On the surface, this year is no different. Irked by the idea of a regular-season rematch in the national championship game? Worried about choosing between Alabama and Oregon if it comes to that? Here's how easily that problem could be solved, based on the current standings:
• Semifinal 1: No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oregon
• Semifinal 2: No. 2 Oklahoma State vs. No. 3 Alabama
All viable contenders are accounted for. No team could honestly say it's been slighted, unless further upsets occur (like Arkansas beating LSU), in which case the bracket would be updated accordingly. The importance of the regular season would be preserved. Problem solved.
However, my goal remains to provide a solution that actually stands a chance of being implemented -- unlike, say, a full-scale playoff bracket that includes the Sun Belt champion and renders the major bowls meaningless. To this point, the Mandel Plan was based on the current BCS model and calendar. However, all indications point to the BCS structure going through a massive overhaul beginning with the 2014 season.
"I'm very excited about the six months ahead, because I think the [BCS] group has a chance to make some decisions that will be for the good of this game for the next generation," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said Monday following a meeting of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee in San Francisco.
Most notably, there is a growing sentiment for eliminating automatic qualifying berths entirely. The ongoing conference realignment madness -- in which teams from Idaho and Utah stand poised to join a conference based in Rhode Island -- has put several leaders over the edge.
"There's a lot of ideas I've heard floated," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "The AQ status thing is ripe because people are troubled in some cases by the appearance it's in the name of attaining AQ status or preserving AQ status. People would like to think conference alignment has to do with a lot more than AQ status."
A high-ranking BCS source told me "almost everyone" wants to do away with AQ bids, but they've yet to focus in on a specific alternative.
No group would be more thrilled by such a move than the bowls themselves, which are sick of having undesirable teams forced upon them, a la 8-4 Connecticut last season. However, the Rose Bowl, for one, is not going to end its century-old partnerships with the Big Ten and Pac-12. Whatever the new model, there would still be some affiliation between certain bowls and conferences.
"The thinking about AQ status is pretty different for the Pac-12 and Big Ten than it is for everybody else," said Scott. "It isn't as relevant given our unique relationship with the Rose Bowl. It doesn't really matter for us one way or the other whether there's AQ status or not."
Another issue being discussed is the two-teams-per-conference limit. SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany have expressed support for eliminating it, and understandably so since their leagues' teams are generally the most sought-after. Scott was more skeptical, saying, "It could be seen as a step in the wrong direction when there's so much scrutiny about access [for the smaller conferences]."
If AQ bids go away, however, the access issue may be rendered moot. There would no longer be an official distinction between, say, the Big 12 and the Mountain West. That would also include the revamped Big East, which was already facing a challenge to maintain its AQ status.
There's another, less publicized issue looming, and unfortunately it could potentially stop a plus-one dead in its tracks. Last month, the NCAA's bowl task force -- formed in response to last spring's Fiesta Bowl scandal -- recommended several changes for the Board of Directors to consider. One of those is to narrow the window during which the bowls are played, ending closer to Jan. 1.
"The NCAA folks do not want the bowl season to extend far into the second semester, and we're going to have to live within that calendar," said Hancock.
However, in the incestuous world that is college athletics, the chairman of that task force, Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, also serves on the BCS' oversight committee. Something tells me he can find a way to make the two organizations' desires mesh before the Board votes on the proposals in April. The key is not to play the title game any later than this year's Jan. 9 date.
Therefore, the revised Mandel Plan is based on the following assumptions:
1. There will be a fifth BCS bowl, the Cotton, added to the lineup to maintain 10 berths. (This is considered a near-given for the next contract.)
2. All BCS participants must meet a minimum Top 16 ranking.
3. There will be no more AQ berths, though the Rose Bowl will retain first rights to the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, provided they meet the minimum ranking and don't need to be moved to a semifinal site (see below). Other bowls may still choose based on geography or traditional conference loyalties, but it won't be iron-clad.
4. There will no longer be a two-teams-per-conference limit.
5. A new model for revenue distribution will pay a baseline amount to all 11 FBS conferences, which then receive a sizeable payout for each team they place in a bowl and a smaller payout for each additional team. No league goes broke if it has a down year, and no league gets inordinately rich for placing three teams.
