NEW YORK -- Cross your fingers and keep them crossed. Then cross your toes.
The people in charge of college football are as close as they have ever been to seriously considering a playoff. But do they truly intend to move forward? Or is this merely a case of hurt feelings that will dissipate over time?
Monday, Big 12 athletic directors voted in a straw poll to get behind the idea of a plus-one format that would allow four teams to compete for the national title. Such a format would have allowed USC to play for the national title in 2003, Auburn to play for it in 2004, Texas to play for it in 2008 and Oklahoma State -- which finished behind No. 2 Alabama by the slimmest of margins in the BCS standings -- to play for the title this season. If the league's presidents choose to agree with their athletic directors, the Big 12's support would be a huge step forward. The Big 12 was one of several leagues that blocked SEC commissioner Mike Slive's 2008 proposal for a four-team, seeded tournament. The ACC was the only conference that supported the plan.
The structure of college football's leadership has changed significantly since 2008. Gone is Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, who worked hard to keep his conference in the stone age. In his place is Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who already has rebranded the league, signed a lucrative and innovative media rights deal and promised more changes. Scott has made sure to say all the right things about maintaining the league's relationship with the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten, but Scott is a smart enough guy to figure out how to keep his league at the forefront while still maintaining its most cherished tradition. It's difficult to imagine him standing in the way. Besides, the Seattle Times reported this past summer that in a straw poll of Pac-12 and Big Ten athletic directors, the majority supported a plus-one.
While more than 12 of 24 athletic directors supported the plus-one, a majority of the 12 Big Ten athletic directors did not support the idea. From their standpoint, that is the sensible position. That's why the Big Ten will likely offer the most resistance to any plus-one plan if it gets proposed prior to the next BCS annual meeting in April. Commissioner Jim Delany is a master at getting his colleagues to agree to do what is best for the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is better off without a playoff. Because the league contains huge schools with passionate fan bases, the old bowl system actually is the most advantageous for the Big Ten.
But if everyone else wants a change, the Big Ten may have a problem. If Slive hasn't decided that the BCS system is better for his league -- and it doesn't get much better than six consecutive national titles capped by an SEC vs. SEC BCS championship game -- he could simply propose the plus-one plan again. All the documents from 2008 are still in the SEC office in Birmingham. He might find more supporters in the room this time. Slive is smart enough to know that college football is cyclical, and his league's dominance won't last forever. More than likely, a plus-one would benefit the SEC down the road. If the BCS had been a plus-one, the SEC would have had a team competing for the national title in 12 of 14 seasons. Three times (2006, 2008, 2011), two SEC teams would have made the playoff.
How would it work? That's debatable. Conference leaders worry about how such a plan would affect the bowls. They shouldn't. The bowls need the schools far more than the schools need the bowls. It's time the schools realized that and began negotiating from a position of power.
Any feasible plan would involve a seeded tournament. Playing an additional game after the bowls are played would not appeal to television executives, who want to know exactly what they're getting when they write massive checks. They want a system they can package.
If conference leaders are smart, they'll design a plan that allows for the two semifinal games to be played on the home fields of the No. 1- and No. 2-seeded teams. If they wanted to appease the must-win-your-league crowd, they could require that a team must win its conference to host a semifinal. Home-site semifinals would eliminate concerns about fan bases traveling twice -- a non-starter -- and would help reinforce the importance of the regular season. Teams would go into the final week fighting for a home game in a sport where home-field advantage means a lot. Just imagine an LSU-Stanford semifinal at Tiger Stadium or an Alabama-Oklahoma State semifinal in Stillwater (using the must-win-conference rule). Also, to remove the negative consequences of a semifinal loss, the two losing teams would be placed into premium bowls, where they could take a well-deserved victory lap for a great season. This would appease bowl executives, who for some unknown reason strike fear into the hearts of the people who run the sport.
Still, it's unclear what will happen when school presidents get involved. They overwhelmingly approved the 12th regular-season game -- which most schools use as a shameless money grab by scheduling a cupcake -- but for some reason they believe having four teams play one more game will bring about the downfall of western civilization. Also, the Big 12 leaders may not be so serious in April, when they've had time to think about how much bowl swag this could cost them as hurt bowl directors -- many of whom make six figures for staging one football game -- punish the ADs for their insolence.
Still, it's an exciting thought. A tournament to determine a champion. What a novel concept.
Maybe this time it will actually happen.