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Champions Bowl changes college football's big picture

The implications of Friday's SEC/Big 12 bowl agreement should have been obvious on Jan. 10.

Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan stood off to the side of the day-after Alabama championship press conference talking to any media outlet with a notebook or microphone.

His bowl, Hoolahan crowed, had a $40 million "war chest" as a buy-in for a possible playoff. This was the World Series of Poker with real honest-to-goodness power brokers at the table, not hygienically challenged card counters.

Turns out Hoolahan was prescient.

When the SEC and Big 12 announced their new bowl agreement Friday, they changed the paradigm of college football perhaps at the most critical time in the game's history. ACC and the Big East? Done in terms of being meaningful major college football conferences in the marketplace. One has barely made a blip in the BCS era. The other just pushed out its commissioner and is hanging on for dear life.

Meanwhile, interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas just hit a walk-off at the end of a career that has spanned four decades. Asked what he would do if he were ACC or Big East commissioner today, Neinas, laughing, said: "Better get a good bowl."

The Big East, ACC and whoever else is still playing in FBS don't have war chests. They have become content farms for leftovers.

The Champions Bowl (working title) became a traveling road show that will be played at the site of the highest bidder. The Big 12 and SEC champions will play each year unless one or both champs are in the playoff. If that's the case, a second choice from the conference(s) is picked.

It's what the deal represents: If you haven't noticed, the top level of college football is now narrowed to the Big Four -- Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC. Those 48 schools control most of the influence, power, money and, most important, product in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That shouldn't be a surprise, but the announcement of the Champions Bowl put a face on college athletics' latest study in Darwinism.

“Nothing's changed,” one industry source said. “The Big East is diminished and the ACC is not the same as those other top leagues.”

Still, 48 schools and two major, big-time bowls. More power in the hands of the powerful. Let your mind wander. Secede from the NCAA? They certainly have the leverage if those 48 want to install their own recruiting rules and play with 150-man rosters? And at one point does a 16-team playoff sponsored by Anheuser-Busch become a reality?

It's all on the table now.

If you're not in the Big Four, you're not big time. That means you, Miami and Florida State, who suddenly have a huge decision to make. Remain outside the Big Four with the ACC making $17 million per year in a league that can't compete for a national championship, or take your valuable brands and petition for entry into the Big 12.

Based on Friday's announcement -- the two biggest football names in the ACC could soon be making $25 million a year in the Big 12.

And if that happens, the ACC becomes a whole lot less desirable to a Notre Dame that has to be thinking seriously about joining a conference. Put it this way: ND isn't going to get better access when the four-team playoff debuts in 2014.

Why not just cut to the chase? Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame to the Big 12. Even the other members of the Big Four (SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12) would have to take notice of that potential earning power.

"Now it's going to put more pressure on Notre Dame to look at the Big 12," said one source involved in the playoff discussions.

One unique feature of this new arrangement: The Champions Bowl will be bid out. The Sugar Bowl is the preferred site, but I'm thinking Jerry Jones has a war chest of his own to bring the game to Cowboys Stadium. Atlanta and the Georgia Dome will want in.

A quality product creates competition. Neinas said there is the possibility RFPs will be sent out. For those not business savvy, that stands for Requests For Proposals. Usually you see RFPs in the bidding for construction contracts. Now you're going to see the winning bid inherit the spending power of Bama Nation for a week in Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando or New Orleans.

That industry source went so far as to call this new arrangement nothing more than a glorified Capital One Bowl (sub in the Big 12 for the Big Ten vs. the SEC). Most years the Champions Bowl is going to be the SEC No. 2 or No. 3 vs. the Big 12 No. 2. If a four-team playoff had been in place during the 14 years of the BCS, the champions of the two leagues would have met only three times (1999, 2001, 2002 based on a seeded, four-teamer).

Again, it's what the deal represents. The power continued to shift. Revenue flows up in college athletics. With at least $400 million on the table for a playoff, most of that revenue is going to the Big Four because they've got the best teams that are going to play for the most championships. You might have noticed the SEC seems to have a nice little streak going.

That's what makes Friday also so crazy and ironic. A couple of months ago the Big 12 and SEC were mortal enemies. The Strength Everywhere Conference had taken Texas A&M and Missouri from the Big 12. The Large Dozen was more than unstable. Now with a new bowl, a new commissioner and a new membership, the SEC is its new best friend.

"The most amazing thing was, this was done in the last two weeks and it never leaked," Neinas said proudly.

Well, not until CBSSports.com broke it Friday morning. Still, congratulations are in order. The SEC and Big 12 had been talking conceptually about such an arrangement since 2004 when no one really knew where the BCS was headed. Since the end of that season, the Big 12 and SEC have combined to win every BCS title. Why not a bowl partnership that can be taken around the country and played like it was U2 on tour?

Two years ago, SEC commissioner Mike Slive mentioned such an arrangement to insiders if the Rose Bowl proved to be too big an impediment to a playoff. The Champions Bowl mimics the Rose Bowl which continues to be the biggest hangup in the playoff discussion. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is trying like heck to protect the Pac-12/Big Ten matchup as much as possible.

Who can blame him? The two conferences are partners in a bowl that, no matter what, rates the highest in the bowl season year after year. Within the context of those playoff discussions, Slive and Neinas just raised the ante.

Neinas has done the math. Even if an actual champion doesn't play in the Champions Bowl, it most likely will be replaced by a top-10 team from the SEC or Big 12. Not bad.

In terms of tradition, power and revenue, the Champions Bowl is approaching the Rose. The Sugar Bowl has been around for 75 years. The Big 12 traces its roots back 105 years. The SEC is the best conference and has been playing in New Orleans forever. It doesn't have the San Gabriel Mountains, but it now has Oklahoma, Texas, LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee in the same bowl club.

If Delany complains about losing one of his traditional Rose Bowl teams to a playoff, Slive can stare across the table and shoot that argument down.

"Jim, we just agreed to do that very thing with the Big 12. On purpose."

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