CHICAGO — Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and the league’s athletics directors, who once defended the bowl system like the Knights Templar guarded the Holy Grail, now want to preserve the bowls by adding a four-team playoff within their structure. Nothing more, nothing less.
“If we’re going to expand this from two teams to four teams, it raises the question of slippery slope,” Delany said Tuesday.
“We are adamant we cannot go beyond four (teams),” Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith said. “If you even think about going beyond four, you are threatening the regular season.”
Delany said the Big Ten’s position on the postseason is three-pronged. First is to protect the regular season, followed closely by maintaining the bowl system and the Rose Bowl. He also touted greater transparency throughout the process, saying reporters should be allowed to cover the decision-making process.
“I’m suggesting that we have an open and transparent discussion with the computers and the polls and we can use a combination, we can use a committee,” Delany said. “But we’ve got to explore all of it.”
Nebraska Athletics Director Tom Osborne coached three national champions within the bowl system. His chancellor, Harvey Perlman, three years ago staunchly defended the bowl system in front of a Congressional hearing. Now they’ve slipped over to the playoff side.
“I think that both of us realize that what we’re dealing with here is inevitable,” Osborne said. “So then the question is, what’s the best way to do it.”
That’s the question that was on everyone’s mind at the Big Ten spring meetings at Sofitel Hotel. League and school officials talked Monday and Tuesday about the playoff prospects with consensus on the foundation but not the particulars. The only points that most could agree upon was there should be a four-team playoff within the bowl system.
The national discussion about the top two seeds hosting semifinal games has dissipated, despite the Big Ten’s obvious home-field advantage. Osborne said a Big Ten team could have a “touchdown advantage” over a Southern team if the game is played in the North.
“Let’s say Ohio State is hosting on whatever date it may be, January or December, and let’s say that it is 5 degrees,” Smith said. “Is that right for the game? We’re not pros. I think we need to figure out what’s best of the game, and I think a fast surface, I think good weather is right for the game. It’s important for the kids.”
Likewise, schools hosting games on campus leads to the slippery slope of expanding the playoff to more teams, Delany said.
“While we understand that the games on campus could benefit us competitively — and it’s not like I don’t like the competitive advantage of a home field — but in the larger sense, we think the slope is far less slippery within the bowl system than without the bowl system,” Delany said.
There are many questions that linger. What would happen to the conference’s eternal link with the Rose Bowl? Would the system include strictly conference champions, the best four teams or a combination? Who and by what method would the four teams be selected? Would fans travel to multiple locations and spend thousands of dollars to watch their team play a conference title game, national semifinal and national title game? How would it affect the athletes academically?
There are few answers, just discussion on most of those questions within the Big Ten, let alone how it translates nationally.
“There was somewhat of a consensus and yet an understanding and the complications and the difficulties of making something work,” Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi said. “It’s not as easy as having a four-team playoff, an eight-team playoff, whatever it might be. It’s not that easy.
“We’re pretty agreeable in the sense that we would like probably a four-team playoff within the bowl system. That great thing about college football and Jim has said it well for years, the regular season has meant something. We don’t want to give that up.”
Choosing schools will be the sport’s most contentious issue, now that the Big Ten likely will go along with the four-team playoff. Will the playoff involve the top four conference champions or a combination? There are arguments to back up either side.
Smith is a proponent of including conference champions — but only if they are good enough. A conference champion ranked eighth nationally has no place in the national semifinals, he said. But a sixth-ranked conference champion might have a case.
“I think there’s some value to trying to find a way to protect the highest-ranked conference champions,” Smith said. “I don’t know what that means. I think there’s some value in that.
“A conference championship is unbelievably valuable. You went through the gauntlet. Those high-ranked teams ought to be rewarded.”
Delany told reporters he wants a mixture of conference champions and at-large squads based on prowess.
“I’m not suggesting that a 10th-ranked Wisconsin would find itself at No. 4,” Delany said. “I have never suggested that.”
Smith and Osborne emphasized the controversy will only heighten, not subside, with the changes. Controversy reigned in the Bowl Championship Series from the 2000 through the 2004 regular seasons with only one year (2002) providing clarity in determining the final match-up. That won’t change going forward.
“After going what we went through, we think there’s going to be more chaos than what people understand and probably just like the BCS it gets tweaked over the first two or three years,” Smith said. “This thing is not going to be perfect, and that’s what everybody, all of you need to help our fans understand. There’s no perfect system, particularly when you’re dealing with four teams.”
Last year Southeastern Conference champion Louisiana State beat fellow SEC West opponent Alabama head-to-head in the regular season. At season’s end, the teams were ranked 1-2 and played again for the BCS title. Alabama, which didn’t claim either its divisional or conference title, stopped LSU, 21-0, and won the national championship.
In 2001, Colorado routed Nebraska 62-36 in the season finale, costing Nebraska the Big 12 North title. But the Cornhuskers backed into the BCS title game despite the loss.“We all know who our national champion was this year, it was a team that didn’t even play (in its title game),” Maturi said. “But we need to somehow protect that, too, because nobody is going to argue that Alabama wasn’t the best team in the country this year. I think you need to be sensitive to allow that to happen also.”