Commentary

Conferences shouldn't matter

Best teams, regardless of affiliation, should play in championship format

Updated: April 24, 2012, 6:16 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

There's a big college football meeting this week -- 11 conference commissioners, television executives, all the BCS honchos and Notre Dame's athletic director. They're studiously avoiding the word playoff, as though the mere suggestion might ignite a public firestorm over the possibility that sanity may finally infiltrate the process.

Something might happen this time, though. Too many people are suggesting that we might get something significant. It can't all be wishful thinking, can it? And as for the select few who are entrusted with discussing the future of the BCS, most fans would issue the same two words of advice:

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George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesNotre Dame, represented here by AD Jack Swarbrick and coach Brian Kelly, should have the same shot at the postseason as any other team.

Go big.

Don't go halfway. Don't cower in your private meeting and come out with an appeasement policy that protects the automatic-qualifier status of conferences. Don't tiptoe through the process and present the world some hybrid bowl/nonplayoff format that relies too much on subjectivity and the country's random collection of universities comprising conferences.

Instead, try this: Tear up the current BCS and spread it like confetti over the middle of the country.

Fans, don't get your hopes too high, though. The difference between a conference commissioner's definition of meaningful change and the average fan's definition is roughly the difference between Alabama and Idaho State. The chance of that chasm narrowing is slim to none. And how do we know? Because instead of playoff -- that word they dare not speak -- the most promising proposal in a two-page memo acquired by USA Today calls for a "four-team event."

I don't know what images form in your mind when you hear the words "four-team event," but I'm seeing a scrimmage jamboree for U-10 rec-league soccer. Will they keep score? Will the championship game -- oh, excuse me, two-team event -- decide the national champion or just the winner of the "four-team event"?

Because here's the thing: If a four-team event is a good idea, a 16-team event would be four times better. More teams, more excitement, more orange slices. A four-team event as it is described is not really a playoff; it's more like a two-game postbowl afterparty with fireworks and Brent Musburger. But a 16-team event would be a four-week party, with real meaning and a satisfying conclusion. It would even fit nicely into the current bowl format, provided the guys in the blazers can get over themselves long enough to see what's best for the sport.

The four-team event is intended to serve too many masters. The Rose Bowl will be appeased by the inclusion of the Big Ten and Pac 12 champions as two of the semifinalists. A "conventional" four-team format is also being considered, according to the memo that was leaked to USA Today.

(One tangent: Why did this memo have to be "leaked"? Is there a reason these conversations can't be conducted in an open and mature way? As always, the fans are the ones with no seat at the table, no voice in the process. They generate the interest and pay for the tickets. They are the television ratings, and they are the targets of the advertisers. But when it comes to stuff like this, they're told what's best for them.)

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Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRevenge will be a motivating factor for LSU when the Tigers face Alabama this season.

One of the first orders of business should be to get rid of AQ status for conference champions. Next, shed the rule that limits conferences to two representatives. If the third-best team in the SEC is better than the Big East champion -- and how long has it been since that hasn't been true? -- then the third-best team in the SEC should have a chance to play for a national championship and the Big East champion should have to make the field on its own merits.

(One more tangent: The second- and third-tier bowl games shouldn't be a major consideration in the discussion. Let them remain what they are: mostly hollow rewards for jobs slightly well done. They serve the purpose of giving the interested alumni one more excuse to pretend they're 21 again, and they allow head coaches to list one more bowl game on their résumés long after anybody remembers that blustery day in El Paso when they lost 12-7 to Louisiana Tech.)

True BCS reform -- if that's the objective -- will come only at the expense of conference pandering. If the metrics indicate that the champion of the Mountain West is better than the champion of the Big East, the MWC team should advance to the BCS bowl-based tournament or nontournament or whatever they choose to call it.

The view from outside the BCS conference room seems pretty clear: Fans just want to see the best teams play the most meaningful games, and they want a resolution at the end. You know, just like every other sport known to man.

But compared to the current system, we'll be happier with whatever event they throw our way. They've worn us down that way. And don't think the guys in the room don't know that.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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