Stewart Mandel: Outdated and unpopular, BCS finally embraces playoff plan - Sports Illustrated

Outdated and unpopular, BCS finally embraces playoff plan

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Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS and spokesperson for the commissioners, hailed the news that the 12 gentlemen in charge are officially pursuing a four-team playoff as "seismic change for college football." They must still figure out many details -- Neutral sites or campus sites? Poll voters or a selection committee? -- but they're too far down the road to turn back.

The BCS as we know it will be gone in two years.

And so, we bid adieu to 14 (eventually 16) years of terminal acrimony (2004 Auburn) mixed with occasional exhilaration (Vince Young against USC). Rest in peace, system that wrought Utah vs. Pittsburgh and Oklahoma vs. UConn. May we make it to 2014 without another Red River Decimal-Point Shootout, like Oklahoma and Texas suffered through in 2008.

But why now? Why, after 14 years of BCS rancor and more than 75 years of voter control, is this the moment college football chose to embrace a playoff? Just four years ago, on this very same week in this very same hotel, SEC commissioner Mike Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford could not even get their colleagues to listen to their proposal for what was then termed a plus-one.

"It basically fell on deaf ears [in 2008]," said Swofford. "Sometimes a seed is planted for an idea that simply takes time for the seed to germinate."

Four years later and with several new faces in the room, the commissioners did far more than listen. According to numerous first-hand accounts, they laboriously deliberated over pros and cons of potential playoff variations. All looked noticeably exhausted by day's end Thursday.

"They are listening to the fans," said Hancock. "They get it that they want to do something different."

But fans began moaning about the BCS long before 2008, when then-Notre Dame AD Kevin White emerged from these same meetings and declared, in a refrain shared by most of the group, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it." Many became fed up with the system as early as 1998, the year it debuted.

The short answer, based on conversations with numerous commissioners and others in the room, is simply this: The BCS got old. Literally.

"We will have had the BCS for 16 years," said Hancock. "We've had a whole generation of this, and in our world of college sports, an entire generation is a long time."

Sixteen years ago, all college football fans knew was the traditional bowl system: Big Ten vs. Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl every single year; the Cotton Bowl played on New Year's Day, not Jan. 7; the Orange Bowl as one of sport's must-see events, not a 99-cent StubHub ticket. The BCS was a noble, if undeniably clunky, attempt to maintain that system while adding an official No. 1 vs. 2 game.

For the most part, it worked. BCS detractors hate to admit it, but memorable championship matchups like Ohio State-Miami (2002), USC-Texas (2005) and Auburn-Oregon (2010) would never have been possible pre-BCS. The other undisputed truth: National interest in the sport's regular season skyrocketed in large part due to the BCS championship race. "We injected steroids into the regular season," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, long the staunchest proponent of the current system who is now looking to "do something the public can appreciate."

But with that spike in interest came increased scrutiny and heightened expectations. It bred an entirely new generation of fans -- pretty much anyone under the age of 30 -- that doesn't remember college football pre-BCS, holds no entrenched allegiance to the bowl system and simply wants a more conclusive ending to the season. Only four times in the past 11 years has the Rose Bowl actually pitted the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, leaving those parties rigidly clinging to a tradition that many younger fans don't even remember.

Meanwhile, unheralded programs like Boise State and TCU rose to prominence in large part due to their BCS exposure, but tolerance for their second-class treatment wore thin. Death to the BCS, Playoff PAC and other watchdogs exposed the bowl games' unsavory business practices. Blogs, Twitter and sports talk radio provided 24/7 outlets for venting.

BCS backlash became about much more than just "Who's No. 1?"

Finally, it seems, the gatekeepers reached their breaking point.

"There's a point at which university leadership says to you, 'Can you make this so I don't have to deal with this all the time?'" said Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. "'I'm really tired of hearing it in my mail and from trustees and from congressional representatives. I don't want to talk about this. I want to run my university.'"

Meanwhile, don't underestimate the on-field seeds of discontent -- mainly, the SEC's six-year reign of dominance. The commissioners are paid handsomely to make reasoned, level-headed decisions, and wouldn't likely blow up their sport's postseason over one fluky occurrence. But last year's unpopular all-SEC Alabama-LSU title matchup, on the heels of five straight SEC championships, may well have been a tipping point for some of the less prolific.

"I think thought process [toward a plus-one] had already begun at that point," said Swofford, "and that probably moved it a bit forward to a degree."

And while playoff possibilities will garner the bulk of attention over the next couple of months, the bowl business in general is about to change considerably. For one thing, Hancock on Thursday officially rendered the era of Automatic Qualifying conferences dead. "It won't continue" in the next contract, he said. If the BCS had decided that a couple years earlier, maybe we could have avoided the absurdity of San Diego State joining forces with the Big East.

This, too, was a byproduct of an earlier era that's now been rendered antiquated. It made sense at the time that the BCS' six founding conferences and Notre Dame would enjoy special treatment because ... well, they founded it. Hence, they took in more of the loot than the Sun Belt and were guaranteed access to the biggest games regardless of their teams' records.

Yet as the Big Six became more like the Big Four (SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12) over time, one of the five most prestigious bowls still got stuck with Oklahoma-UConn or Clemson-West Virginia each year. The new method for picking bowl participants is yet to be determined, but all parties hope to create more consistently compelling matchups, regardless of league affiliation.

So does that mean the last 14 years were a colossal mistake? When we write the final obits on the BCS (assuming they change the name), will we remember it as the evil, wretched debacle many paint it to be?

Probably. But that's not entirely fair.

There's no right answer to whether college football is better or worse than it was pre-BCS. That's up to each individual. Some may have preferred the sport circa 1974. Others may feel 2014 can't get here soon enough. Whatever the case, they're still watching. Now more than ever, they're thirsting for spring-practice updates and recruiting visit interviews. The BCS didn't turn them off from the sport, and in many cases, even if unintentionally, it may have heightened their interest.

The BCS was a necessary bridge to get from there to here, from regional rite of autumn to national year-long obsession, from finding out the national champion in the next day's newspaper to debating it in real time on Twitter. The sport simply wasn't ready for a playoff in 1998. Its leaders -- many of whom began working in college athletics when there was one game a week on TV and the coaches made $35,000 -- still weren't ready 10 years later.

They're ready now. They have to be. "They're scared of losing the public," said one industry observer. Maybe that's overstating it, but there have certainly been more dark clouds than ever the past few years.

They're going to give you your playoff, folks. And if they can manage not to mess it up -- so far, so good, but the presidents haven't had their chance yet -- they will not only add two more national-title contenders, but reenergize the bowl games and amplify the regular season even further.

"Our goal is to make the postseason a celebration of college football," said Slive.

Of course, they'll never eradicate controversy. They know that. They know we'll simply move on to "Who's No. 4?"

But they also know, after 14 years of playing defense, they'll finally get to dance in the end zone once this thing's finally settled. When that day comes, may they also raise a glass to their dying creation that served, exceeded and ultimately outlived its purpose.