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BCS playoffs - College playoff format could rotate among six bowls

8:28 AM, Jun 26, 2012   |    comments
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By Steve Wieberg, USA TODAY

Endorsement is expected Tuesday for an historic four-team major college football playoff - only there'll be more to the new system than that.

It likely will entail a total of seven games each year, including four top-tier bowls apart from the playoff, according to two officials involved in the discussions. They spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because those details haven't been publicly released.

All told, the system would incorporate six bowls. Two would rotate each year as playoff semifinal sites, and the other four would serve as attractive landing spots for the best non-playoff teams.

The playoff final - the national championship game - would be put up for bid.

Conference commissioners endorsed the concept of a four-team playoff last week, and will meet Tuesday in Washington, D.C., with an oversight committee of university presidents and chancellors. Those CEOs have final say.

Coming out of meetings in Chicago last week, many of the details of the playoff and bowl plan remained to be worked out.

The "most likely" overall format, one of the officials told USA TODAY, would complement the three-game playoff with four bowls. Among other things, those bowls would accommodate teams that win conference championships but don't make the playoff or can't play in their affiliated bowl - for instance, the Rose in the case of a Big Ten champion - because the bowl is serving as a semifinal.

The system would allow the top-tier bowls and conferences to maintain their ties and continue to give marquee-league champions access to high-profile, high-paying postseason games.

This all is separate from the national championship game. An existing bowl could bid for it separately.

Outside entities also could bid, and eyes first will be cast toward Texas, where Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones already has joined the Cotton Bowl in a new nonprofit group working to bring the game to the lavish, more than 100,000-seat Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

There is also expected to be a 65,000-seat minimum for consideration.

Questions and answers about the prospective new format:

What took college football so long?
Many in college football are beholden to the sport's decades-old tradition of bowl games. The Big Ten and Pacific-12 conferences, in particular, have been fiercely protective of their partnership with the Rose.

Then there is the view of people like Bobby Bowden, who played four years of college football, spent 57 years as a coach and stepped into the sport's Hall of Fame in 2006. All he has known is bowls and polls and the charm of settling a national championship without some kind of dadgum, season-ending tournament.

"I'm from the old school," says the game's second-winningest coach. " ... What's wrong with the way it was?"

There's now a glut of 34 bowls before the Bowl Championship Series title game, but coaches and others like the idea of 35 teams - not one - walking off the field a final time as winners.

Deeper than that is a fear of damaging what most consider to be the best regular season in all of sports, college or pro. Attendance and television interest, as measured in ratings and rights fees, are healthy.

Five schools drew better than 100,000 fans per home game last season, 40 of the 120 in the NCAA's bowl subdivision averaged at least 50,000, and from that comes a substantial slice of their athletics revenues.

Men's basketball, which revolves around March Madness, serves as a cautionary example of a sport in which a full-blown tournament has sucked away meaning and interest from the regular season.

"We've grown the NCAA basketball tournament to such an extent that it's almost just a one-month sport," says Roy Kramer, former Southeastern Conference commissioner and a chief architect of the BCS. "You can't do that with college football."

A four-team playoff won't have impact on the regular season?

Not, it's hoped, when it adds only the two semifinals to the postseason menu. They'd be played New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, reclaiming what used to be college football's prime time.

The commissioners' insistence on weighing the strength of schedules and conference titles more heavily in team selection also speaks to keeping the regular season relevant. A league title, for example, would serve as a tiebreaker when the credentials of a conference champion and a non-champion are otherwise all but identical.

Yes, but how long would a playoff stay at only four teams?

Officials acknowledge the inevitability of public clamor for a bigger bracket. "Until you have an eight-team or 16-team, seeded playoff," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott says, "there will be folks out there that aren't completely satisfied."

The BCS' array of TV and other contracts has run for four years at a time, and Scott and his colleagues say they're working on a longer-term deal for a playoff - eight years or longer - for the sake of greater stability. It also would hold off debate of playoff expansion.

Why go to a selection committee?
The commissioners haven't gone public with that preference, but three participants in their meeting in Chicago last week confirmed it to USA TODAY Sports. A committee would supplant the mix of polls and computer rankings used by the BCS for the past 14 seasons and still in place for the next two.

