Wednesday, June 27, 2012
What a playoff means for the Big Ten
By Brian Bennett
A four-team college football playoff is now a reality. So what does it mean for the Big Ten?
There are two things you can likely count on: better access to playing for a national championship and diminished importance for the Rose Bowl. Is that a tradeoff you can live with?
Let's explain how we came to those conclusions. The Big Ten hasn't had a team play for the national title since Ohio State in 2007, but odds are the league will be involved far more often in the football Final Four. Jim Delany's insistence that conference champions be rewarded with at least stronger consideration for inclusion by a selection committee than non-champions was a win for the Big Ten. Right now, the SEC has a monopoly on at least one spot in the BCS title game; by opening things up to a four-team playoff, the Big Ten champion ought to have a more consistent presence in the national championship mix.
Remember the big-game feel of this past Rose Bowl between Wisconsin and Oregon? That anticipation could diminish with a new playoff system set.
Of course, the key phrase here is "ought to." The playoff will still be a meritocracy and not a Big Ten bailout. The onus remains on the league to play better. In the four seasons since Ohio State played for the BCS title, not a single Big Ten team finished in the top four of the final BCS standings. The closest the conference came was in 2010, when Wisconsin finished No. 5 and Ohio State was No. 6. Had there been a Big Ten championship game, the winner would have stood a great chance of making the four-team playoff since it would have gotten credit for a league title over No. 4 Stanford.
Barely getting one team in the four-team playoff during a four-year period is by no means good enough. Yet it is literally better than nothing, a 25 percent improvement in the league's potential participation in the event. The better news is that Ohio State and Michigan appear primed to return to national prominence with the coaches they've hired and the way they're recruiting, while teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Penn State have built annual contenders. Whoever wins the Big Ten will have gone through an impressive gauntlet and make a strong case for inclusion in the four-team playoff. It will be imperative that league teams schedule, and beat, tough nonconference opponents to accumulate strength-of-schedule bonus points.
But no matter how you slice it, having four paths to the crystal ball instead of two helps the Big Ten. Though it likely will come at the expense of the league's most cherished tradition: the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 fought to keep the Rose Bowl relevant. As Adam Rittenberg wrote Monday, that insistence is a major reason why the national semifinals will be played inside the bowl system instead of being bid out to neutral sites, which could have potentially proved more lucrative.
In many years, the Rose Bowl will still feature its historical Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup. But there's no guarantee that either league will play in the game in the years when the Rose hosts a semifinal game. And if a Big Ten team is playing in Pasadena in the years when the Rose Bowl is not a semifinal site, that means one of two things: either the Big Ten failed to place its champion in the four-team playoff, or the league's runner-up (or even, possibly, its third-place team) is in the Granddaddy.
Both scenarios have their problems. While the Rose Bowl always provides a special experience, any league champion that is not in the final four will have to battle disappointment. And the game loses significance whenever there's not a Big Ten champion involved. Sure, teams like Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota would be thrilled to make the Rose Bowl in any scenario right now. But a Rose matchup featuring a second-place Big Ten team, possibly one that's coming off a loss in the conference title game, can't feel like anything other than an undercard.
In fact, over time, once fans get used to anxiously awaiting the four-team playoff, every other bowl game will diminish in importance. The Rose Bowl will never be like the NIT in basketball because it has too much tradition and pageantry. But its days as the end-all, be-all goal for Big Ten teams are numbered.
In exchange, the Big Ten will receive a greater opportunity to play for a national title. The tradeoff will be worth the price only if the league takes full advantage of that opportunity.