Four-Team Playoff Not as Simple as it Seems

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College football, as incredible as it may seem, is moving towards a four-team playoff in 2014.

The commissioners of the BCS conferences met in April and agreed to move towards a four-team playoff beginning in 2014, the season after the current BCS agreement ends. The commissioners are in the process of talking with their member schools about various playoff scenarios, and gauging their thoughts and concerns. In June, the commissioners will reconvene, and representing their school presidents and chancellors, will decide the exact details of how the playoff will work.

That process took one paragraph to describe, and it’s only going to take a couple months from beginning to end … but it’s going to be a big, hotly-contested mess before it’s all over.

Why a Playoff?

Before we get to discussing the details, one question is worth asking. Why now? The idea of a playoff has been thrown around for close to two decades or more. Why the sudden movement in that direction?

I suspect that a playoff is coming because the BCS system has evolved into a sputtering, rusted-out jalopy. It was once a relatively neat, clean setup involving the big four bowls, the six BCS conferences, and a #1 vs. #2 matchup decided by computers, in which the six BCS conferences kept all the money.

(I’m going to use the terms “BCS conference” and “AQ [Automatic Qualifier] conference” interchangeably the rest of the way. I’m referring to the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, and SEC.)

Over the years, extra bowls have been added, extra qualification rules have been put into place, complicated money-sharing schemes that involve non-BCS conferences have arisen, and a certain senator from Utah has even threatened to attack the system as a monopoly.

One other thing has happened: two of the six BCS conferences, the Big East and the ACC, which together provided six of the first 10 BCS game participants from 1998-2002, have become irrelevant in the national championship race. Neither conference has placed its champion in the title game since 2002, and instead, the SEC, Big Ten, PAC-10/12, and Big 12 have taken the title game over.  The SEC alone has provided seven of the last 12 title game teams.

The real answer to the question “why?” in the landscape of college athletics is always one word:

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