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Returning to his office Thursday after what he kiddingly described as three days of unmitigated excitement at the Big Ten Conference Spring Athletic Directors Meeting, Tom Osborne elaborated on what happened in Chicago and how the league’s decisions are likely to play out in the future. “There’s been such a public outcry, a four-team playoff is all but a done deal,” Nebraska’s athletic director said.
“The conference commissioners have to approve it, and then the presidents have to approve it. When that happens, there will still be a lot of controversy,” Osborne said. “A four-team playoff will not eliminate controversy. It may make it worse. There will be a call for an eight-team playoff and then a 16-team playoff. Both of those options would erode the importance of the regular season. If that would happen, it would be a dangerous direction to go in, especially in terms of attendance.”
Osborne said the Big Ten ADs' support for a four-team playoff within the postseason bowl system could significantly increase bowl revenues, adding that most college football fans don’t understand the Big Ten’s and the Pac-12’s undying allegiance to the Rose Bowl. “That’s always been the biggest money-maker of all the bowls,” Osborne said without sounding like Keith Jackson calling the Rose Bowl the granddaddy of ‘em all.
Hard to Discount Rose Bowl’s History, Payout
“We favor the four-team national playoff within the bowl system because once the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose Bowls alternate hosting the semifinals and finals, we can keep our ties to the Rose Bowl,” Osborne said. “There’s a lot of history behind it, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 don’t want to lose it.”
Osborne pointed out to his fellow athletic directors that USC and UCLA have benefitted from their close-by locations to the Rose Bowl, and he said “there was a lot of conversation” about the idea of Michigan hosting Miami in a potential home-site semifinal, if that became a favored option. “Even the NFL has done a study about Southern teams hosting pro playoffs, and the point differential is about seven or eight points,” Osborne said. “From a competitive standpoint, there’s a definite advantage, but if Miami would host Michigan, that would be a big advantage, too.”
With a playoff controversy almost as certain as a Big Red football sellout, Osborne said there is one way to launch a competitive process that gives both the college football traditionalists and the full-scale playoff advocates some middle ground, without jeopardizing the popularity of the game.
A 10-Year Contract Could Stabilize Process
Osborne said one of the best ideas to come out of the meeting with his fellow Big Ten athletic directors is favoring a 10-year contract to execute the national four-team playoff.
That would help college football maintain the sport’s most unique and enduring quality, having every regular-season game count in determining a national champion. Doubling the BSC formula from the top two teams based on computer rankings to the top four teams based on the three highest rated conference champions and a “wild card” selection not only dramatically broadens the exposure and the revenues, but also paves the way for what many believe will be a more definitive – and less controversial – national champion. Osborne is among some Big Ten AD’s who favor a selection panel in addition to the polls in determining the playoff teams.
Other options include taking the four highest-rated conference champions or the top four teams rated in a designated national poll. If the four-team format is approved, it could begin as early as the 2014 season. Equally important in the discussions leading up to a decision is whether the championship game should be played within the bowl structure or in cities which do not host bowls.
Osborne believes that media and coaches’ polls are based on fallacious assumptions, and he speaks from experience. In his career as a head coach, he recalls meeting with his coaching staff after a game, grading film and then spending about 15 minutes checking scores and comparing results before submitting his rankings at about 2 a.m. Osborne chose not to discuss the writers’ ballot. “Both polls contain regional bias, and no system will be without controversy,” he said.
Hall-of-Famer Took Vote as Solemn Oath
The best selection panel would require dispassionate voters who could understand and interpret the critical nuances in both polls. Osborne once voted as a member of the Legends Poll, which was and still is a part of the BCS’s formula. Osborne took his role as a Legends Poll voter very seriously, breaking down film from a number of key games before casting his final ballot each week.
Here's speculating that the gap between the way Osborne researched his Legends Poll vote and the way the vast majority analyzed their choices is as wide as the differences between Division I and Division II football. I didn’t ask Coach Osborne Thursday about the way he measured performance in between stints as a U.S. Congressman and an athletic director, but I remember how much of himself he put into that vote.
In my opinion, the first step that college football needs to advance one of the nation’s most popular sports into its first four-team national playoff is to appoint a panel of dedicated people who will vote just like Tom Osborne did – with his expertise and his mind instead of his heart and his Huskers.
Model Football Panel after Basketball’s
When you think about it, it all comes down to integrity and credibility. The football process doesn’t need to be all that different than the panel that determines the top four seeds in the NCAA Basketball Tournament (and every other seed). "Experts" accept their job having their own parochial views, but recuse themselves when necessary so their fellow panelists can discuss the nuances that separate the very best teams from each other.
I don’t mind college football using that same process to anoint the nation’s top four college football teams for a national playoff. But don’t think for a minute that the Nos. 5, 6, 7 & 8-ranked schools won’t feel equally capable of winning the national championship, not to mention Nos. 9 through 16. Basketball has a Final Four and a Sweet 16. Football has taken decades to get to a Final Four and needs to stay there at least a decade once the format is approved. Remember, this is football, which plays one game a week as a rule, not basketball, which plays at least two games a week.
Since college football is ready to take that one giant step to appease a hungry nation, let’s make sure the process does not exceed four teams now or in the near future. Who knows? Maybe a decade after college football revolutionizes the game, the sport will protect what it is about to create.
But don’t count on it.
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