The “Playoff” Era Begins & What It Means for Conference Realignment
So we finally have a college football playoff at the highest level. It’s a huge feat that took until now to happen. In reality though, this ground breaking playoff is just a variation of the “Plus +” proposal combined with the existing system. In fact, in many ways, it brings the traditional bowl system back into even more relevance.
And that’s why the new FBS “Playoff” is little more than a minor tweak to the old system with a sticker on it that says “Playoff”. But it’s a big first step and it won’t be too many years before the fans (and excluded schools from the Top 4) will be clamoring for expansion to 8 schools.
There are still many questions to be answered. What we know thus far:
The Playoff Skinny:
You have (2) semi-final games to be played each year at one of (6) bowl games in rotation, with the winners playing in a championship. As it is now, there is simply a #1 vs #2 game in the championship, so it is a huge change that (4) teams will get to decide on the field who is the champion, rather than just (2) teams.
A committee will decide who the 4 schools to participate are. There is a list of criteria that was announced last night, but with no weighing system, no specifics given, it is still a blind process. What we can expect to see though is that the committee will at some point omit a Coaches/AP poll school ranked #3 or #4 from a non-power conference (Big East, Mountain West, CUSA, Sun Belt, MAC) claiming that strength of schedule was a top criteria. Based on overall membership, that means that the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 will have an advantage. The ACC is right there with that group, with the others left behind. So if you are a school in the Big East, Mountain West, CUSA, Sun Belt or MAC, you will likely need to go undefeated in order to be considered for even spot #4.
Championship Game Location:
The championship game will be sold to the highest bidder, and outside of the current bowl system. That’s not to say that a single city would be excluded from having a semi-final game and the championship, since in the end, it will come down to the semi-final rotation and the championship game bidding. But it is probable that the powers-that-be will try to work things out so that if there were a year that say, Los Angeles were to win a bid for the championship, that the Rose Bowl would not be a semi-final game that year.
Semi-Final Bowl Rotation:
For the bowl rotation, there will be (6) bowls in the mix for the (2) semi-final games. The Rose Bowl (currently #1 Pac-12 vs #1 Big Ten) and the new Champions Bowl (#1 SEC vs #1 Big 12) are in. The Fiesta, Sugar, Orange are all likely in the rotation as well. The Champions Bowl still doesn’t have a location, so that will throw a wrench to some of the plans. The Cotton Bowl would be expected to be the likely #6 bowl in the rotation. However, if the Champions Bowl were to be player at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, it would likely just replace the Cotton Bowl. The same could be said about the Sugar Bowl, if the SEC and Big 12 opted to have the game in New Orleans.
In other words, it’s unlikely that a single city would have (2) Bowls in the rotation. This might open it up for some other options like Chic-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Outback Bowl in Tampa, Holiday Bowl in San Diego, etc to enter the mix.
Just when you were starting to get used to seeing oddities like TCU in the Rose Bowl and Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, there will be a return to some of the tradition that had existed for decades. For instance, in a year when the Rose Bowl is not a semi-final game, the game will feature the Pac-12 #1 vs. the Big Ten #1. When either or both conferences send teams to the semi-finals, the conferences will still control the bowl participants. This means that if #1 USC and #2 Ohio St. are in the “playoffs”, then Pac-12 runner-up Oregon would likely play Big Ten runner-up Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. The same system would be in place for the Champions Bowl, where you could see the #2 SEC school play the #2 Big 12 school if both conferences send members to the playoff.
You will also likely see the current BCS bowls align with conferences, just as the non-BCS bowls have. For instance, the Orange Bowl will lock up the ACC, taking their champion in years when the ACC does not send a playoff team. The Sugar Bowl could even go as far as locking up the SEC runner up in their own bowl deal, if the SEC decided to do so. What is left to determine will be what happens to some of the other bowls like the Fiesta, which would be wise to try to line-up a good game such as the Pac-12 and Big 12 runner-up schools. They could always aim for the #1 Mountain West or Big East school. At this point, there is much work to do by the conferences and the bowls to determine their alignments.
For the lesser bowls, things will remain the same. You’ll still see the MAC champion headed to a bowl you’ve possibly never hear of. But the student athletes from all the bowl schools will still get the full bowl experience. And at the end, the winners of the two semi-final games will play for a championship.
What is yet to be known will be just how the bowls select all their participants. We can hypothesize that the Sugar Bowl would try to lock-up the SEC #2 school. But there could always be a free-for-all with the bowls leaving spots open to chose schools to fill the spots. So in a year when Hawaii finishes with a single loss, they could be rewarded with a higher profile bowl, rather than having to be slotted into whatever bowl the Mountain West partners with for their #1 school.
Playoffs on Television:
One of the big reasons for this change to a playoff is the opportunity to make more money. First you have the championship site being awarded to the highest bidder. But the same can happen with the television rights. You could have the semi-final games on one network with the championship on another. Think of the NFL model where Fox might have the Super Bowl while CBS still have an AFC championship game. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future, where (1) semi-final game could be sold to CBS, (1) semi-final game sold to Fox, and the championship game sold to ABC/ESPN. The prices will jump even further if NBC enters the mix.
It’s still a secret, or unknown. As of last night, there was no set plan as to who makes what, if higher seeded schools get a bigger revenue cut, etc.
