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College Football Playoff Update: The Plus One Appears Inevitable

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Another round of meetings concluded yesterday to determine the college football post-season. After a month of intra-conference discussion, the commissioners met in Chicago to find out what each league’s presidents had to say.

Little ground was made in this latest session, except for maybe a consensus on bidding out the championship game to cities outside of the bowl structure. An alleged “impasse” has arisen between the Pac-12/Big Ten and the SEC/Big 12 alliances. If you’ve been reading the headlines this month, the gist of this feud comes down to this. The SEC/Big 12 wants a playoff of the top 4 teams, as interpreted by the polls which usually favor them. The Pac-12/Big Ten aren’t sure they want a playoff at all, but if they do concede, they want the best conference champs included and they want the Rose Bowl to be preserved.

If the impasse can’t be overcome, then there is a strong chance that the major conferences will settle on a “plus one” format, or a game determined by the polls following the bowl games. This would feel like a major failure and a definite “retreat” for college football fans, who bought into the strong “four-team playoff” rhetoric during the early-spring meetings.

Fans and the smaller conferences would be the only ones feeling the heartbreak though. The major players, from the mighty SEC all the way down to the lowly ACC, wouldn’t be singing the blues one bit.

We don't have to share our toys

The new reality in sports is that he who owns the television rights to the best games owns the sport. The major conferences see a new way to selfishly keep the best games for themselves. What the Pac-12 and Big Ten have known for decades, the SEC and Big 12 just figured out last month.

The SEC and Big 12 announced that they’d be creating their own “champions bowl” in a sort of Rose Bowl East. They would split the TV rights to the game and would find themselves making far more money than they ever did in the BCS system.

It seems that the conferences digested carefully the points that Dan Wetzel made in his book “Death to the BCS,” but rather than use the information to create a fair playoff, they might be figuring out ways to insert themselves into the roles of lucratively rich bowl operators.

By controlling their own post-season destinies, conferences can cut the smaller conferences out of the money-sharing situation altogether. One of the most anticipated hot points about the whole “4-team playoff” debate was how the money would be split. If conferences control the bowl games that will essentially become semi-final-like games, then they can amass all of the revenue for themselves. Only the “plus one” championship game would need to be shared then.

Could something uglier than the BCS follow the BCS?

The BCS, which is unofficially dead in its current configuration, no longer will dictate fair access to the best bowls. Instead, the major conferences can make alliances (more like they did in pre-BCS days) which best suit them. And we may in fact see more “bowl games” taken over by conferences to control a greater portion of the profit.

Now, the goal of bowl games will be to align conferences with the most competitive match-ups that might, in any given year, produce a potential national champion. And “potential” is all that’s needed to garner huge ratings and chunky TV deals.

The Rose Bowl is guaranteed to be one such “big ticket” item in a “plus one” system. The other is currently being called the “champions bowl”; however, when the SEC/Big 12 finally decide on the game’s host city, it’ll probably be given the moniker of the traditional bowl. Smart money says the old Sugar Bowl will be the new Champions Bowl’s destination.

The Rest of the Bowl Tie-ins in the "Plus One"

From there, much less is certain. The second team from any given league could be a legitimate championship game contender. The Big Ten had two teams in the top 4 in both 2005 and 2006. Ditto for the Pac-12 in 2010. The SEC and Big 12 have had even more occurrences.

The top bowls in the current post-BCS landscape are the Fiesta, the Cotton, and the Orange. Locking in the second seed from the four major conferences would be paramount for these bowls, and don’t forget about the ACC’s champ and Notre Dame.

I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that the major conferences would continue their collusion and pit their second seeds against each other as well. The Pac-12 and Big Ten—besides the decades-old Rose Bowl alliance—have agreed to a scheduling arrangement during the regular season starting in 2017. And the Big 12 and SEC already have shown a newfound desire to partner with the Champions Bowl. It could be argued that all four conferences would be more than happy to freeze out everyone else, including the ACC, by signing up for a runners-up duel on a bowl stage.

Geographically, this is a no-brainer. The Cotton Bowl already hosts the Big 12 and SEC, and while the Fiesta has recently been the destination bowl for the Big 12’s best team, the Big Ten’s large alumni base in Arizona in particular (and the Southwest in general) and the Pac-12’s relative proximity to the Fiesta seem to make the Fiesta a great landing spot for those two leagues’ runners-up.

The Orange might feel like the odd man out, but signing up with the ACC’s champ isn’t a bad position to be in. It appears that the ACC is safe from poaching for the time being, and there’s no good reason why Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Miami can’t get back in title contention again. The Orange could leave its other position open to the highest ranked team in general. Or it could make a stipulation to take any Big East champ or any Notre Dame team if it’s ranked in the top 10.

Let’s get down to details

If the 4-team playoff is dead and the “plus one” is indeed the direction college football is headed, what might our January 1st look like? I’m going to go ahead with the assumptions about bowl tie-ins (or bowl control, if you prefer) I made above. Let me add a few more.

The Capital One Bowl will get the SEC/Big Ten’s three-seeds. The Alamo Bowl will get the Big 12’s and Pac-12’s three-seeds. The Chik-Fil-A Bowl will get the ACC two-seed and either the Big East champ, Notre Dame, the SEC four-seed, or the highest ranked team.

Now, let’s take a look at the past seven season with a “plus one” interpretation. I’ve bolded the ones that could feasibly have “plus one” championship game implications.

