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Senior College Football Columnist

New playoff setup eliminates have-nots, doesn't quite solve the problem

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Why are these university presidents smiling? Some of them diminsh their schools' championship chances. (AP)  
Why are these university presidents smiling? Some of them diminsh their schools' championship chances. (AP)  

How did we get here? A playoff, really? Wasn't it just last week that Bill Hancock was telling us that a playoff was as close to reality as Jimmy Kimmel was to humor?

I've got a BCS media guide less than a year old with this quote from Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy: "I like the Bowl Championship Series because it gives every team a chance to be rewarded for having a good season."

That quote failed to make it all the way to Boise, Idaho, for some reason.

That's why when they actually announced an honest-to-Delany playoff on Tuesday, it really did seem like it happened overnight. It wasn't too long ago when BCS strategist Ari Fleischer was hired, that he dismissed it as a playoff scheme.

"[A playoff] would be contentious," George W's former press secretary explained, "and create a whole new level of frustration between fans and teams."

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That was December 2009.

At least we've been properly warned. The BCS is dead. Long live the ... what? In that moment 31 months ago, the BCS was employing a lobbyist (former Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts). It fired back by setting up aggressive Facebook and Twitter accounts. The BCS hired a soothing mouthpiece (Hancock), a man nice enough to take the gut shots without throwing a right cross.

Look where it got the BCS: Nowhere. Look what it got us: A different kind of uncertain future. Instead of asking how we got here, maybe it's best to ask why we got here? Since Fleischer spoke those words, the SEC won four more national championships while the Big Ten Network has thrived. The Big 12 is on the brink of signing a $2.5 billion TV contract. The Pac-12 has been completely made over to the point that -- at the moment -- it leads everyone in income.

"It seems like the Big Four have kind of dominated," one bowl executive said Tuesday. "You don't have 11 [conferences] anymore, you have four commissioners. Is that gap bigger between the haves and have-nots?"

The answer is yes, except that -- officially -- there are no more haves and have-nots. That was the first bit of news to sneak out of the playoff process when our Brett McMurphy reported it in December. The elimination of automatic qualifying status was supposed to end the sport's revenue segregation. In the future, it will do anything but that.

Removing labels doesn't remove the reality. A playoff probably lessens access for the sport's unwashed. At least makes it more uncertain. That selection committee? Its composition will have to reflect that the Big East is no longer considered a BCS-level conference. The ACC has become less of a factor. That Big Four -- Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 -- are calling the shots. To be precise, the commissioners of those leagues are calling the shots.

There might be not a thing wrong with that. Those 46 schools predominantly play the best football, win the most championships, make the most money. They have the most invested in this playoff. In the coming age, there are more of the have-nots who will matter less, if that makes any sense. And it should. The incredible windfall from a playoff -- estimated at $500 million per year on the high end -- essentially means those have-nots will trade money for access.

Hush money in shoulder pads.

Going forward, there will be six bowls in the playoff rotation. None of them will be particularly anxious to take an unbeaten Marshall or Tulane or Central Florida (for example) when those bowls aren't playing host to national semifinals.

The ground rules haven't been set yet, but if it were up to those six bowls, there would be no qualification standards in non-playoff years. Don't be surprised if the Orange Bowl signs a deal with Notre Dame. The fact that the traditional Rose Bowl won't be played each year is a boost for the Fiesta. It could take a No. 2 team from the Big Ten or Pac-12.

But the Fiesta suddenly has a lot of options after the Big 12 signed a deal with the SEC to play the Champions Bowl. Most of the college football world found out the morning of that announcement that the bowl ground rules had changed.

Never mind the Fiesta had been a loyal Big 12 partner. Never mind that the Fiesta has done more than its share for the BCS by taking/having to take Boise, TCU, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Utah over the years. (And yes, I know UConn and Pittsburgh were from BCS leagues, but if you don't see the similarity, turn in your fan card.)

It suddenly got a lot more cutthroat out there.

"Will the Cinderella team, will the next Boise State fare better or worse with a selection committee vs. computers and polls?" one commissioner said Tuesday.

The fact that we don't know that answer yet is unsettling. I keep coming back to the 2008 season. The only two major-college undefeated teams that season were Utah and Boise State. Boise State was ninth in the BCS. Utah finished sixth behind three conference champions (Oklahoma, Florida, USC), a conference championship game loser (Alabama) and a division runner-up (Texas). All five had one loss.

A selection committee would have had to supplant at least one of those top four (Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Alabama). Those four just happen to be owners of six of the past 12 national championships. Considering strength of schedule is going to be considered heavily in the future, has anything really changed?

Perhaps the question should be: Does anyone care whether there will be another Boise State? A four-team playoff is likely to render four of those six bowls meaningless in any given year. You're either in the playoff or you're not. You're either playing for a national championship or in an exhibition.

On the face of it, the commissioners are protected from Congress and any anti-trust challenges just by doubling the championship field. That's why Tuesday was mostly a day for celebration, from the loudmouth in the corner bar to the exhausted media member who covered seven meetings in five months to get here.

Playoff criticism isn't a popular topic at the moment. While the world is praising the first major-college football bracket, there are little people wondering whether they'll ever matter again. Conference realignment means that Idaho and New Mexico State can't be the next Boise. They might not even be FBS in the future as the WAC crumbles. Those two schools on the low end of major-college football must decide if they want to go independent or go to Division I-AA.

At the same time the playoff was announced, the Mountain West was quietly denied BCS status for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The conference's appeal was the MWC's last hope after riding TCU's and Boise State's success close to BCS status.

To see it made official hammered the point that a playoff doesn't necessarily make things equal. It makes them richer. On the same day the commissioners were crowing about more access at the top, they were also denying it below to the MWC.

"The sad part about this, it's all about money now," one bowl executive said. "That has trumped everything. How much is enough money? I think they [commissioners] want to control the bowl system. They want to control whatever it is they do."

That's what prompted a 91-year-old man retired 26 years to take a recent phone call.

"No one is raising the question of, is it the business of a university to be an entertainment industry?" said Bill Friday, former North Carolina president and co-founder of the reform-minded Knight Commission.

No one in power seems to listen to Friday or the Knight Commission anymore. They have good ideas. They have values. But those ideas and values don't pay the bills.

"Let's admit we're out to make money. Let's admit that it distorts the academic enterprise," Friday said. "If you can call yourself a university and acknowledge that, you're setting forth a substantial hypocrisy."

Apparently, we're way past the shame of hypocrisy and profit motive. How did we get here? Death by a thousand pundits, multiple lacerations to the Sagarin, a white flag from the commissioners who were sick of being ripped.

Tuesday could be nothing more than a formalization of an awkward, pregnant pause. There will be problems with a four-team playoff we haven't dreamed of yet. The only way this thing begins to make sense is with an eight- or 16-team playoff. The presidents don't seem to be close to considering either model.

But check back in a year -- with Ari Fleischer, for starters. The master strategist seems to have a good sense of the sport's future.


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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