Remember the excitement back in June when BCS officials announced the initial details of college football's new postseason model? Beginning in December 2014, the sport would stage its first four-team playoff. In so doing, it would replace the currently stretched-out and diluted BCS lineup with a leaner, merit-based six-game package played entirely on Dec. 31 and Jan 1.
"There will be three [games] each day, that's how we envision it," BCS executive director Bill Hancock told me then, adding that the playoff selection committee's rankings " will be used to identify who will be filling the [four] games that are not hosting the semifinals. That's the concept."
If it seemed too good to be true -- well, it was.
As more details have emerged over the past several months, we've begun to see that BCS 2.0 will more closely resemble the current BCS than its creators would have us believe. That's especially true in light of the latest development, discussed by the commissioners last week in Chicago: It appears increasingly likely that a seventh bowl will be added to the semifinal rotation, and that bowl will host the highest-ranked team from among the Big East and current non-AQ conferences.
The expected six-game series was going to be split into two categories. The Rose Bowl (Big Ten vs. Pac-12), Champions Bowl (SEC vs. Big 12) and Orange Bowl (ACC) are so-called "contract bowls," in which certain conferences have locked in guaranteed spots. The ACC finalized a deal last week to face the highest-ranked available team among the SEC, Big Ten or Notre Dame. The other three bowls were going to remain open.
But concerns from the five conferences without a contracted bowl -- the Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt -- led to discussions last week about adding a seventh game to the mix.
"Both the five major conferences looking down and the five conferences looking up, we're all concerned about access," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said while attending last weekend's Kansas State-Oklahoma game. "This is something that is going to be around for a long time. We want to make sure we get it right."
No disrespect to fans of Boise State, Louisville or Cincinnati, a few of the teams most likely to benefit from guaranteed access to BCS 2.0, but it sure seems like the commissioners are heading right back down the path that forced reform in the first place. In addition to the annual angst over determining the national champion (which only the naïve think will cease with a playoff), two of the biggest complaints about the current system have been the inclusion of undeserving teams like 2004 Pittsburgh (8-3) and 2010 Connecticut (8-4) and poor attendance at the bowls that got shoved to post-New Year's weeknights.
So why are the suddenly benevolent power-conference commissioners OK with adding a game that may annually feature a low-ranked team (this season's highest-ranked team from those five leagues is currently No. 19 Louisville) and would almost certainly have to be played either earlier (Dec. 29 or 30) or later (Jan. 2 or 3) than the others?
"For me, it's not a big deal, because the focus going forward will be on the playoff," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "It's a distraction college football doesn't need for people to focus on access. There are enough great bowl games to go around."
Scott may be right. In the new world order, qualifying for the playoff will be so important that achieving the equivalent of what is currently a BCS bowl berth may no longer hold the same meaning. In fact, Hancock and the commissioners are already stressing that the new system is not actually a system at all. The Rose and Champions bowl conferences have already forged their own independent deals with ESPN worth $80 million a year, according to Sports Business Journal, and the ACC/Orange are expected to soon do the same.
"Every conference is free to make its own bowl arrangements, and that's what's happening," said Hancock.
That's exactly what the Big East, et al., are attempting to do as a group -- only they're finding it a bit tougher than expected.
"Frankly, I don't think the five of them had thought it through enough," said one source involved in the playoff discussions. "They came back and said, 'Hey, can you help us get a better game in the marketplace by giving our game some opportunities to host semifinals?'"
Indeed, it's hard to imagine why one of the current BCS games (like the Fiesta) or other logical semifinal bidders (like the Cotton or Chick-fil-A) would want to make that deal when they could instead host two highly ranked at-large teams or a displaced major-conference champion (such as a Big Ten team in a year the Rose hosts a semifinal).
It's doubtful the Capital One Bowl would willingly move to Dec. 30 and trade in Florida and Ohio State for Central Florida and Ohio, even if doing so meant getting to host a semifinal game every six years. However, a game already played in December, like the Holiday or Alamo, might welcome the opportunity, especially if it could nail down a Big Ten or Pac-12 team on the other side.
Of course, by the time one or more Pac-12 teams makes the playoff and another goes to the Rose Bowl, we may be talking about a "BCS" game between 10-2 Nevada and 8-4 UCLA.
Have we not been down this road already?
"There's a lot that's improved from the old system," said Scott, "so when it comes to this issue of access or extra contract bowls, I don't see any reason not to go forward, because there's so much new and positive about [the playoff]. I'd like to put to rest any of the traditional questions and concerns about access and AQ versus non-AQ."
Last week's meetings were the commissioners' first since announcing the playoff agreement in late June, and they will hash out numerous details over the coming months. First off, the Big 12 and SEC will likely announce the site of the Champions Bowl within the next few weeks. In a surprise, Houston reportedly made the best offer, though the Cotton and Sugar are still considered the prohibitive favorites.
The commissioners are also deciding on the site of the first national championship game, to be played Jan. 12, 2015. While the title game will now be hosted outside of the bowl system, ESPN reported Monday that the pool has already been narrowed to the four current BCS bowl cities (Glendale, Pasadena, New Orleans and Miami), Arlington and Atlanta.
"The current BCS bowls have an exclusive negotiating period, and so we will be talking to them immediately," said Hancock.
The issue of the seventh bowl game must be resolved sooner than that. An exclusive negotiating window with ESPN for the larger playoff package can begin as soon as Oct. 1, and the conferences need to know what exactly they're selling. The sites of the other three semifinal hosts may not be determined until the winter, after a TV deal is finalized. And then there's the issue of revenue distribution. Good luck with that.
One other topic was discussed last week: What exactly to name the new playoff, since the commissioners understandably want to rid themselves of the toxic BCS brand.
"Whether it's leagues or networks, people want to know what it's going to be called," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick told USA Today.
Well, if the Big East and its new friends are indeed guaranteed a spot, the new postseason system will essentially be the BCS, reheated, with a slab of playoff on the side.
Call it the Postseason TV Dinner.