The entire college football world is in suspense right now, waiting to see whether this latest wave of conference realignment morphs into a full-blown overhaul. The SEC's now inevitable move to 14, the Pac-12's potential move to 16 and the looming demise of the Big 12 would drastically change the landscape of college football.
Which would drastically influence the future of the BCS as well.
College football's much reviled postseason system isn't going away, but it could soon undergo a face-lift. The BCS is basically controlled by the six major conferences -- one of which might be going away and two of which might soon supersize. And the timing of the moves falls right in line with the BCS' next television contract, which is set to go to the marketplace a year from now.
"Absolutely everything is up for discussion," said BCS executive director Bill Hancock. "By the end of the year, every commissioner is to talk to the folks on their campuses and find out what they want to do in the future. By the first or second quarter of next year the commissioners will come back, report on what they said and form a consensus."
In terms of immediate implications, the BCS is under no obligation to fill the Big 12's automatic berth with another conference should that league dissolve.
"All of the contracts we have are predicated on the conferences we had at the time we signed them ... so if a conference goes away, then its automatic bid goes away," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "The maximum we can have is seven, but we can also have five."
That, like many other issues, will be discussed if the situation arises.
As for the BCS' future, many media and fans believe a mass movement toward superconferences might facilitate a full-scale playoff -- i.e., four 16-team conferences feeding into a nice symmetrical bracket. That's not likely to happen by 2014 (when the next cycle begins), but pretty much everything short of it -- including the oft-discussed plus-one playoff -- is on the table.
Here is a look at some of the possibilities, from most to least likely:
• Adding a fifth bowl -- most likely the Cotton. At the BCS meetings in New Orleans last spring, both the commissioners and ESPN stated nearly universally that they want to shorten the window between the Jan. 1 bowls and the championship game (played Jan. 10 last year). Doing so would make it prohibitively difficult to maintain the current double-hosting model, where one city stages two games.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been not-so-subtly lobbying for a spot in the rotation, and his opulent new stadium certainly makes the pitch attractive. The biggest hang-up: Convincing the Big 12 and SEC to give up one of their most prestigious non-BCS partners. That obviously becomes a lot easier if there's no Big 12.
• Eliminating the two-teams-per-conference limit. Considering that the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 have all expanded since the last contract, and considering the Big East may follow, this move seems inevitable. It's been met with resistance in the past by the Big 12, ACC and Big East, but the consolidation of conferences increases the likelihood that one or more leagues may have three or more highly ranked teams in the same year. This could be accompanied by a move toward a deeper at-large pool -- i.e. lowering the top 14 requirement by a few spots.
"Two teams per conference is a rule that needs to be evaluated now," said Delany, whose league had three top 10 teams in the final standings twice in the past five years. "It would be good for the system to pull in a top 10 team even if it's third from a conference, but politically it's difficult. A fair compromise might be: How about one time in a four-year cycle, a conference could have a third team? As these conferences get larger, it's something we should consider."
• Giving the Mountain West an automatic berth. The BCS is in the last of a four-year evaluation period to determine whether the MWC or another league will gain AQ status in 2012 and '13. To do so, a league must rank in the top six in three different categories: Average ranking of its highest-ranked team, percentage of teams in the Top 25 and average ranking of all league teams. And yes, the Big 12 will be included in the calculations no matter its future.
The MWC is likely to fall short of automatic approval but will be eligible to apply for an exemption from the Presidential Oversight Committee. The presidents would likely curtail much of the current political pressure against them (including threats of antitrust litigation) by being more inclusionary. Their decision will be complicated, however, by the fact that much of the MWC's achievements were attained by three teams (Utah, TCU and BYU) that won't be there next season. The league will need votes from nine of the 12 members (which includes Notre Dame), and a decision could come in December.
• The Fiesta Bowl returning to its roots. As if the scandal-torn bowl hasn't had a bad enough year already, it's now facing the possibility that its anchor conference, the Big 12, will be no more. "They're an exceptional partner and we want it to continue," said new CEO Robert Shelton, who was the president at Arizona during last year's expansion merry-go-round. "I'm optimistic they're going to continue to be a conference."
If not, however, that bowl could return to its pre-BCS days, when it rose to prominence in large part because of its flexibility. In 1987, the Fiesta Bowl paired No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State, both independents at the time, in one of the sport's most anticipated matchups. But in recent years the game has been saddled with duds like Utah-Pittsburgh and Oklahoma-UConn. While it's possible the bowl could gain a new partner (like the Mountain West), it could also become a BCS free agent. "If for some reason the Big 12 disappears, we have to look and see whether other alliances are possible, or just go with a couple at-large picks," said Shelton. "The Fiesta Bowl was very successful before we had the Big 12 as a partner."
• Going to a plus-one. In 2008, SEC commissioner Mike Slive formally proposed a plus-one model (a seeded four-team playoff using the bowls) to his BCS colleagues ... and was promptly shot down by everyone but the ACC. There had been little buzz since until last month, when the Seattle Times wrote about a joint meeting in Newport Beach, Calif., this summer between Big Ten and Pac-12 athletic directors. A straw vote on potential future models reportedly "found consensus" on a plus-one model in which the Rose Bowl would abstain from the semifinal hosting rotation in favor of maintaining an annual Big Ten-Pac-12 game. If true, this would represent a major sea change, since those two conferences were long viewed as the biggest playoff opponents. Delany, however, called the report "erroneous," telling the Chicago Tribune his ADs are happy with the status quo.
SI.com talked to several people with knowledge of the meeting, and while it's true the two leagues do still favor the "status quo," they did discuss the specific model mentioned in the Times' article as their preferred alternative if the BCS heads that way. While less dramatic, it does show that the option is on the table, and that the long-reactionary Rose Bowl likely had input in its formulation. "If it got to that point, we would be sitting in a room together [with the two conferences]," said Rose Bowl spokesperson Gina Chappin. "We're going to work together and see where the changing landscape takes us."
Though Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has established himself as a trailblazer during his two years in office, most believe he, like Delany, will not do anything to impinge on the league's Rose Bowl relationship. However, if his conference keeps expanding, he'd have as much motivation as anyone to push for a plus-one. It's easy to see the day where Pac-16 East champ Oklahoma finishes 13-0 and ranked No. 1, while East runner-up Texas finishes 11-1 and No. 3.
• Going to a full-scale playoff. Sorry -- still not happening, even if we do somehow wind up with four 16-team conferences.
"I don't see the connection," said Delany. "I could see where someone who's playing out the structures on their computer or their iPad would see it that way, but whether the Pac-12 is at 12, 14 or 16, their strong inclination is going to be that they want to play in the Rose Bowl, and our preference is the same."
Realignment may soon radically alter college football's postseason, but it still has its limits.