6. A draft order will be set in which the bowls choose their matchups -- not individual teams, mind you, but matchups -- and rotate annually.
7. Bowls that select the No. 1 and 2 teams will automatically be assigned the corresponding opponents (No. 1 vs. No. 4, No. 2 vs. No. 3) and become semifinal sites. If the Big Ten or Pac-12 champ is ranked No. 1 or 2, the Rose Bowl will become one of those semifinals. If the Big Ten or Pac-12 champ is ranked No. 3 or 4, the Rose Bowl must surrender it to the semifinal site. Presumably, the bowls with the first two choices in a given year would opt to stage a semifinal but are not required to.
8. As is the case today, the national championship game will be staged at one of the five BCS sites, at least a week after the semifinals but no later than Jan. 9. To accommodate that within this year's calendar (when Jan. 1 is a Sunday), two games were moved to New Year's Eve and a third to the early afternoon slot before the Rose Bowl.
To set this year's hypothetical lineup, I used the current BCS standings and tweaked this year's at-large rotation to establish the following draft order: 1) Fiesta, 2) Orange, 3) Sugar, 4) Cotton. I flipped the Orange and Sugar bowls so as to preclude the same city from getting to host both a semifinal and championship game. The order would shift annually, and the Cotton would be treated the same as the others.
I also considered each league's highest-ranked team as of today its champion.
Here is the lineup I came up with. Afterward, I'll explain how I arrived at it.
• Dec. 31 Cotton: No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 8 Virginia Tech
• Dec. 31 Sugar: No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Clemson
• Jan. 2 Orange:No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oregon
• Jan. 2 Rose: No. 9 Stanford vs. No. 15 Michigan State
• Jan. 2 Fiesta:No. 2 Oklahoma State vs. No. 3 Alabama
• Jan. 9 title game (New Orleans): Fiesta Bowl winner vs. Orange Bowl winner
The Fiesta Bowl uses its No. 1 choice to take Oklahoma State from its old partner, the Big 12, knowing Cowboys fans will be tripping all over themselves for their first BCS trip. Thus the Fiesta gets the first semifinal.
The Orange, with the second pick, plucks LSU to snare the other semifinal matchup. Tigers fans will travel in droves knowing the championship game will be in their backyard. The Rose Bowl, in turn, loses Oregon, and not surprisingly opts to replace the Ducks with another Pac-12 team, Stanford.
The Sugar, with the third pick, opts for the highest-ranked available team, Oklahoma, and pits it against Clemson -- making its first BCS trip -- as opposed to Arkansas, which played in the same game last season.
The Cotton, with the fourth pick, jubilantly snaps up former SWC participant Arkansas to go against Virginia Tech, which has never played in the Cotton Bowl.
The Rose ends up with the least appealing matchup, but that's by the game's own choosing. Michigan State's conference affiliation is far more important to that game than its record.
Now, let us count the ways this proposal is an upgrade from the current BCS format.
Most importantly, it ensures all worthy contenders have a shot at the championship. There are many who feel Alabama is still the second-best team in the country, regardless of Oklahoma State's undefeated record. The Tide get a chance to prove that; the Cowboys get a chance to disprove it.
Secondly, nine of the Top 10 teams are represented. That's only happened once (in 2007) since going to 10 berths in 2006.
No one is forced to take an unranked Big East champion.
And the bowls' newfound flexibility allows for fresher participants. Rather than going to the Fiesta Bowl for the fourth time in six seasons, Oklahoma goes to the Sugar Bowl for the first time in eight years. Rather than going to the Orange Bowl for the fourth time in five years, Virginia Tech goes to a brand-new destination.
Critics will note the lack of teams from the current non-AQ leagues (Houston, Boise State, etc.). However, nine of the 10 teams are ranked higher than those squads. Had Boise remained undefeated and finished in the top five, I have no doubt a bowl would select it.
Not only is this an improvement over the current system, but this new version of the Mandel Plan is even better than the old one.