Whatever comes next, playoff consensus is one great leap for college football
We're going to have a college football playoff. The rest is gravy.
No, it's not going to solve every debate. It's not going to make everyone happy. It's not the elaborate, 16-team, double-elimination plan you drew up in your dorm room. It's not perfect. Technically, it's not even a done deal: There are still details to hash out, logistics to confirm, votes to corral. Knowing the men who pull the strings and the interests they represent, there are certainly a few battles left to fight. Lord knows there will be dollars to count.
And, well, that's just fine. That's the easy part. As of today, the hard part is over: June 20, 2012, is the conference commissioners emerged with straight faces from a shadowy Chicago lair known as the "Camelot Room" and announced that they have come to a consensus on a college football playoff. It's Independence Day.
Specifically, the commissioners have reached an agreement on a four-team playoff beginning in 2014, when the current contract expires on the soon-to-be-defunct Bowl Championship Series. They'll recommend said format to university presidents next week. For now, that's all we know. How will they select the four teams? How will they seed them? Where will the semifinal games be played? Will the BCS bowls be involved? The Rose Bowl? Will they bid out the championship game on a rotating basis, like the Super Bowl? What happens to the major bowls that aren't included the playoff? Will it eventually expand beyond four teams? Who's going to organize it? Who's going to televise it? How much money is all of this going to bring in? How are the conferences going to divvy it up? Right now, the answer to all of the above is: Who knows?
But for the moment, it should be: Who cares? We're going to have a college football playoff. The rest is gravy.
Within a few years, the fact that the sport actually spent several decades debating the viability of a playoff will seem absurd; to plenty of fans, it already does, and has for a long time. All of the old canards about academic calendars and season length will be buried soon enough beneath massive popularity, money and success. (And then beneath an even larger, expanded bracket.) Still, even for advocates, the speed at which it's actually arrived is stunning. A decade ago, the sport's entrenched power brokers were so cool to the concept of a playoff that they didn't seem so much opposed to the idea as they were simply oblivious to the idea. It just isn't done, you see. Within the last five years, plenty of informed, intelligent observers continued to insist it would never happen – at least not while Jim Delany was on that wall, turning back the heathen tides for the sake of the Big Ten and the virtue of its true love, the Rose Bowl.
For those of us who considered a playoff inevitable, it sometimes seemed that the decades of history and tradition invested in bowls and polls would take almost as many decades to overcame. At the very least, it would take an entirely new generation of conference commissioners. But there was Delany today, merely attempting to tap the brakes a bit, while his counterpart from the SEC beamed in triumph. Barring an unforeseen, unprecedented catastrophe, it's going to happen in 2014.
So the victory for playoff advocates is simply that a playoff is going to exist. That in itself is the giant leap forward. If they follow through on today's promise, the commissioners cannot screw it up, because they've bought into the basic premise: After 80 years of living under the thumb of subjective opinion polls and computer algorithms, the championship of the sport is actually going to be settled by teams playing the sport.
Maybe it's too few teams, for now. Probably some team is going to make the cut that really doesn't belong; definitely some teams are going to be snubbed that really do belong. Polls and/or committees will still exert some influence. We can live with that a little while longer. Expansion and credentialing are somewhere down the list of priorities. At the top of the list, though, is the basic demand to respect the sport enough to settle its championship on the field rather than by a collective guessing game. No other sport does it that way, and soon college football won't, either. That is what counts.
We do know what comes next: A meeting of the BCS' Presidential Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C., on June 26, where university presidents will discuss various options for a four-team format – and a "plus one" format, just to say they discussed it – and take a vote to begin bringing the plan into some kind of practical focus. They'll compromise on a few issues and stubbornly cling to their own biases and interests on others. And whatever they eventually come up with, as long as it still resembles a playoff, will be an exponential improvement on the status quo.
Just as long as they don't put Craig James on a selection committee.
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