Beneath Big Ten's backtracking, common playoff ground exists

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The Big Ten held a conference call Monday morning, and Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman took the opportunity to make sure the most unflattering stereotypes about the venerable conference remain in place for many years to come.

By stating that his fellow league presidents' official preference for college football's postseason is "the status quo" just one day after his Pac-12 equivalent, Oregon State president Ed Ray, said "no one is talking about the status quo," Perlman ensured that the rest of the country will continue to view the conference of Legends and Leaders as a stodgy, out-of-touch band of cigar-smoking reactionaries.

This is an embarrassing development for Big Ten fans, the great majority of whom embrace change and couldn't view the college football world more differently than their leagues' overlords. It's also a disservice to the conference, which has actually been a leader in innovation, from popularizing the spread offense in the late '90s and early 2000s, to creating the landscape-altering Big Ten Network five years ago, to forming a forthcoming scheduling alliance with the Pac-12. The Big Ten's own athletic directors were the first to propose holding semifinal playoff games on campus sites, an idea so radical that other conferences rejected it. But thanks to comments like Perlman's, most of the country will go on viewing the Big Ten as the one conference still using dial-up modems.

Worst of all, the inevitable backlash will result from something we already know is an empty gesture. In the ongoing turf war over the future of the BCS, the Big Ten presidents wanted to get their official preference on the record: "If we were to vote today, we would vote for the status quo," said Perlman. Yet in nearly the same breath, Perlman acknowledged, "We're also realistic." As in: We know no one else feels this way, so we know we'll end up making compromises; and despite commissioner Jim Delany insisting a plus-one, our second preference, is very much "on the table," we know we're still heading toward an inevitable four-team playoff as soon as we get through a summer of posturing and grandstanding over the details.

"We have tried to not put a stake in the ground and say, 'Over our dead bodies,'" said Perlman, which is so considerate of him given his conference's proud legacy of winning one-and-a-half national titles in the last 40 years.

To that end, the more important details that emerged from Monday's call related to the conference's preferences for a playoff: The league wants semifinals played within the bowl system and a championship game bid out to other cities, just like everyone else. That no longer seems a point of debate.

More notably, commissioner Jim Delany made the surprising comment that "I totally agree we should have the four best teams" in a playoff. To this point we assumed the Big Ten was in lockstep with the Pac-12, whose commissioner Larry Scott is pushing the hardest of anyone for a conference championship requirement. Instead, the Big Ten is now apparently more in line with the SEC and Big 12 -- to a point.

The problem, said Delany, is the method for determining the four best teams. The commissioner whose league is purportedly fine with the BCS status quo proceeded to rip the very polls and computers synonymous with the current system. "Everybody recognizes the present poll system is not a good proxy," said Delany, calling the system biased and non-transparent. It's hard to argue with either description.

The Big Ten, like pretty much everyone else who has weighed in on the playoff, wants a new method that rewards strength of schedule, but feels "strongly that champions ought to be honored," said Perlman.

There's really only one way to accomplish both in a more transparent manner. "We would feel comfortable with a selection committee," said Perlman.

The more the conferences bicker, the more likely it seems a committee may be the way they find common ground. As Death to the BCS author Dan Wetzel wrote last week, a selection committee would render the "top four" issue moot, because there'd be no official top four from which the members would deviate. And they could place emphasis on conference championships without a hard-and-fast requirement. As our own Andy Staples wrote, a committee could employ common sense to diffuse potential controversies like Stanford finishing ahead of Oregon in last year's standings despite trouncing the Cardinal and winning the Pac-12 North. And, just like the NCAA basketball committee, a football panel could be instructed to reward teams that challenge themselves out of conference. This seems to be the primary concern in the Pac-12, where teams like USC not only play nine conference games, but also face traditional rivals like Notre Dame and no FCS foes.

Sure, there are potential concerns with placing such weighty responsibility in the hands of so few. All humans have biases, and whichever administrators or former coaches are brave enough to take on the challenge (insert Witness Protection joke here) would be no exception. That said, it's easier to find 10-12 knowledgeable and professional people to serve on a committee than it is to enlist 115 such folks for the Harris Poll. They won't hold the same blatant conflicts of interest as the current Coaches' Poll voters. And by simply taking the time to explain their selections publicly, they'll enable us to know more about how they arrived at the result than we do about the mostly secret computer formulas.

The Big 12 also came out in favor of a selection committee last week. The SEC was more wishy-washy at its meetings, with some figures (Steve Spurrier) endorsing the idea, others (Nick Saban) opposing it and the guy who matters most, Mike Slive, remaining non-committal. Of course, Slive's is the one league that would benefit most from keeping the current selection criteria intact. At this point the SEC champion could play two FCS foes, a Sun Belt school and a WAC team and still be assured a spot in the national title game. Which is exactly why the other conferences are pushing for change.

That includes the Big Ten, which, once we get past the presidents' status quo/plus-one posturing, is actually pushing for meaningful change. In fact, Delany and Perlman made a point of highlighting their flexibility. "Not everybody is trying to have their cake and eat it too," Delany said. "Not everybody is making demands." Delany is obviously trying to show that the real obstructionists here -- like Florida president Bernie Machen, who said of the SEC's top four stance: "We won't compromise on that," -- live in the South.

We've reached Phase 3 in Playoff Mania 2012. Phase 1 saw the commissioners coming out of four rounds of meetings from January-April with a set of four-team playoff proposals. Phase 2 included the conference meetings these past few weeks, where the various constituencies relayed their preferences and positions. Now, in the next round of commissioner meetings June 13 and 20 in Chicago, they'll try to find middle ground.

When they do, they'll find they're not as far apart as it might seem. The Big Ten presidents know they're not going to get their preferred time warp back to 1968. So long as the Rose Bowl is protected (which it will be if the semifinals are played at the conferences' anchor bowls), they'll ultimately endorse a four-team playoff. So too will the Pac-12 if it knows its champion will be rewarded, and so too will the SEC and Big 12 if they know they can still place more than one team in the playoff.

It may just be that a transparent selection committee capable of employing both freedom and logic is the bridge that ultimately brings everyone together.