I’d long since given up on the prospects of a college football playoff. The bowls were too powerful, I told myself. (Note that the word “bowl” comes before “championship” in “BCS.”) For all the hue and cry from the chattering class and the huddled masses, I figured nothing would ever get done.
Now I’m thinking something might.
Might, I said. Might.
I’m thinking the sight of two SEC teams playing for the BCS title was enough to push the leagues that didn’t want any part of a playoff into the we-need-to-reassess camp. I’m thinking that the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, the two leagues who persisted in seeing the Rose Bowl as the only postseason game that mattered, are getting antsy over being marginalized.
(The joke among college football writers has long been that this is the only sport held hostage by a parade. Meaning the Tournament of Roses thingy.)
Back in 2008, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, of all people, proposed a four-team playoff. ACC commissioner John Swofford seconded the motion. The other BCS league commissioners — of the (then) Pac-10, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Big East — all resisted. So did Notre Dame, that entity unto itself.
OK, that was then. This week Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told reporters in New Orleans: “Four years ago, five of us didn’t want to have the conversation. Now we all want to have the conversation.”
It’s not just that the SEC has come to hog the BCS title game to the extent that nobody else even got to play in the latest installment. It’s that the BCS has skewed the whole postseason. Attendance was down 2.1 percent through the first 31 (of 35) bowls this season, and anyone who was in Raymond James Stadium for Georgia’s loss to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl could tell something was off.
These were ranked teams that had won divisions in BCS conferences, and attendance was announced as 49,429, which would have ranked as the second-smallest gathering in the 17 years that Outback Steakhouse has sponsored the game. According to the Tampa Bay Times, however, actual attendance was 40,022 — the sort of gate that Georgia fans would mock if it occurred, say, in a regular-season game at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Of those 35 bowls, 33 were carried by ESPN/ABC. The good news is that ESPN/ABC pays big for the rights. The bad news is that much of the bowl season has become a couch-and-big-screen sport. No fans are more rabid than those of big-time college football teams, but those fans have surely begun to ask: Why pay $1,000 to travel to a game that doesn’t even bear the BCS imprint?
Think of it this way: The NCAA basketball tournament includes 68 teams; imagine if 66 of those were summarily demoted to the NIT while the top two seeds got to advance directly to the title game. That’d be a form of madness, all right — just not the March variety.
The BCS “system” claims to enfranchise 10 of the 70 bowl teams, but only two of those 10 get to play a game that really matters. And now, with its latest championship game, the BCS pared the list of “haves” in college football to one: The SEC rules, and everyone else is left to drool.
Great for the SEC, but bad for overall business. While we here in the Deep South paid rapt attention to the doings Monday night in the Superdome, much of the rest of the nation looked elsewhere. Alabama-LSU drew the third-smallest rating of the 14 BCS title games. Apparently not everyone in the world delights in field goals.
(As the web site Awful Announcing notes, ratings for the five BCS games were down 13 percent from last season. And Clemson’s epic loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl was the lowest-rated BCS game ever.)
Headed into the 2011 season, it was hard to imagine the SEC consolidating gains. Given that it had won the previous five BCS titles, how could it get any bigger? Well, it did. It didn’t just produce the national champ this time; it also generated the runner-up.
There comes a point, however, when absolute power becomes obscene overkill. Big-time college football could have reached that point. The SEC already has one championship game. (For which, not incidentally, the eventual BCS champ did not qualify.) It doesn’t need another. If the Big Ten, long the most intransigent of the playoff holdouts, is willing to change, then change might indeed be at hand.
Might, I said. Might.
By Mark Bradley