SANDESTIN, Fla. -- What used to be fuel for the news cycle in this interminable journey toward a major college playoff has devolved into a study in posturing. A war of words to protect turf, tradition and Tuscaloosa.
Don't think so? Here we are, three weeks from when the playoff format could be revealed and the consensus builders seem to be deconstructing. To call it anything else would be refusing to sense the vibe that permeated the beginning of the SEC spring meetings that began on Tuesday.
"It's just like politics and self-interest," Nick Saban said. "Somebody wants to create a circumstance that's going to help their situation or conference. That's not in the best interest of college football."
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That's really the question isn't it -- What is in the best interests of a game about to be reshaped?
You suggest campus sites only for the semifinals, Big Ten? Suddenly, word slips that it really isn't in anyone's interest for ESPN, on a cold, windy Saturday night, cutting to a braying Brent Musburger, "Liiive, from Evanston, Ill."
You trot out Rose Bowl tradition, Jim Delany? The Big 12 and SEC go out and form their own Rose Bowl, East.
You want harmony? Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott recently suggested it may not be possible. After all these months and all this blather about a four-team playoff, we may be left with nothing more than a plus-one, one extra game after the bowls.
The discussion has degraded to a series of give-backs, bargaining chips and one-upmanship being played out in newsprint and cyberspace.
"Oh, they'd never negotiate this in the media," said a source involved in the playoff process, rolling his eyes to accentuate the sarcasm.
"We're advocates for our leagues," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "We hope that in some way we can reach agreement."
If "agreement" is code for "it's getting ugly," then it's on ...
The SEC wants a seeded top four that could be populated with as many of its teams as possible. There were two last year. The way things are going in the best run the SEC has been on, who's to say it couldn't be three in 2012?
Meanwhile, the Big Ten's campus sites suggestion for the semifinals are off the table, perhaps because they were never on.
"For some young kid from Mobile, Alabama, who has never seen snow to have to go play a national championship game in Wisconsin," Saban said. "I don't know if that's the right thing."
Scott's plus-one, while perhaps frowned upon after all the work that has been put in, remains a realistic option. Those in the room trying to shape a new normal suddenly can't agree on the timing of potty breaks.
In this corner, still undefeated (at least in the last six national championship games), for the moment, remains the SEC.
"All the interest in this is to make sure that we get the four best teams playing in the playoff," Saban reiterated.
That's the issue: Define "best." A seeded top four benefits the SEC most because it is the best. The league has had at least one team finish in the top four of the BCS every year since 2001. Unspoken at these meetings is the belief that in any given year, a runner-up in an SEC division is better than any other conference champion. It happened last year in New Orleans.
"The debate," Saban said, "went from not really who were the two best teams last year but the fact that those two teams had already played."
Upon reflection, LSU's Les Miles had no problem with a rematch.
"To me, simply put, we wanted to play the best team in the country when we got there," he said, "and daggone it, we did."
Miles almost argued against himself. No team in BCS history got a more unfair draw than his Tigers. They won in the belly of the beast, Alabama, went 13-0 in the nation's toughest conference, then had to beat the Tide again to validate that accomplishment in the BCS title game. Miles was reminded if conference champs only was in place last year, LSU would have been national champs playing No. 10 Wisconsin.
"Correct," he said.
"You think that was a mistake and then guess what? The system is wrong yet again and let's go fix it again," Miles said.
And no one wants to go through this again anytime soon. Delany and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick told CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy that a finalized playoff model should emerge following the June 20 BCS meetings in Chicago. Word is that the commissioners would like to lock up an eight-year deal for the playoff with whatever rightsholder(s) backs up the biggest Brinks truck.
Conference champs might be popular among the populace if for no other reason that the SEC would be limited to one playoff participant. Among the current six BCS conferences, only the Big 12 agrees with the SEC on the seeded top four thing.
Compromise may come in the form of a new model that emerged Tuesday. The so-called "three-and-one" would reserve the top three spots for conference champions. The fourth spot would be a "wild card" that perhaps could accommodate Notre Dame, a non-BCS breakthrough (think Boise State) or Alabama of 2011 vintage -- a team that doesn't so much as win its division but remains highly ranked.
The commissioners aren't quite sure who would get, or be eligible for, that fourth spot. That confuses a process that set out to be more easily digestible for the public. Applying the three-and-one model to 2011, LSU, Oklahoma State and Oregon would have been the top-three ranked conference champs. Alabama would have made it as an at-large ranked No. 2.
The semis would have looked like this:
No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oregon No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma State
Nothing would have changed in the BCS top four from 2007-10. The next blip on the radar comes in 2006. That year, No. 1 Ohio State would have played No. 4 USC and No. 2 Florida would have met No. 3 Michigan. The Wolverines did not win the Big Ten that year. USC -- fifth in the BCS that year -- would have gotten in as a conference champ.
You're reading this at the bottom of the column because taking any of it to any bank at this point would be a study in financial ruin.
Three-and-one? Could be nothing more than posturing.