NEW ORLEANS — The Bowl Championship Series as college football fans have come to know it is going away.
Over the next six months, the people who oversee the much-maligned postseason format will talk about how to reconstruct the system for crowning a national champion. In the tumultuous 14-year history of the BCS, the appetite for change among college football’s leaders has never been stronger.
“It’s my impression that … there will be meaningful discussion about possible changes to the BCS,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said last week as SEC rivals LSU and Alabama prepared to play in the title game Monday night at the Superdome.
The 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director will meet Tuesday in New Orleans to exchange ideas.
What the changes will be is hard to say because it’s all open for debate, from eliminating automatic bids to top-tier bowl games to creating a four-team playoff — an idea that’s known as the plus-one model.
What’s not a realistic option is exactly what many football fans are clamoring for, a full-scale playoff that would require numerous teams to play additional games.
“Whatever we do we have to protect the regular season,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock said Monday at a meeting of the Football Writers Association of America. “I think the larger the playoff field the more damage to the regular season.”
Still, there is likely to be a BCS extreme makeover in the 2014 season.
“Everything you can imagine will be discussed,” Hancock said. “Everything from format, who plays who, to where they play, to the business aspect of it … it’s all going to be on the table.”
The last time changes were considered was 2008. That’s when Slive, with the support of Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford, made a push for the plus-one model to the rest of the group.
Slive’s proposal was unceremoniously shot down.
Simply put, the plus-one would match the No. 1 team in the BCS standings after the regular season against the No. 4 team in a bowl game, and No. 2 against No. 3 in another, creating two national semifinals.
The winners would play in a championship game the following week.
It’s a format that Alabama coach Nick Saban has always liked.
“I just feel that only having two teams sort of takes a lot of teams out of it,” he said during media day in New Orleans.
Currently, the top two teams in the BCS standings after the regular season, including conference championships, advance to the title game. It’s a format that’s led to frequent debates about whether the right teams were getting a shot to play for a national title.
This year’s controversy involved whether Alabama (11-1) should get a second chance at undefeated LSU or if Big 12 champion Oklahoma State (12-1, including its bowl victory over Stanford) had earned a shot to play for the national title.
The BCS has often caused as many arguments as settled them, and drawn the ire of fans all over the country in the process. It’s also come under pressure from a political action committee called PlayoffPAC, and been the subject of a congressional hearing and a Department of Justice inquiry. Even President Barack Obama has said he doesn’t like it.
Apparently, all that consternation is starting to register with the decision-makers in the sport.
“I sense that people who run college football and run the conferences obviously are not tone-deaf,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice president of college sports programming.
The structure in place, with four bowl games — the Orange, Sugar, Rose and Fiesta — each taking turns hosting the championship game, in addition to its bowl, could handle the plus-one.
Slive said that he will not be the one championing the plus-one this time around.
“I’m eager to hear from my colleagues about their views, but I fully anticipate that there will also be a meaningful discussion about the plus-one,” he said.
Standing in the way of the plus-one last time were the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East and Big 12.
Since then, the Pac-10 has become the Pac-12 and it has a new commissioner, Larry Scott, who has quickly established himself as one of the most forward-thinking leaders in college sports. Previous commissioner Tom Hansen was adamantly against a plus-one. Scott is willing to listen.
“We don’t have a definite opinion on that or any other model yet,” he said. “It’s a little premature. Those conversations are going to start in earnest this spring and I’ll have opportunities to talk to other people informally within our conference and with other conferences between now and then.”
The Big 12 has an interim commissioner, with Chuck Neinas replacing the ousted Dan Beebe, who was a vocal opponent of any type of playoff. The embattled Big East has a new commissioner, too. John Marinatto has been busy trying to save his league, and it’s doubtful the conference is in a position to be a force in the upcoming BCS negotiations.
What hasn’t changed is the Big Ten’s stance, led by its influential commissioner, Jim Delany.
Delany is steadfastly against a full-blown playoff and has said his biggest fear with the plus-one would be that once a four-team playoff becomes a reality it would inevitably grow.
“I don’t necessarily think the slippery slope is theoretical,” he said last month. “I think the slippery slope is practical.”
But Delany has come out in favor of another potentially major change to how all the other marquee bowl games are set: the elimination of automatic bids.
The Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, ACC, SEC and Pac-12 champions receive automatic entry into the BCS. One champion from the Mountain West Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA can potentially earn an automatic bid each season by reaching certain BCS standings targets.
That format has allowed teams such as TCU and Boise State to play in the BCS, but it’s also created a class system.
A free market would ostensibly mean the most-deserving teams would play in the biggest games. But the free market in college football is often more about earning potential for bowl organizers than performance on the field, which could lead to more opportunities for brand-name teams from the power conferences and less for upstarts such as Boise State in all the bowls, not just the BCS.
“I think it’s time to look at the entire system,” said Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, a playoff advocate who appeared with Hancock on Monday.
It’s clear there is much work to be done before June, when BCS officials will need to have a new format in place to negotiate the next television contract. The current ESPN deal runs through the 2013 season and the network will get first crack at retaining whatever postseason system is created.
”We’ve had a fairly lengthy timeline with the current process,” Slive said. “It’s time to take measure of where we were. What’s working. What isn’t working. I think it’s time. I think it’s a good time.