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This Changes Everything

The powers that be in college football finally agreed on a framework for a playoff, and—thankfully—the game may never be the same

A playoff is coming to college football, and while this seems as if it took forever, it really took only 142 years. Also, we're not done yet. There are contracts to sign and money to be divvied up. And then we might even have a truly historic meeting in this sport, between peace and logic.

For decades college football's power brokers have held that a playoff would permanently damage the game. (They thought it would ruin the best regular season in sports.) Now there is hope that a playoff will save college football, or at least stabilize it, after an ugly era of conference-hopping and broken contracts by teams looking for leagues with higher profiles.

A playoff is not just desirable; it is necessary.

"For fans this is going to be easy," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott says. "Fans are going to get 1--4 and 2--3 playing each other in semifinals, and then you're going to get a championship game. What we have to do behind the scenes has some measure of complexity."

The BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, which consists of presidents of each of the FBS conferences and Notre Dame, approved the playoff framework (within the current bowl system) in Washington, D.C., last week, and decided that a selection committee will determine the top four teams. But how will the other major-bowl teams—those not included in the playoff—be chosen? How much money will the new television deal bring? How will that money be split?

The new system needs to keep the traditional powers happy and rich, while still giving teams from smaller conferences a piece of television money and a shot at big-time bowls. And it needs to do all this with transparency, so people have faith in the process.

In the last few years uncertainty has marred college football. Schools abandoned storied rivalries and longtime conference affiliations to jump to other leagues. Almost everybody acted from self-interest, and the sum of these decisions did not make much sense to anybody. Texas A&M is now in a league (the SEC) with two schools from Mississippi but none from Texas. TCU announced in November 2010 that it would join the Big East in 2012, then pulled out of the move last October without ever playing a game. Boise State is scheduled to jump to the Big East next year (for football only), a move that makes as much sense as Montana joining the European Union.

The Bowl Championship Series was not the sole cause of this whole mess, but it was a main cause. The BCS created a divide between AQ conferences, whose champions automatically qualified for lucrative BCS bowl games, and non-AQ conferences, whose champions were bitter over being ignored. Schools like TCU and Boise State got antsy because they were in non-AQ leagues. Schools in the Big East were terrified that their underperforming league would lose its AQ status and the revenues and relevance that went with it. Syracuse and Pittsburgh left the conference last September for the ACC, which spurred the Big East to woo any good team—including Boise State and TCU—regardless of its location.

It was chaos wrapped in madness. The only solution was to get rid of the AQ status altogether and start over. Now, Scott says, "I think there is going to be a healthy level of access and definitely more money for some of the smaller conferences."

There will also be more money, period. Sports-television consultant Neal Pilson says the postseason—including the semifinals, title game and affiliated bowls—could net $300 million per year, compared with $125 million from the current BCS deal with ESPN. Pilson cautions that his estimates are rough. (They may even be on the low end of the spectrum.) But clearly, a playoff will shower cash on college sports. If the money is divided reasonably, it could reduce the pressure to bolt for other leagues and make conference members feel more like business partners and less like boxing opponents.

Realignment has been a part of college sports for more than a century—in 1896, Michigan replaced Lake Forest College in the Western Conference, which would eventually become the Big Ten—so it would be naive to think everybody will stay put. Scott even says, "I think you possibly might see some other changes in the aftermath" of the playoff announcement. But hopefully the pace is normal, and the aims are logical. That is one reason the new postseason format will be locked in for 12 years. Scott says that conference commissioners want to "bring some stability. We have a format, and people know what it is." Playoff architects are not just creating an annual championship. They are reshaping their sport. That is a fundamental difference between the playoff and the BCS.

This is hard to believe now, but the BCS was actually designed to create order. Before the BCS, the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country did not always meet in the postseason—the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions were locked into the Rose Bowl, the Big Eight champ was locked into the Orange Bowl, and the SEC champ was locked into the Sugar Bowl.

By uniting college football's six power conferences, BCS organizers made a 1--2 title game more likely and hoped they would be able to leave the rest of the sport alone. But creating a 1--2 matchup that satisfied everybody was tougher than it seemed, and the landscape has changed drastically and surprisingly. Fifteen years ago even Boise State didn't see Boise State coming.

Now playoff architects are thinking big by reshaping the entire sport. All across the country, athletic directors hope they are thinking big enough.


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