NEW YORK -- During a panel featuring four college conference commissioners Thursday at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, moderator Michael Smith asked the men to discuss why the other college football divisions could manage a playoff but the FBS could not. The question was met with silence. Then ACC commissioner John Swofford, Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson turned and stared at Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
Finally, Banowsky broke the ice. "Jim," Banowsky said, "I think you might be the best one to answer that question."
Delany then launched into an explanation of why a playoff would be bad. He brought up potential risk of injury (which no one cared about when schools approved a 12th regular-season game for all FBS schools), potential devaluation of the regular season (wouldn't happen) and his league's longstanding love affair with the Rose Bowl (a perfectly legitimate issue). He then described the plus-one -- the four-team playoff that has received increased support since the all-SEC BCS title game was set on Sunday -- as a "slippery slope" that would lead to an eight- or 16-team playoff. On that point, he is 100 percent correct. In the end, Delany could think of only one good reason for a playoff. "The only strong argument you can make for it is financial," Delany said. "I don't think the other arguments for it are very strong."
Three years ago, Delany wouldn't have been the only major conference commissioner qualified to answer that question. But times have changed. One of the most powerful men in college sports appears to have been all but abandoned in his defense against bracket creep. Or, if you prefer the idea of a playoff, the triumphant march of the bracket into America's second-most popular sport.
(We'll pause here for a message. Delany is not a villain. He is an employee of the Big Ten who makes every decision with an eye on what is best for the Big Ten. If more executives were as dedicated to their employers as Delany, the world would be a better place. Also, while his opinions may be unpopular, Delany never waffles. An example: When Michigan was left out of the national title game in 2006, he didn't complain. He didn't clamor for a new system. Delany doesn't flip-flop to curry political favor or for a short-term gain that would hinder his long-term goals. He is who he is, take him or leave him. That isn't a bad thing.)
None of the three commissioners on the dais with Delany on Thursday will take his side on this issue. Swofford doesn't want a large playoff, but he does support the four-team model that was proposed by SEC commissioner Mike Slive back in 2008. Thompson wants a playoff. In fact, he has tried proposing one before. Banowsky, one of the leaders in the fight to eliminate BCS automatic qualifying status, said the vote was fairly close in 2008. He also said that "in all likelihood," Conference USA presidents would support a plus-one.
While none of this is certain until the presidents chime in with their votes, an informal polling of conference leaders this week has produced the following assessment of the leagues' positions on the plus-one.
• ACC: In favor of a plus-one. (Swofford on Thursday.)
• Big 12: In favor of a plus-one. (Athletic director straw poll on Monday.)
• Big East: Unknown, but the league just took Boise State to be its marquee football program. Boise State wants a playoff.
• Big Ten: Against a plus-one. (Delany on Thursday.)
• Conference USA: In favor of a plus-one. (Banowsky on Thursday.)
• Mid-American Conference: Unknown.
• Mountain West: In favor of a plus-one (Thompson on Thursday.)
• Pac-12: Won't do anything to damage its relationship with the Rose Bowl, but not necessarily opposed to the idea of a plus-one. (Various conference sources who requested anonymity.)
• SEC: In favor of a plus-one. (Slive in 2008, though he is having a blast now joking that the SEC, which will win six consecutive national titles thanks to an Alabama-LSU title game, is perfectly fine with the current system.)
• Sun Belt: Unknown.
• WAC: Unknown.
So other than the Big Ten, the conferences that matter are at least open to the idea of a plus-one, if not outright campaigning for it. In fact, the only powerful official to join Delany in his disapproval of the four-team playoff is Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. "I think change is likely," Swarbrick said. "But I have reservations about the plus-one model."
So would the Big Ten participate if Delany got outvoted and the other leagues created a four-team playoff? "I don't think that we would," Delany said. "But I don't know. To be honest with you, I'm not sure everybody who speaks to the idea of plus-one, I don't know if it's personal or local or if it carries the imprimatur of the presidents in the conferences. It hasn't been put to that test."
The Big Ten would participate, and this is why: SEC and Big 12 coaches will take that "I don't think we would" quote and wave it in front of recruits as early as tomorrow. Do you think Ohio State coach Urban Meyer -- the most powerful man in the Big Ten not named Delany -- will enjoy having his recruiting cut off at the knees by the conference office?
The good news for Delany is that while he could lose one fight, he appears on the verge of winning another that would put his league in an even better position. With Banowsky, Thompson and several powerful people in the Big 12 railing against the idea of automatic qualifying bids to the BCS bowls, it appears the idea of AQ status will die when this BCS contract expires following the 2013 season. On this issue, Delany delivered the line of the day: "As long as I can go to the Rose Bowl," Delany said, "I don't really care."
This is fantastic news for the Big Ten. The league has more brand-name programs with huge, passionate fan bases than any other conference. With the bowls essentially deregulated, the Big Ten and Pac-12 could sign a deal with the Rose Bowl that ensures a Big Ten team will always meet a Pac-12 team, even if one or both leagues sends a team to the playoff. The Big Ten also would be in high demand by other bowls. The seventh-place Big Ten team is more attractive than the champion of Conference USA, the MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt and WAC. Heck, the seventh-place team in the Big Ten might be more attractive to a bowl than the champion of the new Big East. Why? Because if a bowl gets the seventh-place team in the Big Ten, it likely will get one of the following programs: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin.
"If they're saying let the system be market-based," Delany said, "I can't object to that." Then he cracked a thin smile.
So no matter what happens, the Big Ten will gain money and prestige. Maybe that's why Delany didn't seem too broken up about the traction the plus-one has gained. Delany, the old North Carolina point guard, knows that sometimes his team might be outmanned. That doesn't mean he'll stop fighting. Love him or hate him, one of Delany's most endearing qualities is that he always makes clear where he stands.
But on the plus-one issue, is there anyone still willing to stand with him?