SEC draws line in playoff sand

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With only three weeks until the June 20 deadline when conference leaders hoped to have a final playoff model to sell to television executives, the time for compromise draws near. Which is why it's so interesting that the chair of the SEC's presidents and chancellors group would draw a line in the sand on one of the most controversial issues. Florida president Bernie Machen said the SEC would not compromise on having the four highest ranked teams in the playoff rather than a group of conference champions.

"We won't compromise on that," Machen said at the SEC spring meetings. "I think the public wants the top four. I think almost everybody wants the top four."

At this juncture, such a bold statement raises some serious questions about whether conference leaders can reach a consensus. It's one thing for a league leader to say the conference prefers a particular model. It's quite another to eliminate all wiggle room on a particular issue.

Whether the public wants the top four as Machen claims depends on where the public lives. If the public lives in Michigan, Ohio or Illinois, there is a good chance the public wants some sort of preference given to conference champs. At their meeting earlier this month, ACC athletic directors and coaches backed conference-champ priority even though Commissioner John Swofford had previously stated a desire for the top four. At the Big Ten meetings earlier this month, Commissioner Jim Delany voiced support for a "hybrid model" that would give preference to high-ranked conference champions but would also make allowances in case one league had more than one elite team. At this point, the factions seem to be a group made up of the Big 12, the SEC and Notre Dame (top four) and a group made up of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12 (preference for conference champs).

The argument against the hybrid model (three conference champs within the top six and a wildcard) is that the No. 3 team could be left out in favor of the No. 6 team. That may sound fine to Big Ten and Pac-12 leaders now, but what happens when one of their champs is sitting at No. 1 and one of their teams is sitting at No. 3? They seem so focused on putting up roadblocks for the SEC that they have lost sight of the fact that they also have strong leagues that might someday be as dominant as the SEC is now.

The argument against a top-four model is that it relies too much on the nebulous concept of conference strength. Also, it fails to encourage strong out-of-conference scheduling the way the conference champs model does. In the conference champs model, elite schools would be more likely to schedule risky out-of-conference games because winning the conference could still get them in the playoff.

Machen said the SEC would be willing to compromise on other factors, but he didn't specify which ones. After the top four/conference champs argument, the other issues are where to play the semifinals (bowls or neutral sites determined by bid) and how to pick the teams (the current BCS rankings model, an adjusted version of that model or a selection committee).

Of course, the conference champ and team selection issues are completely linked. It's easy to express a desire to see the top four teams play as West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck did Wednesday at the Big 12 meetings. "The four best teams have to be the four best teams," Luck told the Dallas Morning News. "That's the American way." But what constitutes a top-four team? At the moment, that decision is made by voters in the Coaches' and Harris Interactive polls as well as six computer rankings -- of which five of the formulas are kept secret.

So would a compromise on selection turn the top-four argument into semantics? The Big Ten contingent seemed keen on a selection committee. You know how I feel about that possibility, though I would add one stipulation: If the powers that be wanted to make a selection committee as transparent as possible, they would televise the committee's deliberations. Imagine settling in front of the television on the Sunday after the conference title games and watching commissioners and athletic directors haggle over teams. It would be a ratings blockbuster, and it would keep the process honest.

But what if the Big Ten or Pac-12 refuses to budge on the conference champs issue? The SEC may have won the past six national titles, but those leagues have plenty of political juice. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told The Wall Street Journal last week that a true plus-one -- a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game played after the bowls -- was back on the table. In English, that means the Pac-12 is presenting the possibility of taking its ball and going home.

Machen said Thursday that he doesn't believe a plus-one is truly on the table, but he seemed as curious as everyone else about what might happen if one league can't agree with the others. "What if one of the conferences says no? I don't really know what happens if someone says no," Machen said. "It really does have to be a consensus model to work."

What if the leagues can't come to a consensus? We probably should wait until the unseen hand in all this drama makes its moves. We know what the leagues want, but we don't yet know what television executives want. Their willingness to pay to televise the playoff hinges upon the quality of the matchups created. The better the matchups, the more money everyone gets.

So don't worry too much about the playoff falling apart, even if the rhetoric gets stronger in the next three weeks. Cash is the ultimate consensus builder, and it hasn't had its say yet.