In his version of the obligatory postseason harangue against the current system of selecting (that is that word I mean) a champion and its complete inadequacy for sorting through the wreckage of a host of flawed teams this season - as well as in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and in more than half the seasons before the creation of the current model - the alarmingly consistent Wizard of Odds drops an oft-repeated criticism against the "idealists" struggling in vain for a playoff:
If you think playoff, get real. That's not going to happen. Read this piece by Pete Thamel in the New York Times if you think differently, then check back. The closest thing we're going to get to a playoff would be a Plus One model, which would essentially have the top two ranked teams play after the five BCS games.
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We've been hearing "it will never happen" for years - Big East commissioner and then-BCS chair Mike Tranghese told Ivan Maisel
, "It's not going to happen. From the beginning, our presidents said, don't engage in a discussion about a playoff," after the LSU-Oklahoma-USC debacle ended in split BCS and AP champions in 2003, and that fatalistic "never" has marked a thousand counterarguments in board rooms and bars for much longer than that. The arguments never stop, and "never" will probably accompany them until the day a playoff happens, which will be in the not-too-distant future. And then probably beyond that, because it seems more and more likely a playoff will come stealthily in the night, cloaked in rhetoric insisting it is not what it is.
How long is never? Through maybe 2011, maybe sooner, if outgoing commissioner Mike Slive's "season of discussion" about the BCS results in a "Plus One" format, to which he has long been "open-minded." One of the "Plus One" proposals as described in the afore-linked article by Thamel, the one supposedly crushing all our futile playoff dreams:
Slive said that any talk of specifics of the Plus One model was "putting the cart before the horse," but he and [ACC commissioner and incoming BCS commissioner Jim] Swofford did release the one moderate news item of the day. They came out in favor of the seeding model of the Plus One. That would essentially create a Final Four of college football, squaring off the winner of the game between the No. 1 and No. 4 teams against the winner of the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup.
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This is a "Plus One" in the same way the Super Bowl began as a "Plus One" to the AFL and NFL championship games. But a playoff by any other name...
Big Ten commish Delaney: Big Ten-Pac Ten Rose Bowl yesterday, Big Ten-Pac Ten Rose Bowl today, Big Ten-Pac Ten Rose Bowl forever!
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The alternative proposal, what is usually meant by the term "Plus One" as often advocated by Kirk Herbstreit and as conceived to pacify the staunch playoff
opponents in the Big Ten and Pac Ten and maintain the profitability of their vaunted love child, the Rose Bowl, is much worse:
In the other model, the Bowl Championship Series games would be played and then teams would be ranked, with the No. 1 and No. 2 teams playing one final game. The latter model is viewed as more realistic, as it would pacify the Pac-10 and the Big Ten by allowing them to keep their ties to the Rose Bowl while still creating the extra game and the approximately $40 million that goes along with it.
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Aside from that paragraph, Thamel's article is one of unbridled optimism, and as even a retrograde, inevitably controversial phantom limb of a Plus One is another step in the long march to a true tournament, it's more proof that the system is slowly lurching the way of the bracket. Per Swofford: "It's a bit like turning a battleship. You don't turn it around quickly."
This particular battleship (the regal "S.S. Playoff") has been under construction since ESPN turned a regional sport into something resembling a coherent national game and provided a nonstop format of highlights, information and talking heads to stoke debate, because popular opinion has been in favor of a playoff for more than a decade. The BCS was created directly in response to the popular outrage over the split Nebraska-Michigan championship in 1997, just after undefeated Penn State had been snubbed by both polls in 1994, Florida State had won a controversial poll vote over Notre Dame after losing to the Irish in the regular season in 1993 and polls had split on champions in 1990 and 1991. We got the BCS to give us an undisputed #1 vs. #2 matchup for an undisputed championship, and it has proved thoroughly inadequate – seven controversies about a worthy exclusion from the mythical title game in ten years, worse than the old rate of unrest. So, eventually, we'll get a playoff.
The "light at the end of the tunnel" moment was Florida president Bernie Machen's playoff push at the SEC meetings last May, even after the system had worked for his Gators in 2006, the first "insider" among the ranks of the ever-powerful, ever-greedy, ever-oppositional presidents to publicly break in favor of the idea. Then, I said this about his proposal:
...this is only further confirmation of what we already knew about the eventual coming of a playoff: the SEC is open to it, Jim Delaney and the fine sweater-clad, discerning institutions of the Big Ten will not even consider the idea, and the initial compromise will come in the form of a ludicrous, turmoil-magnifying "Plus One" addition before evolving into something with a small but nevertheless neatly printable bracket.
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I didn't think the Plus One would be on the table so fast, or that, in the same week that Georgia president Michael Adams joined Machen's public call for a playoff
, that one of the proposed models would already entail a neatly printable mini-bracket. Slive, Swofford ("Maybe it would be better if more than two teams had the opportunity to play for the national championship"), Tranghese and Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe are "open to discussion" on the "Plus One" idea, the same coalition of conferences that briefly formed the mid-nineties "Bowl Alliance" without the Pac Ten, Big Ten or Rose Bowl before each of those entities relented and came on board to form the BCS.
Maybe you can't have a playoff without the traditionalist powers. Push ahead, and they'll come on board - they did in the past, and, in response to the overwhelming public demand for a playoff, they will again, at the risk of being compared to sixties-era segregationists holding up inevitable civil rights reform.
These, then, are the options in the coming months:
A) A mini-playoff now under the name of "Plus One," to balloon into a full-scale model at some point in the near future,
B) A short-term, untenable compromise under the name of "Plus One," to evolve into scenario "A" at some point in the near future,
C) The same old untenable compromise, to evolve into either scenario "A" or "B" at some point in the near future or collapse under the pressure to change.
So: how long is never? As long as the Big Ten and Pac Ten can hold their tattered levee. Certainly less than fifteen years.