By Stewart Mandel
April 30, 2012

In hindsight, I should have patented it. Then again, how could I have known that a mostly-for-fun idea I dreamt up for a Nov. 4, 2009 Mailbag might one day become the basis for college football's first playoff.

Multiple sources with direct knowledge of last week's discussions in South Florida have confirmed to that the new favored proposal for a four-team playoff within the bowl system would place the two semifinal games at the traditional anchor bowls of the No. 1 and 2 teams' conferences. For example, No. 1 Alabama of the SEC would host the No. 4 team in the Sugar Bowl, while No. 2 USC of the Pac-12 would host the No. 3 team in the Rose Bowl. It is, coincidentally (or so they claim), the exact concept I first proposed as part of the "Mandel Plan" for a plus-one tournament.

My lawyers will be in touch shortly to negotiate a proper consulting fee.

Another variation currently under consideration for the playoff within the bowls is more straightforward: Two games would be preemptively designated as semifinal sites each season. For example, the Rose and Sugar might take their turns in 2015, the Fiesta and Orange in 2016. However, one source said that version is "not as likely" to be adopted.

The first version is considered more palatable for two reasons. For one, it allows the Rose Bowl to be part of the playoff while maintaining its relationship with the Big Ten and Pac-12. If randomly assigned a semifinal, the Rose Bowl could get stuck hosting two teams from any conference. For another, it largely prevents situations where the higher-seeded team would be at a geographic disadvantage (like, say, No. 1 Ohio State facing No. 4 LSU in New Orleans), or where two teams would get randomly assigned to a site nowhere near either school (like, say, Oklahoma vs. Oregon in Miami).

That said, it's no certainty the conferences will opt for bowl-hosted semifinals. Contrary to some reports, on-campus sites remain "very much alive," according to two sources. One said the commissioners left the meetings split about "60-40" in favor of using bowl sites. They will present all remaining proposals to their respective conference presidents, athletic directors and coaches at league meetings in late May and early June to gauge their preferences before reconvening June 20 in Chicago.

The one detail all plans have in common: The championship game will be bid out to all major cities, making it highly unlikely one of the current BCS bowls would host both a semifinal and a championship. "The idea is to get away from double-hosting," said a source.

The commissioners' anchor-hosting plan is admittedly more radical than mine was. Two new bowls (one of them presumably the revitalized Cotton Bowl) would join the four existing BCS bowls as part of a six-game television package, with a goal of playing all six on Dec. 31, Jan. 1 or Jan. 2. The commissioners have talked for some time about "reclaiming New Year's Day" and eliminating mid-week games played as late as Jan. 5. Assuming the current bowls retain their present anchor conferences (Big Ten and Pac-12 in the Rose, SEC in the Sugar, Big 12 in the Fiesta, ACC in the Orange), the two new games could serve as semifinal sites should the No. 1 and 2 teams hail from, say, the Big East and Mountain West -- or, like last season, from the same conference.

BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said definitively last week that automatic qualification status for conferences "will not continue," but that doesn't mean the bowls can't individually continue their traditional relationships with certain conferences. However, in order to ensure all six games contain compelling matchups, teams would have to meet a minimum ranking (perhaps Top 15), and the teams-per-conference limit would be raised from two to three, said one source. While this stands to primarily benefit the major conferences, the limited pool would make it hard for one of the bowls to pass up, say, seventh-ranked Boise State.

Just like with the current system, bowls that lose national championship participants to other games (in this case the No. 3 and 4 teams) would have first pick of replacements, meaning the Rose Bowl could replace the Big Ten champ with another Big Ten team, but only if that team meets the ranking criteria.

To this point the commissioners have focused almost entirely on the playoff component, and not yet on the selection process for the other bowls. If they'd like another free suggestion, perhaps they should look at the "matchup draft" concept I employed in last year's Mandel Plan after it had become apparent they were going to ditch AQ bids.

An obvious hitch with the anchor-hosting proposal is that based on history, certain bowls would host semifinals far more often than others. For instance, had this concept been in place all along, the Sugar Bowl (SEC) would have hosted six straight semifinals from 2006-11, the Fiesta Bowl (Big 12) five of seven from 2003-09. The ACC, on the other hand, has not produced a No. 1 or 2 team in 12 years, meaning no semis for the Orange Bowl. Of course, with no more AQ bids going forward, there's no guaranteeing those parties will continue their relationship.

Conferences will also be asked to weigh in on the matter of playoff participants. While there's been considerable public sentiment toward limiting the field to conference champions, one source said most commissioners are leaning toward an unrestricted top four, which figures to be more appealing to television partners. "[Nos.] one through four is more easily understandable," said ACC commissioner John Swofford. At the very least, there would be one or more wild-card spots, in part to account for independents like Notre Dame and BYU.

As for selecting the teams, the commissioners are a ways away from deciding whether to use a revised BCS formula, a selection committee or some combination of both. "The whole topic of selection and who would get in is something that we've really parked for now," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "We realize that's going to require a whole lot more debate and study." If they do employ a formula, sources said there's a near-universal desire to emphasize strength of schedule. One source said the commissioners also aren't keen on preseason polls, which could signal an end to using the USA Today Coaches' Poll.

For the record, I was never much of a playoff proponent, in part because I don't want college football to become an NFL clone, which it would with a large-scale playoff. But it also seemed like a waste of time. That original Mandel Plan column noted the "0.0 percent chance" of the sport adopting an eight- or 16-team playoff anytime soon.

However, I first became interested in a plus-one (few dared to even use the word "playoff" until as recently as last week) sometime around the 2006 season, the year the regular-season ended with that Florida-Michigan debate. By 2008, when Mike Slive and Swofford formally endorsed a four-team model (but got shot down by every other commissioner), I deluded myself into believing that maybe, possibly, we could get one this time around. That same 2009 column included the following line: "There's at least a glimmer of hope the Mandel Plan could become reality."

Two-and-a-half years later, I'm proud to report we've moved well beyond a glimmer, and remarkably close to reality.

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