|The SEC wins the right to have two of its teams face off in a potential title game. (Getty Images)|
CHICAGO -- The playoff issue is as closed as Mike Slive's smile was wide Wednesday night.
"I'm certainly pleased with where we are," the SEC commissioner said.
Very pleased. Delighted too, if you listened to the head of the nation's best football conference repeat himself. In fact the playoff discussion couldn't have moved past here smoothly if he wasn't satisfied.
Get used to a world –--a new college football playoff world -- much like the current one. Tigers, Tide, Gators and Dawgs running loose and free over the landscape. There wasn't a bigger rubber stamp in the room when the playoff pack's 12 Angry Men (11 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick) took their biggest step yet in this discussion.
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CBSSports.com reported Wednesday that the commissioners recommended the first major college playoff consist of a four-team bracket to be picked by a human selection committee. Weight will be given to conference champions. There are details to clean up, like who those humans will be and how much weight is enough weight. But the overriding conclusion was that the conference that has dominated the game in the BCS era will have at least as good a chance in the playoff era. Maybe better.
What has Slive most pleased, but that he wouldn't admit publicly, is that the proposed model allows his conference to have multiple teams in the four-team bracket in any given year. There were two last year. There could be more beginning in 2014 and beyond.
"Absolutely," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who was seen as somewhat of an obstructionist in the process to this point. "I think he wanted a four-team playoff. I think he's been vague about what four 'best' means. He left himself some flexibility."
That's all Slive ever wanted out of these discussions. Selection committee? Sure, whatever. Name a candidate on that committee who won't have the Strength Everywhere Conference's accomplishments burned into his frontal lobes.
The SEC stranglehold already had cut off the blood supply to the rest of FBS by winning six straight titles. The BCS cooperated by making superstars of his teams. The computers and humans had fallen in love with SEC football to the point that the league's champion is pretty much guaranteed to play for the national championship each year in the current system.
And, now, the next system.
Anything to disturb that delicate balance was going to be rejected down South. Nothing but the top four-ranked teams (in some fashion) would do. Slive had been a sort of Kruschev (figuratively), banging his shoe on the table at the SEC spring meetings.
"Sure I think it's to mute the power of the SEC," LSU chancellor Michael Martin told Brett McMurphy earlier this month.
Slive had a philosophical partner in acting Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas. The 80-year old Neinas also wanted a "best four" format. In the crucial last few weeks, one source inside the meeting rooms remarked on Slive's thoughtful input. Instead of actually banging his shoe, the commissioner would wait until everyone had spoken and then offer his insight. Think of an elderly Steve Jobs advising the computer industry. People tend to listen.
In fact, nothing was going to budge in the overall discussion until the Big Four (Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC) were satisfied. Throw in the diminished ACC if you have to, but in the last 20 years, 79 of the 80 schools from those five leagues have finished in the top four (commissioners' research). When those major college powers were appeased, the 12 BCS commissioners stood as one on a press conference stage.
"The fact that we're all here and the fact that we've had some differences and we've worked through most of them [is proof]," Slive said.
But the same reason Slive could have pushed for the entire SEC West in a playoff is the same reason he got blowback from his peers during the process. The game had become too top heavy. In the BCS era, the Big East and ACC have played their way out of relevance. Conference realignment had strengthened the SEC. For other leagues, it merely allowed them to hang on.
The game had become unfair. Five non-BCS programs finished undefeated regular seasons since 1998. Only one of those -- TCU in 2009 and 2010 -- finished in the top four. TCU and Utah are now in BCS leagues, meaning you either accepted your non-BCS fate of being shut out of the process or you moved up. Tulane (undefeated in 1998) Marshall (1999) and Boise (2006, 2008, 2009) didn't. Wednesday's developments gave them hope.
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson pointed out that under the new structure, Utah would have had a chance in a four-team playoff considered by a selection committee in 2008. The Utes finished undefeated and No. 6 that season. Its Sugar Bowl win over Alabama was monumental but still wasn't played for a championship.
"Until you have an eight-team or 16-team seeded playoff, there will be folks out there that aren't completely satisfied. We get that," Scott said. "But, we're trying to balance other important priorities, like the value of the regular season, like the importance of the bowls, like the academic calendar, that make that not feasible at this point and time."
The playoff discussion wouldn't have lasted this long -- six meetings in five months -- if the SEC hadn't won those last six titles. The conference's monopoly on the game was played out in January when LSU and Alabama played for it all. The SEC's dominance was such that the league was guaranteed its sixth consecutive title and first title game loss before the game was played.
A month ago, in the midst of the playoff discussions, the SEC consolidated its power by partnering with the Big 12 in the Champions Bowl. Wednesday's "win" seemed like another national championship ... because it opened the door to future national championships.
The four-team model awaits BCS Presidential Oversight Committee approval which could come as soon as next week in Washington, D.C. But the commissioners didn't come this far without communicating to those presidents exactly where this was headed. Expect that CEO rubber stamp because the commissioners accomplished much of what they set out to do:
• Provide access for the have-nots. The next Boise awaits with an actual chance to play for a national championship. (See Utah example). Who knows, it might actually be ... Boise.
• Provide fairness. Take 2011. In the proposed system, No. 5 Oregon probably would have been voted in ahead of No. 4 Stanford. The Ducks won the Pac-12. The Cardinal, which lost to Oregon, didn't.
• Turn down the volume on the most contentious offseason since Princeton and Rutgers squawked about a rematch in 1869.
A playoff is all but here. The BCS is dead. The rest of college football remains in that SEC stranglehold.