The best part of Georgia president Michael Adams’ plan for a college football playoff — issued at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 8, 2007, and hooted down by the powers-that-were shortly thereafter — was his desire to have the NCAA oversee it. “They’ve got a pretty good track record of running things,” Adams said.
But here we are in the year 2012 and a playoff is about to become a reality, and where is the NCAA? Observing from afar while the FBS conference commissioners hash it out. And now we wonder how this makes a lick of sense.
The governing body of intercollegiate sports runs the playoff for every intercollegiate sport at every level — except for big-time football, which is the biggest intercollegiate sport. But the NCAA has always been reluctant to throw its arms around big-time football: Indeed, there’s still no such thing as an NCAA champion of college football at highest level. The NCAA prefers to stand aside and let its membership bank the money and its conferences (and the bowls) wield the power.
If you’re wondering why it is only in the year 2012 that football is moving toward a for-real playoff, there’s your answer: conferences and bowls. Over time, their alliances/financial ties have controlled the entire massive sport, and it will be the conferences who cobble together this playoff matrix. This would sound more comforting if the conferences shared an agenda. Alas, they share next to nothing.
The SEC and the Big 12 want a four-team playoff involving the top four teams. The ACC — and also the Big East, which scarcely registers anymore — want the playoff to include conference champions. The Big Ten would prefer a two-team playoff, which is essentially what exists now. The Pac-12 tends to link arms with the Big Ten. There’s your Big Six conferences, with no three of them in agreement.
That’s just the framework. Of greater importance: Who’s going to choose these teams? It’s unlikely that the playoff will be champions-only — the SEC tends to get what it wants — but even if it is, two of the Big Six will, by definition, see their champion omitted. Who decides which two? And if the top four teams fill the four spots, who picks them?
Will the playoff grid be populated the way the BCS title game has been: Take a handful of computer printouts, a couple of human polls and add ‘em up? Despite almost annual tweaking, almost nobody has liked that method. Given the chance to change, you’d have to think the conference commissioners will cook up something new. But what?
Will the Big Six league commissioners meet in a room the first Sunday in December and take a vote? Will the five smaller FBS conferences have any voice? (Those five do still exist, you know.) Will selections be made by the retired coaches who now vote in the Harris Poll, which has never seemed a credible body? Or will the hundreds of ESPN talking heads simply hash it out — on-air, of course — among their bloviating selves?
A simple way would be to do as the NCAA basketball tournament does: Appoint a selection committee of current athletic administrators (as opposed to former coaches, who may or may not keep abreast of current events) and have them closet themselves in an Indianapolis hotel until a field has been formed.
But Division I basketball includes roughly 320 teams, 68 of which make the Big Dance. The football playoff will include four teams, and no VCUs need apply. (Heck, VCU doesn’t even have a football team.) It beggars belief that the SEC and the Big 12 would create a system by which their teams’ fates are decided by someone from the WAC.
The NCAA imprimatur would bestow credibility on a process that has seemed haphazard from the start, but the NCAA figures to have no part of what will surely be the biggest procedural decision ever made regarding big-time football. According to someone deeply involved in the playoff formulation, the NCAA’s stance is: “We’re here if you need us.”
I’m thinking the NCAA is needed. The Big Six conferences surely don’t want the NCAA involved — the big conferences didn’t get to be big by deferring to other bodies — but these negotiations already reek of rampant self-interest. It would be nice if some above-the-fray entity could swoop down and cut through the clutter, nicer still if that entity actually knows what it is to run a tournament.
By Mark Bradley