The Lords of the BCS, college football's controversial system for determining a national champion, met again in Chicago and released a vague statement about the progress of their negotiations. It is widely presumed that they will eventually create some sort of a four-team playoff.
It also appears that most of the haggling is focused on the many details which would have to be worked out so that no one's interest would too dramatically harmed by this remarkable change, for which many college football fans have been hungering for many years. A final decision is expected by the end of the month.
The reason they haven't come up with anything yet is really quite obvious. There is just no way that a four team playoff will remotely please everyone involved. They are trying to force a round peg into a square hole.
The statement indicated that the committee members "value the bowl tradition and recognize the many benefits it brings to student-athletes." But no matter how they configure it, it is simply impossible to preserve the bowl system as a meaningful institution once you create three games of ultimate importance and place them outside of the bowls (calling a semi-final game the "Rose Bowl" and stripping it of any unique identity just isn't going to cut it).
Attempting to create a playoff system and preserve the bowls would be like trying to tell your wife that you are still married, but that you are now allowed to spend Christmas and New Year's Eve with other women. Good luck with that.
A four-team playoff will not only kill the big bowls it will also eventually destroy the entire bowl system (admittedly, the game could use having a few of the minor ones eliminated). This will have huge implications on college football as a whole because about 100 schools have no shot at ever playing for a BCS title and the bowls provide the incentive for their seasons to go on after they have lost a couple of games.
There is however one scenario, still apparently under consideration, which could possibly placate all of the diverse parties (schools, conferences, bowls, television, fans, etc), but, as of right now, this plan appears to be at least a 10-point underdog.
Known as the "plus one" option, it provides all of the benefits of a playoff (maybe even more) with almost none of the drawbacks. Here is how this plan might work and why it is not only the best alternative, it may very well be the only one which can ultimately get enough votes to pass.
The "plus one"-system starts with restoring the major bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta) to their old traditions before the BCS basically rendered all but one of them in any given year irrelevant. This means that the Rose Bowl would feature the winners of the Big Ten and the Pac-12 (as God originally intended), the Sugar would do the same for the SEC and Big 12 champions (which already have an agreement to start meeting). Meanwhile, the Orange and Fiesta could host the champions of the next two most worthy conferences (who knows which those will be once the realignment dust finally settles) against the two highest ranked "at large" schools as chosen by the current BCS computer system.
This would mean that going into the bowls eight teams (six conferences champions and two "at large" selections, though you could easily add the Cotton Bowl and two more "at large" schools, which might convince Notre Dame to go for the idea) would still be alive in the race for the national title. Then each of these four bowl games would be played, with staggered starting times, on New Year's Day (as God originally intended). Each would have meaning both from the standpoint of tradition as well as because they would serve as "de facto" semi-finals for the BCS championship game. It would be impossible to conceive of a scenario where at least three of these four games didn't have national championship implications. The bowl tradition would be saved/enhanced and the television ratings for each of them, which have been decreasing, would swell dramatically.
Then, the day after those bowls (January 3 on years when New Year's Day is on a Sunday and the Rose Bowl and parade takes place on the 2nd) the BCS computers would choose two teams from those four winners to play in a national championship game. That contest could be easily played two weeks later on the night of Martin Luther King Day (an open Monday after the NFL season is over). The build up would be incredible without being anti-climatic (last year Alabama didn't play for a ridiculous six weeks before finally winning the title). Again, the ratings would likely increase, potentially by a lot.
The key to the "plus one" is that it allows the bowls to become relevant again while actually creating what is essentially an eight-team playoff, only with no actual semi-finals. The reason why the four-team playoff is not currently politically viable is that there are four BCS bowls and only three games within the playoff (thus the round peg/square hole theory). At least one is going to be left out and two are going to be permanently stripped of their traditions while taking a definitive back seat to another.
The reason why "plus one" solves the political problems of the currently favored playoff proposals is that it is the only plan which addresses the Rose Bowl dilemma. The "Granddaddy of them all," is not just a football game. It is also the most watched parade in the world and that parade is usually on News Year's Day (thus, making the Rose Bowl the championship game wouldn't work). The Rose Bowl also has the strongest conference tradition and both the Big Ten and Pac-12 have indicated that they will not part with that connection unless it is somehow very much worth their while to do so.
Quite simply, this is one of those rare situations where the only scenario which can work politically also happens to be the best one for each of the parties involved. The solution to all the major problems of the BCS is right there in front of them. Here's to hoping that they don't blow what is likely the last chance to save college football from itself for the long-term.