NEW ORLEANS -- Change is coming to the BCS, and judging by the talk coming out of Tuesday's meeting of conference commissioners, that change could be fairly drastic. A four-team playoff or some other model featuring an additional game or games? On the table. The elimination of the automatic qualifying designation that created a clearly delineated caste system in college football? On the table.
"Everything," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said, "is in the mix."
The conferences have until September to hammer out a new postseason format before the window opens for negotiation with current rightsholder ESPN for games played beginning in the 2014 season. They last held such discussions in 2008, but the tone was quite different. Then, SEC commissioner Mike Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford introduced a four-team playoff model to a chorus of crickets. This time around, new ideas will not be so quickly dismissed.
"The environment has changed in the sense that we had five people who didn't want to talk about it among the seven founders," Delany said. "The seven founders are the six conferences plus Notre Dame. Four years ago, five of us didn't want to have the conversation. Now, people want to have the conversation."
Delany should know. The Big Ten was one of the Intransigent Five. The others were the Big 12, the Big East, the Pac-10 and Notre Dame. But now the SEC's stranglehold on the national title has reached a sixth season, a season that culminated in an SEC vs. SEC BCS title matchup. One-loss Oklahoma State of the Big 12 was shut out of the national title discussion. So was one-loss Stanford of the Pac-12.
That has changed the game, along with several other factors. First, ESPN won't be bidding against itself this time around. Fox wants another crack at the BCS. So does Comcast/NBC. The proliferation of DVRs has raised the price for live sports, because it is the only programming the average viewer doesn't time-shift in order to zap away commercials. So even a game as snoozeworthy as Monday's 21-0 Alabama blowout of LSU -- the lowest rated BCS title game since the system began -- commands a huge premium.
Also, the players have changed. Delany remains, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stills seems philosophically aligned with his Big Ten counterpart, but three new commissioners could swing the balance of power toward Slive's and Swofford's side.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto is fighting to keep his league in the sport's upper echelon. Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas may seem like the president of the old boy network, but the man knows how to look into the future, and he isn't afraid to rise up against the established order. In the '80s, Neinas was the architect of the lawsuit that broke the NCAA's control of football television rights and allowed conferences to negotiate their own TV deals. In essence, he is the man most responsible for the huge checks conferences receive every year from media partners. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott might be the biggest wild card. Though he works for a league that has traditionally moved in lockstep with the Big Ten, the former Women's Tennis Association commissioner has not been shy about challenging the status quo.
Scott offered a telling observation Tuesday. Asked if the commissioners planned to discuss any "radical" ideas, Scott chuckled. "Depends on your perspective," Scott said. "From my perspective, no." That doesn't mean Scott will rally his colleagues into a full-blown playoff, but it does mean he'll be willing to listen to someone else's ideas and offer a few of his own.
Meanwhile, the commissioners of the current non-AQ leagues are pushing to eliminate the bowl hierarchy, even though the current system has opened up access to major bowls to leagues such as the Mountain West and the WAC. Why would they want this? Because the mad dash to get into an AQ league has gutted their conferences. So they chose the lesser of two evils. That has made the Mountain West and Conference USA unlikely teammates with the SEC and Big Ten, which stand to benefit most from the elimination of the AQ designation and a return -- at least below the national title game/tournament -- to the old bowl system.
This time around, even Delany seems willing to play ball. He wants to protect his league's relationship with the Rose Bowl, but he understands the market well enough to know the consumers and stakeholders probably aren't going to be satisfied with the status quo. "As time has gone on, even though we've acted in good faith to improve it, there are frustrations," Delany said.
So what does that mean for you, the consumer of college football? At the moment, nothing. The current contract runs through the 2013 season. Also, don't expect the commissioners and their presidents to institute anything close to the playoff systems used in the other NCAA football divisions. This may eventually happen, but it won't for a long time.
In the next few months, the commissioners will come up with their own ideas. They will canvass their presidents to determine what is tolerable. Then they will build coalitions, wheedle and cajole and try to push the idea that most benefits their leagues. By summer, they'll have a plan. But Tuesday wasn't a day for specifics. "You can say, conceptually, I like a plus-one model -- which I happen to like," the ACC's Swofford said. "But there are a lot of different plus-one models." Said Scott: "Today wasn't about ruling things out or weighing ideas. It was just going around the table and getting everyone's perspective. ... It was more philosophical today than conceptual. I think that will, in people's minds, help frame the options."
The time will come soon for concrete proposals. Don't get too excited yet, but it seems as if the people who run college football finally understand they need a better way to determine a national champion on the field, and the TV networks are quite willing to pay a premium to broadcast that chase for the title. Little is certain except this: The current system will not survive. Tuesday, the commissioners offered reason to hope that they will come up with something better.
"I don't have a sense of where it's going yet," Scott said. "There is a good, healthy level of open-mindedness. I was encouraged by that. Everyone is looking forward. No one is looking backward."
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