Last week's announcement of a Big 12-SEC "Champions" bowl game means the plus-one postseason system has risen from the ash heap of college football history. It also could render all four-team playoff talk moot by next month.
The SEC and Big 12 agreed to place their champions/runners-ups in a bowl game after teams are selected for the proposed four-team playoff. It will be a lucrative event and you can bet bowls like the Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Peach will trip over themselves to bid for the game.
If the game is staged as described, in which the champions flee to the national semifinals, the game will resemble the current Cotton Bowl. That now pits the top non-BCS Big 12 team against the SEC's second-best non-BCS team. But I think the "Champions" bowl announcement will churn the four-team playoff discussion to a grinding halt for the near future. It also will revive talk for a plus-one, which preserves the bowl system and is simpler to implement.
"Thereís not a lot of enthusiasm for plus-one, although we have presidents who think itís the best way to proceed," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said last week.
College presidents are leery of going the playoff route because of what Delany calls "a slippery slope." If a playoff starts at four teams, what happens if No. 5 is deserving (and a conference champion)? How can you objectively judge champions from one conference against champions or runners-up from another? What will happen to the bowl system with a playoff? Those are the perpetual questions that will turn the "Power Four" process into a quagmire as they did with the Bowl Championship Series.
While all conferences seem willing to accept a "Power Four" concept, there's little-to-no agreement on the application. Even Big Ten athletics directors, who rarely stray off the company line, mentioned different ideas for how it would work last week. There's a deadline next month with commissioners and presidents meetings, and the television bidding process following quickly afterward. For a sport that traditionally moves with the swiftness of a brontosaurus and builds consensus like an all-inclusive theological debate, I can't imagine it coming together neatly by late June.
That's why I see a plus-one as the most palatable option for the near term, say a four-year period. The Big Ten and Pac-12 want to maintain their relationship with the Rose Bowl, and a plus-one preserves that. The SEC-Big 12 "Champions" bowl allows for a de facto national semifinal. Conferences like the ACC, Mountain West and Big East, schools like Notre Dame and BYU and runners-ups from the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 can find homes in other bowl games and still have access to a national title game.
For conversational purposes, here's how that likely would have played out last year:
- Rose Bowl: Oregon (Pac-12 champion) vs. Wisconsin (Big Ten champion)
- Sugar/Champions Bowl: LSU (SEC champion) vs. Oklahoma State (Big 12 champion)
- Fiesta Bowl: Alabama (SEC runner-up) vs. Stanford (Pac-12 runner-up)
- Orange Bowl: Clemson (ACC champion) vs. West Virginia (Big East champion/[Big 12 runner-up])
- Cotton Bowl: Michigan (Big Ten runner-up) vs. Arkansas (SEC third-place)
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Let's say the LSU-Oklahoma State winner automatically qualifies. Who's second? Is it Alabama if it beats Stanford? If Oregon beats Wisconsin (which is what actually happened), should it advance past the Stanford-Alabama winner or does it depend on style points?The questions will be the same for a plus-one as they would be with "Power Four" or the current BCS. Who -- or what -- will decide which team qualifies and which school doesn't? Will a Harris-type poll, a monster computer program or a high-level committee meeting choose the teams? But those questions pale to the foundation of choosing an actual system. Thanks to the SEC and Big 12 conferences, the plus-one model just moved atop the leaderboard.