not just over the last four years," Swofford said. "Sometimes, an idea just has to be planted, and it takes some time to germinate, so to speak. I think there’s a cumulative aspect to all this."

Still, there are those who remain against a playoff, including TV play-by-play great Brent Musburger.

"Now, let me give you the two groups who don't want a playoff ... here's the two groups that don't want it: The coaches and the players, OK?" Musburger said during last year's bowl season. "That's how this shakes out. ... I'm a little bit tired of having the players overlooked in this situation because every vote I've ever seen the players [don't want a playoff]."

Actually, the players from the nation's top teams the past two seasons have favored a playoff. How would I know? Because I asked them.

In 2010, I interviewed 163 players from No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon before the BCS title game: 39 percent favored a playoff, 29 percent were opposed and 32 percent were undecided.

Last season, I interviewed 126 players, mostly the starters and top reserves, from No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford before the BCS title game and Fiesta Bowl: 43 percent wanted a playoff, 19 percent were against it and 38 percent were undecided.

Musburger and I talked about my players' poll last year in Phoenix. He suggested if I asked every player on all 70 bowl teams if they wanted a playoff, the results might be different. Perhaps, they might. But at least 60 of those bowl teams would have no shot at winning a playoff.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott recently met with current and former Pac-12 players, including Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and T.J. McDonald, and "the common thread" was the players' desire for some form of playoff.

"If you're a competitor, you want a chance to play for it on the field, versus being voted for," Scott told SI.com. "That was made loud and clear."

Now a four-team playoff of some fashion is on the way. Finally. Slive and Swofford -- along with the other playoff proponents from the non-BCS conferences -- no longer have to sneak around during the BCS meetings.

I'm eager for a playoff to get here in 2014. Two years might seem like a long time, but in the meantime I can't wait to see what quotes fill Pages 14-16 of next year's BCS media guide.

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