Changes to BCS structure inevitable
To understand the future of the college postseason, which the BCS bosses will take up again this week, listen to what hasn't been said.
When SEC commissioner Mike Slive asserted in January that the BCS championship would be transformed, "and I don't think those changes are going to be tweaks," no one rose to rebut him.
The silence that met Slive's comment to Tony Barnhart of CBS College Sports spoke volumes. For 14 years, in the face of loud, nasty and occasionally shrewd commentary mocking the BCS, the administrators in charge of it kept repeating their belief in its virtues.
When USA Today published a memo earlier this month outlining four new formats the 120 FBS schools are considering, the proponents of the status quo said nothing.
As the 11 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick meet in South Florida this week to discuss the format of the postseason circa 2014, they face a new reality of their own creation. If they come out of this process without changing the BCS championship, Congress will look efficient by comparison.
"I think the climate has changed," Slive said in January.
Over the last three months, college football administrators have adapted to the change. It's as if they decided, "As long as the postseason is going to change, let's look at every possible solution."
What changed? What snapped? How did the sport's leaders decide that what has worked for them for so long is no longer working? As recently as four years ago, the BCS bosses last considered the postseason format. When Slive proposed a "plus-one," post-BCS game, he convinced only ACC commissioner John Swofford to vote with him. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said, "There is a strong feeling in the Big 12 that what we have is working well."
That feeling is no longer around. Neither, for that matter, is Beebe. The Big 12, Pac-12 and Big East have different memberships and new commissioners.
Interviews of administrators around the country, on and off the record, describe a gradual accrual of support for a playoff over the last few years until the most recent BCS Championship Game, Alabama's 21-0 defeat of LSU, tipped the scales.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson's advocacy of a playoff four years ago went nowhere. He is delighted that the room no longer goes quiet when he brings up the subject. He favors some sort of four-team format.
"I think a combination of factors got people to a different place," Thompson said. "A national championship game that included a team [Alabama] that won neither its own conference division nor its [conference] title game, playing on Jan. 9 against the NFL playoffs and a growing movement towards a playoff in general have pushed the agenda."
The desire of a prime-time window for as many BCS bowls as possible has pushed the championship game past the first weekend of NFL playoffs. While it's difficult to quantify the effect, Thompson and others are firm in their belief that once the NFL takes the stage, the buildup of a four-month season toward a championship event is irreparably interrupted.
Those prime-time windows also have fallen in midweek, which makes it difficult for fans to attend without blowing up their work schedules. Attendance has fallen -- neither the Sugar Bowl nor the Orange Bowl has topped 70,000 in the last two years. Both had done so every year since 2002. The secondary ticket market -- StubHub, Craigslist, etc. -- has left schools stuck with the tickets they are obligated to purchase.
In the last four years, Thompson has been joined by administrators whose postseason ox got gored by the current system -- University of Georgia president Michael Adams (2007), Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds (2008), Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas (2011).
"Folks are realizing there is little separation between 1-2-3-4, and maybe even deeper, so that the 1-2 matchup as the game is losing a little credibility," Thompson said. "When AQ conference champs get passed for conference runners-up, that is the real issue."
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, who went to Seattle from LSU, attended the Allstate BCS National Championship Game in January.
"New Orleans was not a cataclysmic event for me," he said. "You can make an argument that the two best teams played."
Woodward prefers a four-team format. Other administrators are just now beginning to focus on the issue. In the next few weeks, conferences will hold spring meetings and commissioners will meet with officials from their member schools.
"I'm not sure how much change there really was," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who will attend the BCS meetings this week. "But I have heard a lot of positive things about a Final Four for football."
There is an overarching concern to protect the regular season. There is a concern to protect the bowl structure, although a playoff outside of the bowls has been proposed. Some of the concerns and formats are at cross-purposes, which is why the meetings this week will be so interesting.
"Administrators and presidents and athletic directors move slowly," Woodward said. "We always have. We make incremental moves, when we make them at all."
But try finding someone who thinks the college football postseason will stand still. You can't do it.