Saying Goodbye to the BCS and Automatic Qualifiers:
With the creation of the (3) playoff games and the return of the rest of the bowls to the traditional system, it means the end of the conference AQ. So no more years when a #32 BCS ranked Uconn school from the Big East takes a spot in a big-money BCS bowl over a #6 or #7 school.
Instinct is to think this would be a benefit for what are now “non-BCS” conferences: if you win your conference, have strong numbers, you will be considered…unlike how it is now, where a Mountain West school must have a perfect season just to sneak into an at-large spot in a BCS bowl.
But the selection committee will ultimately decide who gets in. And there will be many years where the committee will make strong arguments that a second (1) loss SEC school would deserve to be included over an undefeated Mountain West, Big East, CUSA, Sun Belt of MAC school. So unless you have a killer OOC schedule, if you are in one of these current non-BCS conferences, you better go undefeated to be considered. Because a single loss and you’re done…since the committee would almost certainly take a 2-loss SEC school like Florida over a 1 loss Florida International from CUSA.
Sorry, Mountain West, No Can Do:
With the big announcement of a playoff yesterday, there was another piece of news slipped into the mix. The Mountain West received final word that it’s BCS exemption had been denied, meaning that the Mountain West will no get an AQ for the final (2) years of the BCS contract. With the Big East television contract expected to be much higher than the Mountain West deal, it means that Boise St. will likely officially announce their departure from the MWC to join the Big East for football only. It means BCS access for Boise St. in the Big East next year and more TV revenue in future years with the only negatives being their membership in the WAC, an unstable conference, for non-football sports…and of course the increased football travel costs.
Playoff Effect on Conference Realignment:
The quick answer: nobody knows. It would seem that with all access being equal, that stability would be on the horizon. But with such access for all, it also puts a premium on the individual conference television contracts. So if the SEC can make millions more per school by adding a Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., Virginia Tech, NC State or other school from the ACC or Big 12, what’s to stop them. In the case of the Oklahoma and OSU, it’s the Big 12 TV rights waiver that would be a deterrent, as those schools would love many millions in joining the SEC now, versus the ease that Texas A&M and Missouri had. You also have the Big 12 now at 10, losing out on millions on dollars in revenue from now having a championship game. So perhaps the Big 12 makes a larger push to expand with schools like Louisville or BYU. Or maybe the look to the ACC with schools like Florida St., Clemson, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh or others.
In the lower conferences, with that same access existing, it would seem that it would open the doors for some regional stability. The Mountain West appears poised to hold two spots open for Boise St. and San Diego St. to return one day rather than adding New Mexico St. and Idaho to get to 12. And until the Boise St./SDSU to Big East experiment has some recorded data, there’s no reason to think either school would change their plans. Mountain West fans hope that is an incorrect assessment.
We’ll have to wait an see how the playoff works itself out. Because right now, it would appear that the only ways for a conference to generate more revenue (a primary driver) would be:
1) To expand into new markets to increase their television contract value
2) To expand to 12 (MWC, Sun Belt, Big 12) to have a championship game
3) To bring in schools that will improve a conferences chances of getting a school selected to the playoff.
We can cross of #3 for the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, and likely the Big 12 unless Notre Dame joined. When you look at the available candidates, there seem to be no options for the Big East to improve after adding Boise St. So that leaves the Mountain West, CUSA, Sun Belt and MAC. If a school goes on a run of finishing with a strong record in one of those conferences, they might gain enough appeal to be invited to another conference. For instance, if UTSA becomes an FBS power, the Mountain West and CUSA would likely come calling. But it would appear that movement at the FBS level will be minimal for now when the motive if to improve the chances or getting a playoff bid.
For reason #2, you have a few players:
The Big 12 could decide that the championship game money and new markets to improve their TV contract are reason enough to expand. If they cannot get Notre Dame or an ACC school to budge, that leaves the Big East and Mountain West, where you could see programs like Louisville as well as even Houston and Memphis become candidates if they prove to be successful in the Big East. BYU is also an option, currently an independent.
The Mountain West could eventually give up on a Boise St. or SDSU return, and opt to expand to 12. You have New Mexico St. and Idaho already pleading to join. In time, you could see Sun Belt schools like Texas St. make a push if they are successful. Even CUSA schools like North Texas and UTSA could become options if the Mountain West does prove to be the more successful conference. The Sun Belt could expand to 12 with FCS options like Appalachian St., Georgia Southern or even perhaps Jacksonville St. or JMU. They also always have Idaho and New Mexico St. as football-only options.
For Reason #1, there are endless options. The SEC could expand to 16 or 18 with ACC schools. The ACC could expand to 16 with Big East members like UConn and Rutgers. The Big East could expand again in the west or even look east with schools like ECU or UMass for football only. The Pac-12 would appear locked in at 12, since Texas/Texas Tech/Oklahoma/OSU were the only candidates that brought real revenue projections to the conference. The Big Ten seems set at 12 after years of sitting at 11. But what if they decide to tinker with a southern push with schools like Maryland and Virginia? It’s highly doubtful now though to even consider that.
But for now, it does seem that the strategy will be for the conferences to sit and wait, to see what happens with the new playoff system. If conferences are being left out for different reasons (like, say, Big 12 being punished for not having a championship game), it will take time to recognize the trends. But as long as the lure of big television money is out there, the lower conferences should always be on guard.