2011

Rose—10 Wisconsin vs. 5 Oregon

Sugar—3 Oklahoma State vs. 1 LSU

Cotton—2 Alabama vs. 8 Kansas State

Fiesta—4 Stanford vs. 12 Michigan

Orange—15 Clemson vs. 7 Boise State

Capital One—6 Arkansas vs. 17 Michigan State

Chik-Fil-A—11 Virginia Tech vs. 9 South Carolina

2010

Rose—2 Oregon vs. 5 Wisconsin

Sugar—1 Auburn vs. 7 Oklahoma

Cotton—8 Arkansas vs. 12 Missouri

Fiesta—4 Stanford vs. 6 Ohio State

Orange—13 Virginia Tech vs. 3 TCU

Capital One—9 Michigan State vs. 11 LSU

Chik-Fil-A—23 Florida State vs. 22 West Virginia

2009

Rose—7 Oregon vs. 8 Ohio State

Sugar—1 Alabama vs. 2 Texas

Cotton—5 Florida vs. 19 Oklahoma State

Fiesta—10 Iowa vs. 18 Oregon State

Orange—3 Cincinnati vs. 9 Georgia Tech

Capital One—13 Penn State vs. 12 LSU

Chik-Fil-A—11 Virginia Tech vs. 4 TCU

2008

Rose—5 USC vs. 8 Penn State

Sugar—1 Oklahoma vs.2 Florida

Cotton—3 Texas vs. 4 Alabama

Fiesta—10 Ohio State vs. 7 Texas Tech

Orange—6 Utah vs. 14 Georgia Tech

Capital One—18 Michigan State vs. 15 Georgia

Chik-Fil-A—19 Virginia Tech vs. 12 Cincinnati

2007

Rose—1 Ohio State vs. 7 USC

Sugar—2 LSU vs. 4 Oklahoma

Cotton—6 Missouri vs. 5 Georgia

Fiesta—13 Illinois vs. 11 Arizona State

Orange—3 Virginia Tech vs. 9 West Virginia

Capital One—18 Wisconsin vs. 12 Florida

Chik-Fil-A—14 Boston College vs. 16 Tennessee

2006

Rose—1 Ohio State vs. 5 USC

Sugar—2 Florida vs. 10 Oklahoma

Cotton—4 LSU vs. 19 Texas

Fiesta—3 Michigan vs. 18 California

Orange—6 Louisville vs. 11 Notre Dame

Capital One—9 Auburn vs. 7 Wisconsin

Chik-Fil-A—8 Boise State vs. 14 Wake Forest

2005

Rose—1 USC vs. 3 Penn State

Sugar—2 Texas vs. 7 Georgia

Cotton—9 Auburn vs. 15 Texas Tech

Fiesta—4 Ohio State vs. 5 Oregon

Orange—6 Notre Dame vs. 22 Florida State

Capital One—18 Wisconsin vs. 12 LSU

Chik-Fil-A—8 Miami vs. 11 West Virginia

Analysis

Nebraska’s chancellor Harvey Perlman said last week that the Big Ten preferred the status quo, then a “plus one,” and then a four-team playoff. Give me the above scenarios over the status quo any day of the week.

The current BCS structure—the one that has seen a boon in college football popularity like never before—is essentially a one-game playoff with a few other interesting but meaningless games. At least the “plus one” system would create numerous interesting and meaningful games—before giving way to another one-game playoff.

In the above system, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl would be relevant for the national title every year in the last seven. The Orange Bowl, surprisingly, would have been meaningful in 6 of 7 years, while the Fiesta and Cotton Bowls would have had national championship implications in 5 of 7 years. Even the lower tier Chik-Fil-A and Capital One could have boasted of minor importance 2 of the 7 years each.

The only decent teams to be left out of any of these major bowls (and thus creating a slight outside shot of someone outside the power structure impacting the championship) were the 2008 Boise State Broncos (ninth-ranked) and the 2009 Boise State Broncos (sixth-ranked). If they jump to the Big East though, they’d now have “access” via either the Orange or Chik-Fil-A in a strong season.

Bowl execs must be absolutely loving this “plus one” banter. Instead of being marginalized further, they’ll actually be thrust more into positions of preeminence. Rather than having two playoff games sucking their four best teams from the available pool, they’ll be given back the nation’s top 2 teams and their games will become the spotlight for the national title chase.

The one—and probably ONLY one—advantage that this proposal has over the 4-team playoff is that it gives us a chance to see each conference’s best in action against another conference’s best BEFORE deciding on national championship game participants. With these seven games pitting the best against the best, we have a better sample size to choose from. But still, many argue that the word “choose” shouldn’t even be associated with determining a champion.

The fact of the matter is that this solution merely delays the controversy a month. Rather than fighting over the top 2 or top 4 teams in November and December, we’ll casually chat throughout the regular season. But when the bowl results are in, many years it’ll be a firestorm of epic proportions to decide who gets in the championship game.

To play with outcomes for just one season, let’s say the unthinkable happens in 2011: Oklahoma State upends LSU in the Sugar and Kansas State upsets Alabama in the Cotton. Oklahoma State would definitely be in, but who else makes it? Assuming 4 Stanford, 5 Oregon, and 6 Arkansas win their bowl games in similarly convincing fashion, how do you decide among the three? How do you leave out Kansas State, when they did the heavy lifting of beating the Crimson Tide? In the end, with the “plus one” system, you’re still left with an unsatisfying championship game.

Unsatisfying to fans. Unsatisfying for the players and coaches who want to compete on the field. But probably not unsatisfying to the commissioners and university presidents who will be able to control the money and the access to the college football post-season.

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