CHICAGO — College football has always relied on polls and bowls to crown a national championship. It is an inexact science that has left many fans frustrated and wondering why they can’t settle it on the field — like every other sport — with a playoff.
Finally, the people in charge agree with the people in the stands.
A major college football playoff, albeit a small one, is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
The Bowl Championship Series commissioners have backed a plan for a four-team playoff with the sites for the national semifinals rotating among the major bowl games and a selection committee picking the participants. The plan will be presented to university presidents next week for approval.
Once the presidents sign off — and that seems likely — major college football’s champion will be decided by a playoff for the first time, starting in 2014.
The BCS is on its death bed. Even the name is likely to go away.
“We are excited to be on the threshold of creating a new postseason structure for college football that builds on the great popularity of our sport,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Wednesday.
All 11 commissioners stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind Swarbrick, who read the BCS statement from a podium set up in a hotel conference room.
The commissioners have been working on reshaping college football’s postseason since January. The meeting Wednesday was the sixth formal get-together of the year. They met for four hours and emerged with a commitment to stand behind a plan.
“I think we’re very unified,” said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who for years had been a staunch opponent of even the smallest playoff.
For decades, major college football didn’t even try to organize a championship game. The top teams played in marquee bowl games and if it happened to work out that No.1 and No. 2 squared off on New Year’s Day, well, all the better. When all the games were done, the voters in the AP poll would crown a champion and so would the coaches who vote in their poll. Sometimes there would be two No. 1s.
In the 1990s, the commissioners of the major conferences came up with the idea to create a national title game, matching No. 1 vs. No. 2 every year. Eventually, that spawned the BCS, which was implemented in 1998. Instead of solving the problem of crowning a champion, the BCS only seemed to exasperate fans even more. Too often, using polls and computer ratings to narrow the field to two teams was all but impossible.
Like last year, when Alabama lost to Southeastern Conference rival LSU in the regular season, but ended up getting a second crack at the Tigers in the BCS title game — despite having the same record as Big 12 champion Oklahoma State. The Crimson Tide validated their appearance by trouncing LSU and winning the BCS title, but many outside of SEC country were left unsatisfied.
Under the commissioners’ proposal, Alabama and Oklahoma State likely would have played in one semifinal while LSU played Pac-12 champion Oregon in the other.
No doubt many will wonder, “Why only four?”
“I’m sure it won’t satisfy everyone,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. “Until you have an eight-team or 16-team seeded playoff, there will be folks out there that aren’t completely satisfied. We get that. But we’re trying to balance other important parties, like the value of the regular season, the bowls, the academic calendar.”
The commissioners refrained from providing many specifics of the plan in their announcement.
Scott did say the two semifinals would be worked into the existing major bowls and the site of the national championship game will be bid out to any city that wants it, the way the NFL does with the Super Bowl.
People with firsthand knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press that the semifinals of the proposed plan would rotate among the major bowls and not be tied to traditional conference relationships.
They also said that under the plan a selection committee would choose the schools that play for the national title.
The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the commissioners did not want to reveal many details before talking to their bosses.
“I am delighted,” said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, whose push for a four-team playoff in 2008 was shot down. “I am pleased with the progress we have made. There are some differences, but we will work them out. We’re trying to do what is in the best interest of the game.”
It will certainly be in the best financial interest.
The BCS television contract with ESPN — along with the Rose Bowl’s separate contract with ABC — pays the participating schools $155 million per year. BCS officials won’t put an exact number on it, but they aren’t shy about saying that a playoff would be worth much more — probably more than double.
How that money will be split up among the conferences is still to be determined, and will likely be a point of contention with high-profile and high revenue-generating leagues such as the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference getting more than the likes of the Mountain West and Conference USA. The rebuilt Big East could be looking at being bumped to second-tier status.
But before they split up the pot, there were other details that needed to be sorted out.
There was some debate about whether to have semifinal sites rotate among the current BCS bowls — the Orange, Sugar, Rose and Fiesta — or link the sites of the games to traditional conference affiliations. By linking sites to leagues SEC teams could host games at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and Pac-12 and Big Ten teams could host games at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
But the logistical issues that come with not having the sites for the semifinals set in advance were too big a problem. Now it will be possible for Ohio State and Oregon to play a semifinal in Miami, the site of the Orange Bowl.
How the teams will be selected also has been hotly debated. The BCS uses a combination of polls and computer rankings.
There are still major details to be worked out, such as who exactly makes up the selection committee, but college football will take a page from college basketball, which uses a committee of athletic directors and commissioners to pick the teams for its championship tournament.
The 12-member BCS Presidential Oversight Committee meets Tuesday in Washington. The commissioners and Swarbrick all stressed that ultimately the decision lies with the presidents. And that they will have more than just one model to talk about at their meeting.
But unless something unexpected happens in Washington, a playoff will take another step to becoming a reality.