By Steve Wieberg, USA TODAY
CHICAGO - One step - endorsement by a panel of university presidents and chancellors - remains. But college football stepped firmly toward a four-team playoff Wednesday.
The conference commissioners who oversee the Bowl Championship Series endorsed the playoff and a move to a committee to select the teams, culminating five months of study and debate and pointing the sport in a bold new direction. It has clung for decades to a postseason revolving around its bowls, resisting previous moves to so much as consider a playoff.
Unrelenting criticism of the 14-year-old BCS shifted sentiment.
Commissioners announced their recommendation of a seeded playoff after meeting for four hours Wednesday. Three participants told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity, because details weren't being released, of the preference for a selection committee.
The commissioners and Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick, who oversee the BCS, take the plans to a meeting in Washington, D.C., next week with the presidents' oversight committee. That 12-member panel has final say.
It will give some attention to at least one alternative - a more modest plus-one model that simply would stage a No. 1-vs.-2 championship game after the bowls - but is expected to go with the plan the commissioners lay out.
Current BCS contracts run through the 2013 season, and the playoff - expected to fetch up to $350-400 million in annual television rights fees, up from a current $125 million a year - would go into effect in 2014.
"What's been terrific," said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, a strong playoff advocate, "is how we've all been able to work together over the last few weeks on some difficult issues to get very close. There are some differences, some legitimate differences, but we will work them out."
The Big Ten's Jim Delany, once resistant, said he warmed to a playoff "once I became convinced that the regular season was safe, that the bowls and the Rose Bowl in particular had a place in the system."
The group favors semifinals in existing top-tier bowls, keeping the bowls meaningful. The championship game would be put up for bid and could land in a bowl or another venue such as the Dallas Cowboys' lavish, better than 100,000-capacity stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Use of a selection committee would mirror basketball's, where a panel of commissioners and athletics directors fills and seeds a 68-team bracket. The football committee would be charged with picking the nation's four best, most deserving teams, giving strong weight to conference championships, two commissioners told USA TODAY Sports.
Among other things, a league title would serve as a tiebreaker in cases where the credentials of a league champion and a non-champion are otherwise all but identical.
A number of officials called for both that deference to conference champions and closer attention to the strength of teams' schedules.
"I want to see more risk, I want to see more teams play each other in games that are meaningful," Delany said a couple of hours before Wednesday's meeting. "I get that you have to make your budget and you have to have some number of home games. Everybody has that. But we can do better than we did when we added the 12th game. We didn't necessarily add a lot of new great games.
"I would want people to be incentivized to do that. I think the basketball committee has tried to do that."
Sentiment to further imitate hoops and move football to a committee built in recent months.
"My position has evolved on that, "the Pacific 12's Larry Scott said. "There's a positive impression about the role that the basketball committee has played for basketball, and I think there's been a consensus that the current (football) system is pretty flawed in a lot of ways.
"I've tried to stay open-minded about that. A lot of discussion about a committee has been around the conditions and parameters (under) which a committee would work and the factors they'd take into account. And as I've heard that discussion, I've gotten a lot more comfortable about how a committee would work."
College football has historically relied on polls, including the USA TODAY coaches' Top 25. The BCS has used a composite of polls and computer ratings since going into effect in 1998.
Commissioners were increasingly uncomfortable, however, with the lack of transparency in the coaches' poll and several of the computer services. The coaches' ballots remain confidential until their final vote. Several of the computer programmers jealously guard the privacy of their methodology.
Delany said, too, that a new postseason format shouldn't employ any set of rankings that establishes a team pecking order before or even early in a season - in other words, that starts in the preseason.
"At the end of the year, you shouldn't be looking at a ranking system whose initial starting point was a ranking that had no basis in the competitive world," Delany said. "That's a rationality issue. The transparency issue is: What are the guts of it? If it's people, who voted and how did they vote? If it's a computer, what are the factors and how are they weighted?
"I think we've been able to work our way through that with the NCAA basketball committee, and I think that we should learn a lesson from them."