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You Do Realize That College Football’s New Playoff Won’t Be Official, Right?

College football does not recognize an official national champion.  Check the NCAA record book and you’ll find official champions for every other sport (and for every other division of football other than the FBS level).  When it comes to FBS champs, only major poll-winners and BCS champs are listed.  But they’re not the “official,” outright champions of their sport in the way that the winners of the College World Series or NCAA basketball tournament are.

Well that’s going to change when the new playoff is adopted, right?

Uh, probably not.

As we wrote way back in December of 2008, any playoff coming to college football will have to remain outside the full, sanctioned control of the NCAA.  Here’s why: If the NCAA sanctions an official postseason tournament it will most likely have to spread the wealth from said playoff evenly across all of the FBS.  Instead of about six conferences and 70 schools controlling the majority of the sport’s postseason money, everyone would get an even slice (with perhaps a bit more cash going to those teams and leagues who reach the playoff).

If you’re wondering why the current talks over a playoff are taking so long, that’s part of the answer.  But at least the commissioners are talking.  Their motivations for talking now, finally, are as follows:


1.  Ratings and attendance are down for college football bowl games.

2.  There is more cash to be made from a four-team playoff plus a BCS package than from a BCS package alone (in part because there are more competitors to vie for television rights than in previous years — ESPN/ABC, CBS, Turner, Fox, NBC/Comcast).

3a.  The race to achieve and hold on to “automatic BCS qualifier” status has led to major realignments, expansions and moves across conferences over the past three years.

3b.  No one is sure how those moves will turn out and most university presidents and chancellors would prefer to gauge those actions before being forced to react to further shifts.

4.  Every commissioner outside of Birmingham is tired of the SEC’s dominance.


Add it up and you have a set of BCS commissioners who appear willing to share a bit more wealth with the smaller conferences.  Sounds good.  But the biggest power brokers still aren’t going to give up control of the pursestrings entirely.

Bowl games are still part of the current playoff discussion because of tradition, yes, but more importantly because they allow for a gradual shift into the new era.  While going from two teams to four teams appears huge to most college football fans, it’s a rather small step when you take everything into account.  And now there’s talk of adding more BCS bowl games into the mix as some current BCS sites might possibly moved up into a semifinal round of playoffs.

These bowls are tied first and foremost to the BCS leagues.  They would rather have Florida or Michigan in their games than Tulsa or East Carolina.  So while “AQ” status may go the way of the dodo bird, those schools with all the traditional advantages — facilities, recruiting base, money, brand name — will still have an advantage in a new, more open, playoff universe.  In other words, the big leagues and big-league teams will still control most of the cash, even in a playoff setting.

Oh, and did we mention the fact that the current NCAA rulebook states that schools can’t participate in more than one licensed bowl game per year?  Obviously, Bylaws 17.9.4 and will be scrapped when this new system is launched, but they provide further proof as to why college football’s most powerful men will want to keep their new playoff away from NCAA rule.  If the NCAA runs the thing, the NCAA will spread the wealth.  If the biggest leagues control the playoff, they decide how much cash to share.  That’s a difference likely worth several hundred million dollars.

Currently there are 12 people involved in trying to devise the new system.  Those folks are the commissioners of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC, Sun Belt and WAC.  Number 12 is Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.  They are having to decide the obvious issues first:


1.  How many teams will take part in the new playoff system?  (Four teams looks to be a lock at this point.)

2.  How will those teams be selected for inclusion?  (Some favor a BCS-style formula while others push for a selection committee.  SEC fans should hope/pray for the continued use of a formula and here’s why.)

3.  Where will the games be played?  (There are all kinds of options on the table — home fields, rotating bowl sites, bowl sites determined by traditional conference tie-ins, non-bowl sites granted games via cash bid, or some combination of the aforementioned.)

4.  When will the games be played?  (Most assume this is the perfect time to take back New Year’s Day, but that’s not guaranteed at this point.)


The goal is for the commissioners and Swarbrick to reach their decisions by mid-summer, but we think that’s going to be very hard to pull off.  First, a new playoff would not be launched until after two more BCS Championship Games are played.  So while there is a rush, it’s not the typical, last-minute, Congressional-style, get-her-done-right-now-or-we’re-all-screwed type of deadline that these men are facing.  Second, the decisions made will require a lot of give and take and heavy negotiation.  There’s a lot more at stake than just determining a new means of tabbing a football champ.  For example:


1.  The big leagues will still run the system and the bowls will likely still play a role in determining the ultimate champion.  But will the smaller leagues band together to demand more concessions, more bowl opportunities, and more cash from the bigger conferences?  Or will they be satisfied that their lots have been improved overall, if even just incrementally?