There is dissatisfaction with the complexity of the BCS rankings and the lack of transparency. Voters in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll keep their ballots secret until the end of the regular season, and five of the six affiliated computer services don't divulge their methodology.

Mathematical rankings also can lack common sense. The final BCS rankings last year put Stanford at No. 4 and Oregon at No. 5 even though the Ducks won head-to-head and finished as Pac-12 champions.

Not that the new system will eliminate controversy. The line between the nation's No. 4 and 5 teams figures to be far more fiercely debated than the one between the 68th team that gets in the NCAA men's basketball tournament and a left-out No. 69.

Who'd sit on the committee?
That's among the details yet to be worked out. Commissioners and athletics directors make up men's basketball's 10-person committee, and football's could follow that template.

The football panel may wind up larger because, drawing from 120 schools across 11 conferences, there's greater potential for conflict of interest (men's basketball draws from some 340 schools across 31 leagues).

It has been suggested that Bowden and other former coaches with knowledge of the game and time to follow it also would make good candidates. His ambivalence to a playoff aside, the Florida State icon says he'd probably serve, if asked, out of a sense of duty.

But Bowden underscores concerns about human bias.

"If I had a team from Georgia and the feeling was it was equal with a team from the West Coast," he says, "I'd go with Georgia. 'Cause I'm from that part of the country. I know them personally. I know the coaches. I know the players. That's what happens when you get the human element involved in it."

Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer acknowledges the heat that committee members could take in paring the number of national title contenders to four, and he chuckles when asked about his interest in an appointment.

"I don't know," he says. "Do you think they'll pay anything for it?"

How many of the 12 teams would the committee pick?
That's also still under discussion, one of the officials told USA TODAY Sports. The committee would select the four playoff teams and could make some of bowl picks.

But it's a decent bet that the four current BCS bowls - the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose - will be part of the new arrangement, as well. They'd continue to take the champions of conferences to which they're tied (Big Ten and Pac-12 to the Rose, and so on) in years when those teams are not part of the playoff. When a bowl is serving as a semifinal, its affiliated champion would move elsewhere in the lineup.

Thus, apart from the playoff, an automatic-qualifying element remains.

Officials also are talking about a ranking threshold that would trigger the inclusion of top teams from middle- and lower-echelon conferences, paralleling what the BCS now has. That access to a big-time, big-money game is important, given that those leagues won't often crack the playoff lineup.

What other bowls could join the lineup?
The commissioners may set a minimum stadium-seating capacity, perhaps around 65,000-70,000, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions. If, indeed, the BCS' current four bowls hold their spots in the lineup, that would leave two openings for, say, the Cotton (near Dallas), Gator (in Jacksonville), Chick-fil-A (in Atlanta) or any of several other potential games.

Officials with those bowls could have a decision to make.

All now have contractual ties with a couple of different conferences, providing berths for second- or lower-place teams. They'd probably have to cut those ties and free up those berths. The new system would need them to accommodate league champions displaced from, say, the Rose or Sugar when those games are part of the playoff semifinals.

What about the money?
Estimates range up to $350 million-$400 million, better than double the $155 million annual average of the BCS' current package of deals. They expire at the end of the 2013 season.

Work on how to divide the windfall isn't as far along as it is on the format. One pool of money will reward participation in the playoff and the related bowls. Another could be based on "market demand" - a still-undefined concept - an official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. That official said there's also "serious talk" about basing some payouts on teams' NCAA-computed Academic Progress Rates.

The watchdog Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has endorsed that notion, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told reporters last week "it ought to be considered."

Will the presidents buy into the playoff?
There are high-level misgivings. One university CEO on the BCS oversight committee, Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman, will pitch a proposal that simply would have a No. 1-vs.-2 championship game after the bowls.

But expectations are that, sometime soon, the college game will get the go-ahead for a playoff - a benchmark in its 142-year history that Bowden deems "just about" as notable as the advent of the forward pass in 1906.

"You're never quite sure about presidents," Kramer says. "But I think this concept has been out there long enough and the discussions have been thorough enough that the feeling is it's going to go in this direction.

"It's obviously a time for new ideas."

USA TODAY

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