With status quo off the table, three questions will determine change

Publish date:

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- BCS executive director Bill Hancock, who has served since 2009 as the public face of the most hated entity in sports, finally got to say something Wednesday that made college football fans cheer from sea to shining sea. After conference commissioners met for almost 10 hours, a giddy Hancock emerged from a conference room and -- for once -- said something we can celebrate instead of mock.

"I can take status quo off the table," Hancock said.

But this is the BCS. So, naturally, Hancock qualified his statement a few minutes later.

"The BCS as we know it -- the exact same policies will not continue," Hancock said. "That does not mean that there is definitely going to be a four-team event or a plus-one."

A "four-team event" is better known to intelligent fans as a four-team playoff. In other words, that thing that college football has needed for decades but hasn't gotten because of its leaders' slavish devotion to a particular set of postseason exhibition games. But the bowls' power has dwindled as commissioners and athletic directors have come to realize that they hold all the cards in an increasingly lucrative market. So now they're actually talking about meaningful change.

Unless the commissioners get so hopelessly bogged down in their own backwater politics, a playoff is coming. That much is clear. By the close of business Thursday, they will have narrowed their choices to a handful of models that commissioners can take to their presidents at conference spring meetings beginning next week. They've left a crack in the door for a continuation of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 national title game or an actual plus-one -- a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game set after the bowls have been played -- but they haven't spent much time this week talking about either of those options. They've been talking about a playoff -- even if Hancock refuses to call it one. He calls it an "event," which is probably better than a "happening" or an "occurrence," but not as good as a playoff. "I started saying [event] by accident and it got picked up," Hancock said. "I told the commissioners today I'm going to start saying four-team deal."

That actually may be more accurate nomenclature, because it will take plenty of wheeling and dealing before commissioners and presidents arrive at the model that will go into effect after the 2014 season. They face an even more contentious debate -- how to split the money -- down the road, but at present, the commissioners haggle over three critical questions:

1. How many teams?

2. Where will the games be played?

3. How will the teams be chosen?

Here are the best guesses at the answers to those questions:

1. From conversations with commissioners and others in the meeting, the magic number seems to be four. Larger playoff models were discarded long ago, and the commissioners seem to understand that anything resembling the current system (two teams) might get them tarred and feathered. There remains a slight possibility that some two-team model could emerge if the commissioners become hopelessly deadlocked, but don't bet on it.

The tone has changed since the commissioners met four years ago at this very hotel. Then, SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a four-team playoff, and ACC commissioner John Swofford offered his support. No one else did. "The only place we were safe," Slive joked, "was in the men's room." Since then, Slive's league has ruled the sport, and after the SEC's Alabama and LSU were (re)matched in the BCS title game in December, the camel's back finally broke. "People change, times change, tastes change," Slive said. "People are open to talking about what we were talking about four years ago."

Plenty won't be satisfied with the models the commissioners devise. Some critics will say a four-team playoff doesn't go far enough. But the commissioners are not going to make too drastic a change. They fear anything that might damage the regular season, and with good reason. The sale of regular-season television rights is the economic engine that has driven the explosive growth in college football revenue. "You want to control change," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "You want evolution, not revolution, because you don't know what the unintended consequences will be."

2. The commissioners seemed to have settled at least one aspect of this issue before they arrived in the Sunshine State, but Wednesday, several said the three main options remain on the table.

The option that was thought to be dead is playing semifinal games at campus sites. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said it remained quite alive Wednesday. "We wouldn't have spent three or four hours talking about it if it was dead, I don't think," Scott said. "In fairness, I'm sure it's dead for some people. Just as neutral site is dead for some people."

One of those options will have to come back to life for dissenting commissioners, because they are the only choices. Either the semifinals will be played on campus, or they'll be played in one of two neutral-site formats. One format would use the existing BCS bowls as semifinal sites. The other would allow cities to bid for semifinals in the same way that NFL cities bid to host the Super Bowl. (That the championship game would be thrown open to bids doesn't seem up for debate.)

Campus sites would help leagues such as the Big Ten, which don't have major bowls within their geographic footprints. But there are logistical issues. For example, those planning the game wouldn't know whether they could sell 100,000 tickets (for a game at Alabama) or 60,000 tickets (for a game at Oregon). That could make budgeting difficult. Hancock also tried to use the media as a reason campus sites aren't feasible. "Can Manhattan, Kan., take care of 1,200 media?" Hancock asked. "Where will people stay?" Well, Bill, I say this as a media member who routinely stays two hours from a game site because of outrageously priced or unavailable hotel rooms. In your hypothetical, there is this magical place called Kansas City. They have great barbecue there. You should know. You live there.

Still, the neutral-site options seem more palatable to commissioners. "The NCAA basketball tournament is not played on home floors -- for a reason," Slive said. The NCAA also doesn't outsource the management (or the profit) from its basketball tournament. If the commissioners opt for semifinals at bowl games, hopefully they'll drive a harder bargain that eliminates the ticket guarantees and hotel guarantees -- with accompanying kickbacks to the bowls -- that have allowed bowls to fleece schools for years. Short of naked photos we don't know about, the bowls have zero leverage in these talks. If the commissioners want to play the semifinals at neutral sites, why not open it for bids to get the best deal for the schools?

3. The commissioners have a plethora of options for team selection. They could stay with the current BCS rankings, an amalgam of the Coaches' Poll (completed mostly by sports information directors) the Harris Interactive poll (completed mostly by retired sports information directors, coaches, athletic directors and media members) and a set of computer rankings (the formulas for which are mostly kept secret). Another option is a selection committee such as the one used to pick the teams in various NCAA tournaments. Still another option is a yet-to-be-devised system.

"I'm trying to stay open-minded about how a committee could work, because I know people feel good about it in basketball," Scott said. "It's established. But, on first blush, it seems a little counterintuitive to me given the way the world has gone in terms of what our fans want -- which is more objective, more transparent." Scott, by far the most outspoken commissioner on this particular topic, does not want selection carried out behind a veil of secrecy. "The difference between two and three could be a decimal point in some set of formulas that I can't explain to you because they won't disclose how it works," Scott said. "That's not satisfactory."

Scott would like to see a system that weighs strength of schedule more heavily. "If we go to a four-team playoff, then we're essentially going to put more stock in the playoff," Scott said. "The plan, from my perspective, would be a more credible, objective, fair system that balances strength of schedule. We all don't play over the same course. Every conference has got different caliber. Some conferences play nine conference games. Some play eight. Some play stronger out-of-conference competition. Some tend to not. They just want to get home games."

Scott also is no fan of the human voters, who certainly didn't distinguish themselves last season. "If you line up the way the polls work currently, they tend to -- no offense if any of you vote -- track one loss," Scott said. "I can document the last 10 years. It's uncanny how much it tends to track one loss."

The commissioners will narrow their options more Thursday. "The circle is getting a little bit tighter," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. The SEC's Slive chose a running analogy. "I found out a marathon is 26.2 [miles]," he said. "Last time we talked we got the 0.2 done. I think we've probably got 20 miles done."

It's a shame Hancock had to qualify his monumental announcement Wednesday. He was probably correct the first time, and he's probably earned the opportunity to bask in the glory of finally being the bearer of good news. While the machinations aren't finished, the commissioners seem unwilling to fall back on the status quo.

"I'd be very disappointed," Scott said, "if that's what we default to."