Playoff marks sea change for sport

Originally Published: June 20, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

A camel's nose traps moisture from its lungs and recycles it through the body, which is one way that camels survive in the desert. They also manage to breathe through their nostrils without inhaling sand. Wondrous organs, those camel noses.

Until they wedge under a tent flap.

[+] EnlargeJack Swarbrick
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and the commissioners are confident in their proposal.

Now that the FBS commissioners have agreed to recommend a four-team, seeded playoff to the committee of university presidents who will meet next week, the vigil must begin. For years, the presidents and BCS proponents have told us that it is a law of nature that playoffs expand, that four teams will become eight; eight will become 16. If you think this is a good idea, you haven't paid attention to the state of the college basketball postseason, which is, of course, the very problem with the health of the college basketball regular season.

The camel's nose has arrived, and what an exciting nose it is. In a shade under six months, the FBS commissioners abandoned their rigid stance against a playoff and came to a consensus that what college football needs is a four-team, seeded playoff. It is a remarkable turn of events and a remarkable event in the history of a game that has been played successfully for 143 seasons without a playoff.

The commissioners -- and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick -- deserve credit for finding that consensus. They rarely agree so readily on anything beyond which five-star resort to hold their meetings.

The consensus is a tribute to their belief that the BCS had outlived its usefulness. Or it may be a tribute to how the commissioners and Swarbrick tired of defending the BCS against an effective guerrilla media campaign for a playoff.

For 14 seasons, the BCS has been as inefficient and unwieldy as the federal tax code. The commissioners concocted a formula of polls and computer ratings to pick the teams and thought no one would notice the lack of transparency. It took them 10 years to get it right, and by the time they did, the opponents had gathered too much momentum to be stopped.

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJim Delany and the Big Ten weren't initially in favor of a playoff model, but have since come around on the idea.

However, in those 14 seasons of BCS-inspired angst, college football gained more popularity than it has had since the rise of the NFL. The sport grabs its fans on the opening weekend of the season and doesn't let them go until the first Sunday in December. Those three months are filled with speculation, anger, hope, joy, the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. It is straight out of the say-whatever-you-want-about-me-but-spell-my-name-right school of celebrity, and the sport has never been healthier because of it.

The commissioners are putting that success into play now. They may make the case that nothing is forever, that the postseason must grow and that the four-team seeded playoff is merely an incremental step in the evolution of the game.

But the playoff is not a panacea. Playoffs don't identify the best team of the season. They identify the best team at the end of the season. It well may be an incremental change in the game, but it is a sea change in the philosophy of the postseason.

As someone who didn't like the BCS formula but didn't want a playoff, I have been surprised by my willingness to accept the coming change. The commissioners want to keep the bowl system intact, which is good. They want to play the semifinals in the bowls. They want to continue to have everything they have now and add a post-bowl championship game.

It may be that the commissioners can have everything. But it may be that they will wake up to find that the camel has wedged its entire body beneath the tent and they are left out in the cold. Let the vigil begin.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com