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In wake of limited realignment, BCS more secure than ever


I called BCS executive director Bill Hancock on Monday and told him I'd understand if he wanted to gloat.

"The word gloat," Hancock said with a chuckle, "is not in my vocabulary."

These are dark times indeed for those of us who would like to see major college football's champion determined on the field. Nine days ago, we were on the precipice of a realignment that might have fundamentally altered the sport. Now, we're back to more of the same. The only differences? One of the playoff system's two most valuable Congressional allies attempted political suicide last week while discussing a different issue, and the other ally has far less incentive to fight for a playoff thanks to the inclusion of his state's flagship university into the BCS power structure. All of which adds up to an even more entrenched BCS.

Had the Pac-10 succeeded and supersized to 16 schools, other leagues would have followed. That would have necessitated a change in college football's postseason structure. Would it have led to a playoff? Maybe. Maybe not. Chances are, the sport would have moved in that direction. Instead, all that happened was the shuffling of some deck chairs (Colorado and Nebraska) and the addition of Utah to the list of haves.

There are 120 schools in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision. Prior to realignment, 66 could be classified as haves (the members of the six automatic qualifying conferences and Notre Dame). Had the Pac-10 plan gone through, Utah probably would have remained a have-not. Chances are, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State would have joined those ranks as well. That would have brought the total number of FBS have-nots to 57. If a raid on the Big East had left Cincinnati, South Florida and West Virginia without an AQ home -- a distinct possibility -- that would have pushed the number of have-nots to 60.

That would have produced an even split among the FBS members, which could have resulted in some interesting votes at the NCAA level. It also probably would have eliminated two AQ conferences, which would have left four have conferences and five have-not leagues. That would have made for some interesting votes at the BCS level.

But radical realignment didn't happen. And thanks to an unfortunate confluence of circumstances, the BCS can thrive into the foreseeable future.

Fellow playoff backer Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) incorrectly believes the realignment drama helped the playoff push. "The reason the Big 12 stayed together is the commissioner was able to put together a deal that enabled Texas and Texas A&M to go from about $8 million-$12 million a year to around $20 million a year" each in conference payouts, Barton told The Associated Press. "I don't really have a dog in the hunt as to how the conferences ought to be aligned. But I do think this moves us toward a playoff because we now know where the money is."

We always knew where the money was, though. It's not a new idea that a television network would pay considerably more to broadcast a playoff than it would to broadcast the BCS. The people in charge of the BCS have long known a playoff is more lucrative. "That would be saying that every decision made in college athletics should be made for the dollar," ACC commissioner John Swofford said in January 2009 when I asked him if university presidents were being fiscally irresponsible for sticking with the BCS. "Sometimes, we're accused of that. But in reality, it's not the case. This decision isn't being made for those dollars."

The BCS isn't about money. The BCS is about power. It is about keeping that power consolidated in the hands of a certain number of schools and conferences and in the hands of a few bowl barons in hideous blazers.

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Now the BCS has fewer powerful enemies. Barton can talk about the playoff now because he needs to deflect attention from his apology on Thursday to BP CEOTony Hayward for the $20 billion agreement the company made with the White House to compensate victims of the company's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Barton was trying to make a Constitutional point -- that the executive branch didn't have the power to coerce a private business to make such a payment -- but he made his point in the worst possible way. He apologized to the man whose company caused one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation's history, making it seem as if the nation somehow inconvenienced BP.

Those words probably will haunt Barton forever. By the end of Thursday, he was getting skewered by members of his own party. And since there were already plenty of people who didn't appreciate Barton using government resources to talk about college football, it's doubtful he'll have the juice going forward to help enact any real change.

Meanwhile, the greatest champion of a playoff in the Senate now has fewer reasons to bash the BCS. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch has crusaded against the BCS since Utah's football team went 13-0 in 2008 and had zero chance to win the national title. Starting in 2011, Utah will play in the Pac-10 (Pac-12?), meaning the Utes will enjoy the same edge as the rest of the haves. If they go undefeated, they'll probably play for the national title. That doesn't give Hatch much to be mad about, though he insists the fight for a playoff will continue.

"Look, Utah moving to the Pac-10 doesn't mean that the BCS is suddenly good for college football," Hatch said last week. "It doesn't mean that the legal concerns that many have expressed about the BCS have disappeared or that a system that favors some schools while systemically putting others at a disadvantage is suddenly well and good. Most Utahns -- Ute fans included -- understand the BCS is fundamentally anticompetitive and do not want Congress turning a blind eye to blatant violations of our nation's antitrust laws, whether they be in college football or elsewhere. Those concerns won't just go away because of [Thursday's] news.

"Most reasonable people agree with me that a fair playoff system would benefit all schools, regardless of what conference they're in," Hatch continued. "Fixing the BCS to make it more fair and inclusive would benefit all of Utah's schools, including the University of Utah."

Hopefully, Hatch will back his words with action. Unfortunately, Hatch may need another concrete example to mount another fight. If BYU were to go undefeated and get shut out, then Hatch might have his mandate. Otherwise, he may find other issues carry more weight among his electorate.

The best hope for a playoff remains a Justice Department investigation into the BCS. BCS leaders might finally decide it isn't worth the trouble -- or the considerable risk -- and offer to make a change. Though they always threaten that they would simply revert to the old bowl system, that's a bluff. Absent the power they worked so hard to protect, they'd go for the money, and the money is in a playoff. But without powerful champions in each house of congress, it's unlikely Justice will spend too much time worrying about college football.

The other possibility is that realignment is not over. Maybe the Big Ten will expand to 16 and cause some sort of chaos along the way that forces a paradigm shift. But the chances are just as great that the conference will remain happy with 12 teams and wait another 20 years to expand again.

That leaves the group that should have created a playoff long ago. University presidents, who have left millions on the table already by sticking with the BCS, should do the right thing. They should vote for a playoff and take the extra money so fewer of your tax dollars will be used to subsidize college sports. But they won't. "It still has the consensus of the university presidents," Hancock said. "And it's a strong consensus."

At the BCS meetings in April, Hancock said BCS leaders needed to stop considering the BCS a temporary arrangement and begin planning for it to be around a long time. Less than two months later, with the realignment wheels turning, that stable future seemed in doubt. Now, with the dust settled and its enemies neutralized, the BCS seems as strong as ever.

We'll close with your depressing thought of the day:

"We are still managing the event," Hancock said, "as if it's going to be here for 40 years."