COLUMN: Easy part is saying yes to a college football playoff

DESTIN, Fla. – The decision to implement a playoff in college football, which is inching closer to reality, might ultimately be viewed as the easy portion of what could become a difficult logistical tug-of-war between college football factions.
The details of changing how college football determines its champion, including whether there is to be a four-team playoff or a plus-one format, already have generated considerable debate with an array of questions looming.
For its part, the Southeastern Conference has made it clear at this week’s spring meetings that it will not support a proposal that only conference champions qualify for the playoff.
“If you’re going to have a four-team playoff, the best four teams should be selected to play for the national championship,” Commissioner Mike Slive said. “If the issue is how the teams are selected, then let’s go talk about the selection process and then figure out a way to make the process more palatable to everyone.”
But there are plenty of other questions. Would a playoff be contested inside or outside the bowl system? Would semifinals be played at campus or neutral sites? Is a selection committee similar to the one that chooses the NCAA Tournament field an option?
And maybe the most intriguing unknown is the fate of the BCS, which has survived amid intense criticism for 14 years.
The SEC has produced six consecutive national champions with four schools winning the championship game during that span.
Slive could find himself butting heads with commissioners of other conferences, where there is still support for the plus-one model. Under that system, the bowl games would be played out as usual with two teams then selected to play for the national title.
The SEC is expected to announce its official preference on the playoffs Friday, the final day of the meetings. The Big 12 came out Wednesday in favor of a four-team playoff chosen by a selection committee, with the semifinals played outside the bowls.
“We have good people who are going to be making those decisions, and I trust those people,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “I think it needs to be the four best teams in the country. I don’t think it needs to be the conference champions because in our league, we might have four of the best teams in the country.”
Some coaches agreed that the success of the SEC in recent years was instrumental in swinging the discussion of some form of playoff from a non-starter to a foregone conclusion.
But the idea that only conference champs should qualify smacks of selfishness to Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“There’s no question the reason we’re even doing the top four is because fans are interested in seeing the four best teams in a playoff,” he said. “So, we’re going to mess that up by saying you have to be a conference champion? Someone is a little self-absorbed in worrying about how it affects them and how they can get someone in the game every time.”
The other major stumbling block is where games would be played, although it appears increasingly unlikely that semifinals would be contested on campuses. In that case, officials would have to agree on where the games are played. One possibility would be to rotate the semifinals among what are now the BCS bowl games.
Within the SEC, Slive and others have voiced a strong opinion this week that the bowl system is the best avenue.
“You could have it inside the bowl system or outside,” he said. “My sense, from various conversations, is that our league feels it would be better served in the bowl system. It has been part of our tradition for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s the same as it is now, but generically in the bowl system.”
Several coaches said they would be in favor of a selection committee choosing the teams. If that were the case, it would potentially eliminate the current BCS formula.
But what form the BCS would take under a new system remains unknown.
“The main thing is it’s too early to tell because nothing’s been done,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock said. “We’ll know whenever all of this is done.”
As the BCS has tweaked its formula over the years, Saban believes the public has become more satisfied with the rankings. He views the major complaint being the number of teams.
So, he would prefer some version of the current formula as the best way to determine the teams.
“Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I don’t hear anyone complaining about how the teams get ranked,” Saban said. “To dismantle (the system) and go to something completely different with no track record, I don’t think is right.”
How quickly decisions can be made remains to be seen. But with two major meetings of key officials scheduled for June, there is hope of an impending consensus.
“I think the right word is ‘hopeful,'” Slive said.