To the delight of frustrated fans, the widely reviled BCS will soon be no more. "It will be a seismic change for college football, obviously," executive director Bill Hancock said last week after conference commissioners agreed to pursue a four-team playoff that would begin with the 2014 season. Public criticism of the current system has grown too loud, the prospect of doubling or tripling the current $160 million contract with ESPN too enticing. But as ACC commissioner John Swofford said after three days of meetings last week in Hollywood, Fla., "The devil is in the details. We're going to find out how much devil is in there." Each conference's presidents, athletic directors and coaches will be asked to weigh in on several undisclosed proposals, and disagreement is likely to reign.
Here's how a hypothetical playoff would look if SI called the shots:
• LOCATION: Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is among the proponents of hosting playoff games at campus stadiums. While the prospect of Alabama visiting Nebraska in late December may sound enticing, in reality, small college towns like Eugene, Ore., and State College, Pa., aren't equipped to host tens of thousands of visiting fans, media and corporate sponsors, particularly on short notice, maybe as few as 23 days. Press boxes are oftentimes small, hotel rooms in short supply and stadiums lacking the type of luxury suites that maximize revenue. "It may have more disadvantages than advantages," says SEC commissioner Mike Slive. More important, coaches and players should not be denied the traditional bowl-week experience that other lesser bowl-bound programs will continue to enjoy. "Having the bowl system intact as much as possible is probably healthy for college football," says Alabama coach Nick Saban.
To achieve that, the traditional bowls will host the two semifinal games, while still maintaining their historical conference tie-ins. If, for example, the No. 1 seed in a given year is the Big Ten or Pac-12 champ, it would host the No. 4 seed in the Rose Bowl. (The traditionalists in Pasadena would have to sacrifice their desire to keep an annual Big Ten--Pac-12 matchup, which, recent developments suggest, they're willing to do.) If the No. 2 seed hails from the SEC, it would host the No. 3 seed in the Sugar Bowl. Ditto the ACC and the Orange Bowl. Two existing bowls (one of them most likely the revitalized Cotton) would join the four existing BCS games, in part to serve as semifinal hosts should the No. 1 and/or No. 2 teams hail from unaffiliated conferences such as the Big East or Mountain West, or when the No. 1 and No. 2 teams hail from the same conference, as happened last year. All six potential semifinal bowls, which we'll call the Big Six, would be played on either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, with the national-championship game to follow roughly a week later, depending on the calendar. Like the Super Bowl or the Final Four, that event will be bid out to any city, from New York to Atlanta to Indianapolis, giving all regions of the country an opportunity to participate in the college postseason.
Had this system been in place last season (using the final BCS rankings for this exercise only), top-seeded LSU would have faced No. 4 Stanford in the Sugar, and second-seeded Alabama would have met No. 3 Oklahoma State in one of the unaffiliated bowls, such as the Cotton.
• ACCESS: Following last season's wildly unpopular Alabama-LSU championship rematch, there's been considerable public sentiment in favor of restricting the national-title race solely to conference champions (which would have eliminated Alabama last year). But that would create too many credibility issues. Fans won't universally accept a team ranked seventh in the AP poll that happens to be that year's Big 12 champion emerging from a field that's missing one or more teams ranked above it. You'd also have to make exceptions for Notre Dame and other independents as well. "[Numbers] 1 through 4 is more easily understandable," says Swofford. Therefore, the playoff should consist of the nation's top four teams with no restrictions.
• SELECTION: It's time to scrap the clunky BCS standings, composed of computer rankings that no one understands and polls made up either of coaches who rarely see teams outside their own conferences or out-of-touch Harris voters. Institute a selection committee, much like that used for the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, consisting of recent or retired former head coaches who know the sport best and don't have a full-time job to divert their attention. Give them a set of guidelines to follow, most notably an emphasis on schedule strength (to preclude against padding records with cupcakes) and head-to-head results with other contenders.
There will be many other details to hash out, including the dicey issue of revenue distribution (the automatic-qualifying-conference designation is going away, but that doesn't mean the Sun Belt will get the same cut as the SEC), and improving the selection process for nonplayoff bowls (a minimum top 15 ranking should be instituted for the Big Six). The SI model ensures a credible event that both incorporates the tradition of bowl games and maintains the sport's week-in, week-out regular-season stakes. "The goal is to make the postseason a celebration of college football," says Slive. After waiting all this time, long-suffering playoff proponents may soon be holding their own celebration.