- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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When college football's power brokers gathered in Hollywood, Fla., in April 2008 to discuss the future of the sport's national championship, nearly everyone was opposed to any kind of playoff.
The exceptions were ACC commissioner John Swofford and SEC commissioner Michael Slive, who proposed a plus-one model, which would have matched the top four teams in final BCS standings in two semifinals with the winners meeting in a national championship game. Their proposal largely fell upon deaf ears.
At the time, then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said if the plus-one model "looked like a playoff, smelled like a playoff and felt like a playoff," it was probably a playoff.
Then-Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said his league was adamantly opposed to any kind of "NFL-type playoff." Then-Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White added, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The possibility of a playoff determining college football's national champion seemed so bleak at the time that one TV executive involved in the BCS discussions left South Florida proclaiming that "we'd never see a college football playoff in our lifetime."
Four years later, as commissioners of the 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and the sport's other decision-makers gather in the same South Florida beachside resort for another round of BCS discussions, a college football playoff now seems like a foregone conclusion.
"I don't know if they could walk back at this point, but they might," a person familiar with the discussions told ESPN.com on Tuesday.
Many of the faces involved in the discussions have changed -- Tranghese and then-Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen retired, Beebe was forced out, and White now oversees Duke's athletics department. The ACC, Pac-12 and SEC grew larger, and nearly every conference underwent some sort of transformation over the past four years.
Now it's time to fix college football's postseason problem. Sagging TV ratings and declining attendance at BCS bowl games are clear indicators that the BCS needs an overhaul.
"They know this game is in the fourth quarter," BCS executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN's Joe Schad. "And it's time to get it done."
A final decision won't be made this week, but the BCS's governing body is expected to begin to iron out details such as how many teams will be involved in a playoff, how the teams will be selected, where the semifinals and championship game will be played and how the existing BCS bowl games will be incorporated into a playoff.
The current BCS system, which pits the top two teams in the final BCS standings in a championship game played at the site of one the existing BCS bowls (Fiesta, Orange, Sugar and Rose), will remain in place for the next two seasons. A four-team model or any other sort of playoff wouldn't occur until the 2014 season.
Among the details to be discussed:
• The model: The leader in the clubhouse seems to be the same model proposed by Slive and Swofford in 2008: a four-team, plus-one system. The top four teams in the final BCS standings would play in two semifinals: No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3. The winners would play in a championship game a week or two later. What isn't clear is whether the semifinals and championship game would be played at the site of existing BCS bowl games or other neutral sites.
For now, at least, there doesn't seem to be much support for any playoff models that involve more than four teams. And simply adding a national championship game after the BCS bowl games are played -- and picking the best two teams to play in it -- doesn't seem to have much traction, either.
"There's a chance they could only tweak the current system and only deal with No. 1 vs. No. 2," a source familiar with the discussions said. "But I think they're too far out on a limb to turn back now. I don't think that would be considered good enough."
• The participants: Some conference commissioners have suggested that only conference champions should be included in a playoff, but a person familiar with the negotiations told ESPN.com that the proposal doesn't have much support. Last season, Alabama defeated LSU 21-0 in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, after the Crimson Tide failed to win not only the SEC but also the SEC West. Under the conference champions-only proposal, Alabama and Stanford, which finished Nos. 2 and 4 in the final BCS standings, respectively, would have been ineligible for a playoff.
Under that proposal, No. 1 LSU (the SEC champion) would have played No. 10 Wisconsin (Big Ten champion) and No. 3 Oklahoma State (Big 12 champion) would have played No. 5 Oregon (Pac-12 champion) in the semifinals. Along with Alabama and Stanford, No. 6 Arkansas, No. 7 Boise State, No. 8 Kansas State and No. 9 South Carolina would have been ineligible for a playoff because they didn't win their respective conferences.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is opposed to the conference champions-only proposal, saying it's unfair to teams playing in more difficult leagues, especially after the latest round of conference expansion.
"Was Cincinnati as deserving as us last season because they won the Big East?" Saban said. "The bigger these leagues get, the more chances you have of having two really good teams in that league."
• The sites: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany proposed playing the semifinals at the home stadiums of the higher-seeded teams, with the championship game being played at a neutral site. Big Ten fans have long complained about their schools having to play postseason games in warmer climates like Arizona, Louisiana and Florida, which might favor their opponents from the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC.
