- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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They still don't get it.
As the pivotal month for college football's postseason structure kicks off, the Big Ten's position on a four-team playoff remains a mystery for many. The SEC folks don't understand it, and it clearly hasn't sunk in for others. Colleague Chris Low of the SEC blog fired up his base and fired back at me and all "city slickers" Thursday, while ignoring my main point that folks aren't understanding the Big Ten's actual playoff preference -- a hybrid model featuring the top three rated conference champions and one wild card for a deserving non-champion or independent.
Many are setting the stage for an SEC-Big Ten playoff proposal showdown -- Slive vs. Delany! South vs. North! Right vs. Wrong! -- while only getting one side of the story correct. One national columnist wrote Thursday night that the Big Ten still is adamant about having conference champions only and having semifinals at campus sites.
To be fair, a lot of the continued confusion about the Big Ten stems from the league sending mixed messages throughout the process.
First, the Big Ten was all about campus sites and conference champions. Then, league brass talked about preserving the Rose Bowl at all costs and seemed to give up on the campus sites push, citing weak support nationally.
We hear about how the Big Ten plays virtual road games in bowls. Then you get Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith saying "good weather is important" for playoff games, and Michigan AD Dave Brandon saying he opposes playoff games at indoor venues in the Midwest, which would make travel easier for Big Ten fans. The comments came at the same meetings where Delany confirmed the Big Ten is interested in playing a bowl game at New York's Yankee Stadium.
The Big Ten's shift from "campus sites are awesome!" to "save the Rose Bowl!" left many shaking their heads. Even though campus sites likely was a losing battle, the Big Ten would have earned more points by standing its ground and keeping the fight going longer. The league's Rose Bowl love isn't new, but it resonates with fewer and fewer people nationally. It's a tired argument and a hard sell.
Then you had Delany's infamous "that team" comment to the Associated Press, when he appeared to take a shot at non-division winners in a playoff -- and specifically reigning national champion Alabama. The next week, Delany said he wasn't targeting the Tide and preferred a system that rewarded the best conference champions but also had room for a team like Alabama. But the damage was done.
You also had Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, a member of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, telling me he and many of his colleagues in the Big Ten and Pac-12 favor a plus-one playoff format. But the plus-one was barely mentioned at the Big Ten spring meetings.
The Big Ten hasn't remained on message throughout this process, and its position has suffered as a result.
The SEC, meanwhile, has had a clear position that it repeats whenever possible: best four teams, bowl sites for the semifinals. End of story.
And the SEC isn't budging.
"We won't compromise on that," University of Florida president Bernie Machen said this week at the league's spring meetings. "I think the public wants the top four. I think almost everybody wants the top four."
Machen also took a shot at the Big Ten, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The group that's got to get real, the Big Ten's got to realize that the world is going in a different direction."
The Big Ten presidents and chancellors meet Sunday at league headquarters. They need to emerge from the meeting with a clear consensus of what they want for a playoff. Important meetings take place June 13 and June 20 in Chicago, and the Big Ten needs its voice to be heard with no confusion.
The Big Ten doesn't appear to be in a position of strength, and the biggest reason is the continued failure of its teams to win national championships. But there's still time to influence the playoff model.
No more mixed messages. It's time for a united front.