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Progress is slow, but leaders must eventually agree on playoff

CHICAGO -- We were probably a little naive to think a puff of white smoke would appear from the top of the Hilton at O'Hare on Wednesday afternoon and conference commissioners would emerge to announce that the details of major college football's first stab at a playoff had been agreed upon and forwarded to university presidents for rubber-stamping.

In an enterprise involving dozens of public universities and a handful of private ones, bureaucracy must be serviced. But before we interpret this dragging process as a sign that the leaders of the sport will prove too stubborn to finally give the consumer what he has wanted for decades, take a deep breath and repeat these two statements after me.

They'll figure it out.

They haven't left themselves much choice.

Yes, there are differences of opinion between the Big Ten/Pac-12 faction and the Big 12/SEC faction. Yes, those issues must get resolved. They will. The commissioners talked money on Wednesday, as in how they'll split the revenue from the new postseason system. They wouldn't even broach the thorny topic of revenue sharing if they didn't believe they could reach a consensus on the other details (where the semifinals will be played, which four teams will make the playoff and how those teams will be selected).

"There will be something for everybody," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said Wednesday, "but there won't be everything for anybody."

Hancock, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, ACC commissioner John Swofford, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Big 12 commissioner-elect Bob Bowlsby -- he starts Monday -- all made it a point to mention the presidents have the final say in the new postseason format. Scott said the commissioners will present "multiple options" to the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee. This presumably will happen before that group's June 26 meeting in Washington, but it isn't guaranteed. So why feel confident these guys can avoid screwing this up? Common sense.

On Sept. 1, commissioners will begin a 30-day exclusive negotiating window with ESPN. If they are smart, they will allow that window to expire and put the playoff on the open market.

ESPN -- and later Fox and NBC -- will want to know exactly what they are buying before they determine how much they are willing to spend. The package television executives want most is a four-team tournament featuring three games. Actually, they would prefer a larger tournament, but the four-team playoff is as far as most of the university presidents seem willing to go. That format will demand the largest fees of any still on the table for several reasons.

• It guarantees three games between marquee teams with sky-high stakes every single year. The current system and the plus-one -- a championship game played after the bowls -- only guarantee one such game.

• It is what most viewers want.

It's also what the commissioners have spent most of their time talking about. "There's a focus on a four-team playoff," Swofford said, "and getting a consensus on how that will work."

Some league may try to stand in the way of that consumer demand -- heck, leagues did it for years -- but now that most of the conferences have come out in favor of a playoff, earning the stigma of being the league that blocked the thing the people want is bad for business. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, painted as one of the obstructionists after suggesting last month a plus-one is legitimate option, got his job because he convinced that league's presidents that college sports (in general) and Pac-10 sports (specifically) were severely undervalued. Scott then went out and secured a media rights deal that made the new Pac-12 much more acceptably valued. Will that guy let those same presidents railroad him into fighting for a deal that would A) Make less money, B) Make the Pac-12 America's most hated league and C) Deny the majority of the Pac-12's fans the system they want to see? I doubt it.

The Big Ten's Jim Delany, another commissioner who is far less an obstructionist than he seems, made the most sense last week on a conference call. Delany played cartographer, drawing a circle around the middle ground between the Big Ten/Pac-12 and Big 12/SEC positions on conference champions versus the top four teams. Delany said he also wanted to see the top four teams. The catch is his idea of how those four get selected differs from the current process -- which isn't such a bad thing.

This week's meeting included what the Big 12's Bowlsby called a large "information dump" as commissioners reported the wishes of presidents and athletic directors gleaned from recent conference meetings. Once all that information was digested, the leagues could begin hashing out the details again. There is no doubt that the announcement of the Big 12-SEC Champions Bowl (Proposed motto: Occasionally featuring actual conference champions!) was a game-changer because it appears likely to alter the economics of the postseason in the long term and because it is unclear whether the new game might have a place in the playoff structure. The Rose Bowl continues to be an issue as its partners (the Big Ten and Pac-12) fight to keep that game atop the postseason food chain.

"This is an evolving process, and it's complicated," Bowlsby said. "This has been an abrupt ramp-up even though I've been in the business for 30 years. I need to go back and debrief our CEOs and get some guidance from them. Because, in the end, I'm here representing them. I don't have a vote in this process. It's going to be the presidents."

How do the presidents feel? In March, seven of the nine I interviewed supported at least a four-team playoff. One of the two who didn't was Nebraska's Harvey Perlman, the Big Ten's representative on the Presidential Oversight Committee. As of last week, Perlman's opinion hadn't changed. He would prefer the status quo, but he understands the status quo isn't an option. (Given the current options, he said the Big Ten would prefer a plus-one). The other was Kansas State's Kirk Schulz, who said he preferred a plus-one and who has apparently been outvoted by his colleagues, who came out in favor of a four-team playoff involving the top four teams regardless of conference champion status.

No single league can block the playoff steamroller. One league will get shamed into line. Two leagues might be able to stem the tide, but that's unlikely. Remember, no matter how a group of school presidents feels, each league's true constituents -- the fans -- are mostly in favor of a playoff. Before, when a playoff wasn't an option, it was plausible to deny the consumers. After opening the door at April's BCS meeting, that isn't an option anymore.

The commissioners will meet again next week in Chicago. That meeting probably will unfold in a fashion similar to Wednesday's conclave. Barring a miracle, don't expect any grand pronouncements or puffs of smoke next week, either. At some point this summer, the commissioners and university presidents will put their heads together, hammer out an agreement and push the sport forward.

If you have any doubts, simply repeat after me.

They aren't that stupid.

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