Senior College Football Columnist

Four-team playoff locked? Power brokers say so, but we're skeptical


"I'm not sensing any ground swell for a significant change in the format." -- Bill Hancock, regarding the BCS on April 25, 2011 in the Orlando Sentinel

"We have a four-team playoff for 12 years and we're dead serious about it. We know people are going to want eight. Some will want 16. Some of them will want 32 but it's going to be four for 12 years." -- Bill Hancock to reporters last Thursday (April 25, 2013), two years to the day after saying the BCS wouldn't change.

Excuse us if we're skeptical. Not so much about the coming playoff in 2014, but about how long it will stay at four teams. Nothing against Hancock, the BCS/College Football Playoff executive director. The man was doing his job regarding both passages listed above. What's amazing these days is how quickly the stewards of the game -- the commissioners -- can change their minds. And why we should question why a four-team playoff couldn't evolve naturally into an eight-team structure? Soon.

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"It's set up for that right now," Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said at the conclusion of last week's BCS meetings.

True, the structure is already there. Six branded bowls encompassing 12 teams in a 12-year deal that kicks off in 2014 already is more than accommodating for eight. It's merely a case of expanding from two semifinals to four quarterfinals. That adds a week to the process but remember when we were told there would be no more second-semester football?

Again, excuse us if we're skeptical. With a playoff, we've already been assured of the longest seasons in the game's history. Beginning in 2014, there will be back-to-back College Football Playoff tripleheaders on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 (with rare exceptions). Only two of those six games will be national semifinals. Why not make four of the six meaningful instead of two?

"Because we don't want to," Hancock said. "The presidents have no desire to go to eight. Neither do the commissioners."

Yes, we've heard it all before. Then the negative publicity got to be so loud that the commissioners relented. The biggest reason for a playoff? Basically, you, the fan screamed long enough.

"I wouldn't say it was pressure," said Gary Cavalli, executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. "I think they got tired of fighting the battle. All the negative publicity, just getting hammered and hammered and hammered. ... It was the realization they had: Let's stop fighting a losing PR battle and No. 2, there's more money than any of us ever believed."

It's best to accept, early on, there are no absolutes in the discussion of college football's postseason, even though Hancock and ESPN CEO John Skipper seemed to say so in January regarding the playoff. If anything, the rate of change has sped up -- incredibly. Seventy-seven years elapsed from the first time Princeton and Rutgers mucked around in 1869 to the first AP poll in 1936. The BCS came along in 1998 and will have lasted 16 years before being replaced by the playoff in 2014.

"I don't want to predict that [the field's] going to increase," Cavalli said. "But certainly every bowl would want to be part of that. If it goes to eight and if it goes to 16, how are we a part of that?"

See? Those non-playoff bowls haven't exactly padlocked their doors in the new era. They're wondering how it benefits them. There are built-in problems with staying at four teams, some we don't even realize yet. But for now, they are:

 The selection committee already is proving to be the toughest piece to figure out. There have to be issues going from a more objective-based BCS ranking system to one with more human subjectivity.

 Four teams gets more schools in the championship hunt but doesn't necessarily get the right ones. Check the 2012 BCS standings for a one huge discussion jumping-off point. Pac-12 champion Stanford was sixth at 11-2. The Cardinal won the conference, won at No. 4 Oregon, but lost twice during the regular season. The first was an ugly Thursday-night defeat at Washington. The other was at regular-season No. 1 Notre Dame in a controversial overtime decision.

So who deserves to get in the top four in the scenario? Stanford won the league but wouldn't have been in (based on the BCS standings). The Ducks lost only once (to Stanford at home) and were ranked higher. What's a selection committee to do? It is supposed to favor conference champs.

 Add in the incongruity of conference championship games. The Big 12 is the only BCS conference that doesn't play one. Is that an advantage or not? Too early to tell. Alabama (2011) and Nebraska (2001) played for national championships in the BCS era despite not winning their own divisions. It can be argued with more certainty that an eight-teamer pretty much takes care of all the teams that deserve to play for a national championship.

Hancock -- and the commissioners -- argued for years that a playoff would impact the bowls. If anything, the bowls are now more valuable thanks simply to the overall popularity of the game. Fox Sports COO Larry Jones boldly stood up at a Football Bowl Association meeting last week and practically begged any bowls whose rights are expiring to sign with Fox.

"I think you dramatically change the schedule for one thing [with eight] because you're going to be at least one week deeper into December and maybe more," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby countered. "Four is the right number, and I think it retains the best of the bowl environment and also gives what the public wants which is some sort of playoff.

"I'll be retired before it gets higher than that." Maybe that's all this is, is a handoff to the next generation. Bowlsby is 61. The Big Ten's Jim Delany is 65. SEC power broker Mike Slive is 72. They've done their jobs in getting us to the playoff era.

But the effect on the BCS' credibility was cumulative. Will the public's patience stand for some of those as-yet unknown consequences for 12 years this time?

"Say never on eight," Hancock said.

Sorry, but we're skeptical.

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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