2.  What happens with Notre Dame?  Do the Irish get the same shot as a New Mexico State to make the playoff field or will they be given special treatment (as has been the case under the old system).  Will Notre Dame be given a bigger chunk of the television revenue than the smaller leagues just because they’re Notre Dame?  And what about the other independents, like BYU and Army?  (Navy will be joining the Big East for football only in 2015.)

3.  If Notre Dame isn’t given special treatment, the Irish could finally be forced to join a conference and the Big Ten would be the most likely destination.  That would further destabilize the Big East (of which Notre Dame is a member in all sports but football).  Additionally, the Big Ten would likely look somewhere — Rutgers?  UConn?  Maryland? — for a 14th member to join with the Irish.

4.  Speaking of the Big East, if “AQ” status is done away with, what happens to a league that just rushed out to grab teams from as far away as San Diego and Boise just to maintain that status?  Do those schools feel they could do better elsewhere if there’s no need to be in an AQ league?  Even if automatic qualifier status does go away, will the Big East still be viewed as one of the “big six” conferences and will it still take home a larger slice of television revenue than leagues like the Mountain West or Conference-USA?  Or will the other big leagues cut the Big East’s share and keep more for themselves?  Or use that Big East cash to help give the small conferences more money?

(For what it’s worth, if the goal in part is to slow realignment and stabilize the college football landscape — and we believe it clearly is — then we also believe it’s likely Notre Dame will continue to be given favored son treatment while the Big East will continue to be paid like a major conference.)

5.  All of this is taking part at a time when BCS conference commissioners and even NCAA president Mark Emmert are questioning whether or not it’s right to try and keep 120+ FBS schools playing under one set of rules when clearly, some schools have more cash than others.  All that talk of paying “cost of attendance” scholarships is designed to separate the bigger schools from the smaller schools.  While it’s highly unlikely that the BCS leagues will ever break away from the NCAA, it’s quite likely in our view that we are headed toward a new classification of school being created.  The Haves Division, for lack of a better term, would consist of the major schools from the biggest leagues.  The Have-Nots Division would include the leftovers.  Whether those 50 or so leftover FBS programs — some of whom have just recently achieved FBS status — would band together to play a step above the FCS level or simply drop back to the FCS classification is anyone’s guess.


The point of this post is simply to remind you that while the number of teams involved and where they’ll play is fun to discuss on sports radio shows and at your local watering hole, there are much, much bigger issues to be decided before a new playoff is launched.  There are literally hundreds of variables involved in this equation.  Change one small one and the commissioners might change the endgame in dynamic fashion.

Also, to some extent, everyone has a little bit of leverage in these talks.  Say “To heck with Notre Dame,” for example, and the commissioners might set off another wave of massive expansion.  Offer the small conferences too few bucks and those chaps might start getting their local congressmen involved.  No one from a big conference wants that headache.

And amazingly enough, after all of the debate — when a new format is finally chosen, a new television partner is picked, and the new revenue splits are agreed upon — we’re still not likely to have an “official” NCAA football champion when it comes to the governing body’s record books.

This mess just isn’t as easy to clean up as many believe want to believe.



@MRsec - great article - nice to see linear thought in commentary. Do you ever feel like Johnny Carson's character, Carnac the Magnificent? 


Another good article. IMO Notre Dame has gone on ancient history for too long as it is. Excluding Holtz' tenure they have been down for decades. Let NBC rub on them all they want and get bad ratings, but the rest of the country could care less. The Big East is a joke in football - it's more of an association from schools to come and go as they get better offers. It's past time for the top 60-75 schools to grab the gold ring and run with it. If a school cannot put 50,000 fans in the seats every game they really need to drop out of the hunt (Vandy). Not enough commitment or money in their programs to field a top team consistently.

Bubba Gump
Bubba Gump

 @RoadTrip Like it or not, the Domers are still the only national team in college football. Everybody else relies on a specific region for the majority of their viewers. As for Vanderbilt, every major AQ conference has at least 1 private school to get around the disclosure requirements. I think you can not just go with the 50K threshold when schools can succeed at other sports. Indiana has terrible football but historically good basketball. The best conferences seem to understand the value of reverse sports, and the overall health of a conference.



Florida State has good football, and bad basketball - This is offset by North Carolina having bad football and good basketball


Oklahoma has good football, and bad basketball - This is offset by Kansas having bad football and good basketball


Michigan has good football, and bad basketball - This is offset by Indiana having bad football and good basketball


Southern Cal has good football, and bad basketball - This is offset by UCLA having bad football and good basketball


Alabama has good football, and bad basketball - This is offset by Kentucky having bad football and good basketball






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