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Why there is no college football playoff

Posted by Doug on January 8, 2007

Disclaimer: I have a profound lack of understanding about the relationships between and the incentives of the various power brokers in this smoke-filled room. So anything I say in this post is possibly misinformed. The following is just my own attempt to make sense of things. Please chime in to correct any misstatements I make.

All that said, here is a very interesting article from Yahoo! Sports about why there is no college football playoff. It's a long article and, as you would expect, the situation is pretty complicated. But here is what I took from it.

The Big 10 commissioner, Jim Delany, is the key figure. He doesn't care about college football in general; he only cares about the Big 10, as well he should. But apparently, he's powerful enough to essentially veto any potential playoff system that doesn't benefit the Big 10 as much as the current system does. And, because Delany is such a good negotiator, the current system is pretty sweet for the Big 10.

So where does all his power come from? Here is a quote from the article:

Delany declared last year that the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl would abandon its BCS partners if they took even the slightest step toward a playoff.

My first reaction is: don't let the door hit you on the way out.

On second thought, though, it's not clear that the meta-conference consisting of the ACC, Big12, SEC, and Big East would win this power struggle. Under this scenario, there might be some sort of playoff involving everyone except the Big 10 and Pac 10. Then there would be a Rose Bowl pitting the Big 10 and Pac 10 champions, or possibly even a playoff among more than two of the top teams from those conferences. It might look an awful lot like 2003, when USC and Michigan played in the Rose and LSU and Oklahoma played in the official championship game.

Now, suppose you're FOX or ABC and you're negotiating the contract for the 4-team or 8-team non-Rose playoff. You may have the #1 and #2 teams in the country in your playoff, but you may not. And even if you do, there is a decent chance that one or both of them would get eliminated before the championship, leaving the Rose Bowl looking nearly as legitimate as your title tilt. This season, what if LSU and Louisville were playing in your championiship game while USC and Ohio State were playing in the Rose? Not good. And the more grave concern would be the kind of scenario that would have unfolded if USC hadn't lost to UCLA this year: the Rose Bowl gets #1 and #2, while numbers 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 play in your playoff. That's a disaster.

Of course, it's also a potential disaster for whoever owns the rights to the Rose Bowl, which makes this a risky strategy by Delany. Success is cyclical and virtually all of the Big 10's and Pac 10's BCS success is attributable to just two schools. During the first few years of the BCS, the 10s Big and Pac were no more relevant than the modern-day Big East.

It seems to me that the real heart of the matter is the Pac 10. While the Big 10, Pac 10, and Rose Bowl together make a formidable alliance, the Big 10 on its own is powerless. So the question is: once the current Rose Bowl agreement expires, what's in it for the Pac 10? What incentive do they have to hang with Delany while the other five conferences back a dumptruck full of money into their driveway?

Overall, though, the Yahoo! article reinforces what I've always thought: a playoff is coming. Slowly, but it's coming. The current system is better than what we had ten years ago, but not as good as what we'll have ten years from now. I wish those tens were twos, but I'll live.