"It would be fun getting one of those Southern schools up here in our weather in December," Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said. "That would make it pretty interesting. I don't know if that would fly, but I'd love to see that. We've been playing away from home all these years. You go to the Orange Bowl a lot of times -- I can remember Nebraska, they're going to the Fiesta Bowl one year and playing Arizona State, going down and playing Miami in the Orange Bowl, Florida in Florida. So the northern schools are always playing on the road in those games. So that would be a nice change, an interesting change. I don't know if the Southern schools would be in favor of it."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose Wolverines defeated Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans last season, said it's only fair that some of the games are played in the Midwest.
"This isn't golf," Hoke said. "This is football. Football is played in all kinds of environments and climates."
But a source familiar with the negotiations told ESPN.com that conference commissioners have all but ruled out playing the semifinal games at the higher-seeded teams' home stadiums because some of the FBS teams' stadiums aren't big enough to accommodate larger crowds. An inadequate number of hotel rooms and lack of infrastructure in some college towns are also concerns.
"As romantic as it would be to have the semifinal games played on campus, and it would certainly fit into what college football is about, it's just too much to overcome logistically," the source said.
Hoke worries that playing the semifinals and championship game at neutral sites might put too much of a financial burden on fans and players' parents.
"Let's say we go play LSU and we're going down there and the next week we're going to Seattle," Hoke said. "How are [Wolverines quarterback] Denard Robinson's parents going to afford to get there?"
• The calendar: Last season, 35 bowl games were played between Dec. 17 and Jan. 9. After its Nov. 26 regular-season finale against Auburn, Alabama waited 44 days to play LSU in the Jan. 9 BCS National Championship Game. LSU waited 37 days to play the Crimson Tide after defeating Georgia 42-10 in the Dec. 3 SEC championship game.
Some conference commissioners would like to see the national championship game and the other BCS bowl games played closer to New Year's Day. One of the reasons for declining attendance at BCS bowl games is the fact many of them are played on weekday nights, after many fans have already returned to work from the holidays. The most likely proposal is to play the semifinals on New Year's Day and the national championship game about a week later.
Hoke said an additional game might take a physical toll on players.
"My whole deal is are we going to take care of the kids and their families?" Hoke said. "If we make a decision based on what's good for the kids and their families, then let's do it. But if we forget about them and lose sight of the kids, I'm not for it. Are we ever going to worry about the kids? These aren't professional players and their bodies aren't ready to be professionals. If we'd had to play another game after the Sugar Bowl last year, we would have had to play without [center] David Molk and without [defensive end] Ryan Van Bergen. It would have been hard-pressed for us to go and compete. People can talk about doing it at the FCS level and Division II, but it's different. The pressure that's on kids at this level to perform is different."
• The Rose Bowl Game: A person familiar with the BCS discussions described the Rose Bowl as the "elephant that's always in the room." The Rose Bowl wants to keep its traditional tie-ins with the Big Ten and Pac-12. Delany wants Big Ten teams to keep playing in Pasadena, Calif., and Scott wants the same tradition to continue for Pac-12 schools.
Delany's proposal to have a third semifinal at the Rose Bowl -- if a Big Ten or Pac-12 team was among the top four teams in the final BCS standings -- didn't get much thought from other FBS conference commissioners. If the Rose Bowl wants to keep a matchup between Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, it might be left out of the rotation for hosting national semifinals games, if that's where commissioners decide the semifinals are going to be played. The Rose Bowl would still be eligible to bid for hosting the national championship game, though.
"I know [the Rose Bowl] is very important for our commissioner," Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez said. "I think it's important to the other directors to keep that relationship. I heard Jim Delany say this the other day: 'The Rose Bowl is probably one of the top 10 sports properties in the world.' And we've had the long history and tradition with it, and I don't think we want to lose that. Kids coming up now, they want to play in the national championship game, but kids in the Midwest still want to play in the Rose Bowl. It still takes my breath away. When you take that field and the sun's setting over the San Gabriel Mountains and the field is so pretty -- and I've coached and been a director in seven of them -- and I get the same feeling every time I walk in there."
The BCS meetings will continue in South Florida through Thursday. The conference commissioners and other BCS officials are scheduled to meet again in Chicago in late June. By then, we might have a clearer picture of what college football's playoff will look like in the future. Until then, the debate will continue to rage on.
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