Senior College Football Columnist

Playoff system? Get ready for your Boise State-types to have less access


ACC commissioner John Swofford is one of five members of the playoff revenue subcommittee. (Getty Images)  
ACC commissioner John Swofford is one of five members of the playoff revenue subcommittee. (Getty Images)  

Tommy Bowden already sees what's coming in a college football playoff. His Tulane team was one of the first test cases of something called the Bowl Championship Series 14 years ago.

The Green Wave were one of only two undefeated teams during the 1998 regular season. Tennessee was the other. Tulane finished 10th in the regular season, eventually beating BYU in the Liberty Bowl. Tennessee went on to win the national championship.

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Outrage in New Orleans? Not back then.

"Our schedule was just not very tough," said Bowden, who coached those 12-0 Conference USA champions. "I was getting a lot of calls from reporters. I just told them up front, 'I don't think our schedule merits me being in.' "

A team that produced an NFL quarterback (Shaun King) and one of the first refined zone-read, spread-option offenses, made its case beating the likes of SMU, Navy, Memphis and Army.

"I coached in the SEC for 11 years," said Bowden, who also worked at Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky. "I was so familiar with how that league was week to week-to-week ... That's kind of been my analogy. The schedule is such a huge factor -- schedule and margin of victory. Anytime I have voted [in the coaches' poll] those have been the two major things. Those guys like Utah and Boise, they just don't play the strength of schedule."

The outcry for those non-BCS teams, as you may have noticed, became louder and more shrill over the years. Five such programs finished undefeated regular seasons since 1998. Only one non-BCS school -- TCU in 2009 and 2010 -- finished in the top four.

Considering that TCU is now in the Big 12, no current non-BCS school has finished in that top four which figures to be the cutoff for the playoff beginning in 2014.

The growing realization is that access to the sport's new postseason will be worse for the have-nots. Worse, meaning the six power conferences are now down to five, at most, thanks to Big East realignment. Worse for those suddenly finding themselves outside of what is increasingly being referred to as the Big Four: Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten. Teams from those leagues have won championships in 16 of the past 18 years.

Worse, meaning thanks to realignment two of those five schools -- TCU and Utah -- have moved up to power conferences.

Worse, in that it looks like for the first time since 1994, Notre Dame won't have at least de facto automatic access to a major bowl. Four years before the BCS was born, the Irish got into the 1994 Fiesta Bowl at 6-4-1. No more it would seem. Unless something drastic happens, Notre Dame is going to have the same access to the playoff as ... Army.

Good luck figuring this all out before the June 26 BCS presidential oversight committee meeting in Washington, D.C. That meeting could produce a playoff model -- but don't hold your breath.

"If they walk out of there and they only agree to a top-four playoff," said one source familiar with the discussions. "The [overall] access point is going to be worse."

In essence, there were will more, weaker non-BCS schools in future despite the assumed quality developed by the elimination of automatic qualifying conferences. The Big East has become a facsimile of Conference USA. Conference USA and the Mountain West were raided so the Big East could exist. Without signing a document, the split between the haves and have-nots has gone from 66-54 (current BCS/non-BCS structure) to 46-64 (Big Four/everyone else).

The playoff revenue subcommittee consisting of commissioners Craig Thompson (Mountain West), Jim Delany (Big Ten), Mike Slive (SEC), John Swofford (ACC) and Jon Steinbrecher (MAC) have an impossible job ahead: How to distribute the windfall of cash the playoff is going to generate.

A postseason that generated $140 million to $180 million suddenly may be worth more than twice that. At least. All that talk of 16-team super conferences? Congress and antitrust will be more than interested where and how the money is distributed.

Look for the have-nots to essentially trade money for access. The BCS best of Marshall (12th in 1998), Miami (Ohio) (11th in 2003) and Hawaii (10th in 2007) would be no closer to a playoff but would be getting at least a nominal revenue increase. The current split of the BCS net revenue is 85 percent for the six power conferences, 15 percent for all others.

It's that AQ status -- guaranteed bowls for the six power conference champs -- that at least gave the have-nots a shot at a BCS bowl. If at least one of their champions finished in the top 12 -- top 16 if it finished above a BCS champion -- they were at least in a BCS bowl.

That's what happened to TCU, Utah and Boise over the years. AQ status ends after the 2013 season.

"It's the AQ piece that gave you access," said a playoff source. "Be careful what you wish for."

Earlier this year, former Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick proposed a model that would have included 20 teams in a new BCS/playoff postseason. Under their plan, the two semifinals would have been played on campus before Christmas. The championship game would be played on the first Monday in January. Between the semis and the championship game a three-day, eight-game bowl "festival" would be played.

Those games would be branded BCS (or whatever the commissioners re-brand their postseason) and funded accordingly. The proposal did not get out of the meeting room.

Maybe because the 1998 Tulane team would have been a part of that festival.

"Until they go to a 16-team or 32-team playoff, it's just going to be hard to get a most accurate champion," Bowden said. "They'll experiment with that next-best solution. I don't know if there is a next-best one that is cut and dried."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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