- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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After more than 143 years of college football, the sport is on the verge of settling its greatest debate: the best way to determine its national champion.
After decades of relying on human polls, confusing computer rankings, and, most recently, a convoluted Bowl Championship Series ratings system to crown a national champion, major college football is ready to go where it has never gone before -- a national playoff.
Commissioners of the 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will meet in Chicago on Wednesday, when they're expected to begin hammering out details of a potential four-team playoff.
A playoff wouldn't go into effect until the 2014 season. The current BCS system, which pits the top two teams in the final BCS standings in the BCS National Championship Game, will remain in place during the next two seasons.
What once seemed like an immovable object -- college football's bowl system -- might finally be pushed aside, opening the door for a true national playoff, which many fans have wanted for years.
"They are listening to the fans," says BCS chairman Bill Hancock. "They get it that people would like to do something different. The worm didn't turn all of the sudden. This is not a revolutionary process; it's an evolutionary process."
Here's a primer for where we stand heading into the next three weeks of meetings:
After this week's meetings, the FBS commissioners will be back in Chicago next week for the NCAA Division I Conference Commissioners Association meeting. The FBS commissioners are expected to meet for a half-day on June 20, according to Hancock, and they might come out of that meeting with a proposal to take to the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, which is scheduled to meet in Washington, D.C., on June 26.
What's left on the table to discuss?
Many of the details regarding a playoff are still unsettled. The commissioners must decide: (1) How the four teams will be selected (whether it's the top four teams, regardless of whether they won their conference championships, or three conference champions and a wild card); (2) Whether revised BCS standings will be used to select the four teams or a human committee similar to the one used to determine the seeding and at-large bids for the NCAA men's basketball tournament; and (3) Whether the national semifinal games will be played within the existing BCS bowl structure or outside of them. (There seems to be a consensus that the BCS National Championship Game will be offered to the highest bidding city.)
Where does each of the conferences stand on the biggest issues?
Here's an educated guess on what each of the five major FBS leagues wants:
ACC: ACC commissioner John Swofford was the only BCS conference commissioner who supported SEC commissioner Mike Slive's plus-one proposal in 2008, and this time he initially joined Slive in favoring the top four teams being in a playoff, even if they didn't win their league titles.
But Swofford later reversed his position and now says conference champions should be included in the playoff, provided they meet criteria like finishing in the top six of the BCS standings. Why did the ACC's position change? Conference champions getting special consideration in a playoff might be ACC teams' best opportunity at getting in -- and it also might prevent schools such as Clemson and Florida State from exploring other leagues like the Big 12 because it might be easier for them to win the ACC and punch their tickets to a playoff.
For more on the ACC's stance, check out the ACC blog.
Big 12: The Big 12 and SEC announced last month that their champions will play in a postseason bowl game, a relationship similar to the Big Ten and Pac-12 meeting in the Rose Bowl. As such, interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas said his league has lined up with the SEC, which favors having the top four teams in the playoff, instead of only conference champions.
But after Big 12 champion Oklahoma State finished No. 3 behind LSU and Alabama in the final BCS standings last season, the Big 12 also wants a selection committee to pick the four teams. Neinas said the Big 12 favors playing the semifinals outside of the BCS bowls but realizes most of the other leagues want to incorporate the semifinals into the existing BCS bowl games.
For more on the Big 12's stance, check out the Big 12 blog.
Big Ten: More than anything else, Big Ten presidents want to make sure they protect their league's traditional relationship with the Rose Bowl. They actually prefer keeping the current BCS system because of that reason. But with postseason change seemingly inevitable, Big Ten presidents prefer having a plus-one system, in which the two highest-rated teams would play for the national title after the BCS bowl games are played.
Among other things, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany initially proposed having three conference champs and a wild card in the playoff but now says, "It should be the four best teams."
Delany has made it clear that he favors having a committee select the four teams instead of relying on human polls and computer ratings, which he says are flawed and not sufficiently transparent.
For more on the Big Ten's stance, check out the Big Ten blog.
Pac-12: Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott also wants to make sure his league maintains its traditional alliance with the Rose Bowl, and he went as far as saying the SEC's new postseason arrangement with the Big 12 puts the plus-one model back on the table.
After the Pac-12 meetings earlier this month, Scott said he clearly favored a playoff that rewards conference champions. Initially, Scott said he didn't necessarily like having a committee select the teams because it wasn't objective enough.
For more on the Pac-12's stance, check out the Pac-12 blog.
SEC: Slive dug in his heels and said his league, which has won the past six BCS national championships, wants a playoff that includes the top four teams -- and nothing else. Why wouldn't he? Alabama defeated LSU 21-0 in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game after the Crimson Tide failed to win the SEC West.
At the SEC meetings earlier this month, Slive said he believed the playoff would incorporate the BCS bowl games into the semifinals. Slive said he wasn't opposed to having a committee select the teams but seems to favor tweaking the BCS formula to put more emphasis on factors like strength of schedule.
For more on the SEC's stance, check out the SEC blog.
Where the conferences stand: At a glance
ESPN's bloggers offer a quick look at each conference's official stance or preference:
Where does the Big East fit into the playoff model?
BCS conference commissioners agreed in April to eliminate "AQ" and "non-AQ" status, meaning any team from any FBS league would be eligible to participate in the playoff, as long as it meets the chosen criteria or is selected by a committee.
But sources close to the BCS conversations say it's clear that the big five leagues -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC -- no longer consider the Big East part of their group. The Big East lost West Virginia and TCU to the Big 12 this year, and Pittsburgh and Syracuse are scheduled to leave for the ACC in 2014. (Pitt has sued to leave in 2013.)
BCS commissioners haven't started discussing how to divide the money from a TV contract that could be worth as much as $400 million to $500 million, according to industry sources. When they do, the Big East won't get nearly as much as it once did.
For more on the Big East's stance, check out the Big East blog.
Who's on the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee?
The BCS Presidential Oversight Committee ultimately will put the final rubber stamp on college football's new playoff -- or maybe not. The university presidents ultimately will decide whether to approve a playoff for college football, and they've rarely been on the same page with conference commissioners and athletic directors when it comes to that issue.
Virginia Tech president Charles Steger chairs the committee, which also includes university presidents from Tulane, Notre Dame, Florida, USC, Idaho, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Texas, Louisville, Western Kentucky and Fresno State.
When will a final decision on the playoff be made?
Most of the involved parties hope to have a resolution by the end of this month, but it now seems that the discussions could stretch into July and possibly August because there's so much left to work out. Delany said last week that he wasn't sure conference commissioners would be ready to make a formal proposal to the presidents' committee by June 26.
Could a postseason playoff plan be decided by the end of the month? Which issues are still on the table? Mark Schlabach lays out the biggest BCS questions remaining for conference commissioners and university presidents.