Originally published August 12, 2011 at 5:00 PM | Page modified August 13, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Pac-12, Big Ten favor limited playoff format that could alter BCS

Athletic directors find consensus in nonbinding straw vote, but plenty of hurdles remain.

Seattle Times staff reporter


Athletic directors of the newly expanded Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences found consensus on a "plus-one" football national-championship proposal at meetings early this week that could signal movement toward a revamped Bowl Championship Series.

The athletic directors, meeting in Newport Beach, Calif., discussed several possible postseason football formats, including the status quo. It's part of a process to give conference commissioners input from their leagues for possible changes to the BCS after its TV contract runs out in January 2014.

The proposed format the ADs favored in a straw vote calls for adding a BCS bowl, probably the Cotton, and seeding the top four teams, which would play semifinals in two BCS bowls on a rotating basis. Presumably, the current BCS formula still would be used to rank teams. Winners would advance to a title game in what has become known as a "plus-one" format.

In this format, the Rose Bowl wouldn't host semifinal games in exchange for the right to preserve an annual matchup of the Big Ten and Pac-12, but would host the title game every five years.

The athletic directors' consensus is nonbinding and not even a recommendation. But it could be a launching point to a position by the two leagues, which have traditionally held fast to the Rose Bowl and opposed any form of playoff.

The debate over whether to scrap the current system, which has been in place since 1998, is a hot one that even President Obama has weighed in on. He's in favor of an NFL-style playoff.

The BCS format uses a complex formula that weighs two different national polls and six computer rankings to place eight teams in BCS bowls and match the top two teams in the national-championship game.

BCS executive director Bill Hancock told The Seattle Times on Friday he senses no national traction toward an NFL-style playoff. As for movement toward a plus-one scheme, he said, "They just haven't talked about the future as a group. The intent is to do that after they (conference commissioners) evaluate the feelings on campus.

"My sense is that they're going to be open to anything that will make it better, short of an NFL-style playoff, as long as they stick with their principles — maintaining the bowl system and remembering that these are college athletes."

Hancock was asked about an eight- or 16-team playoff mirroring pro football.

"I don't hear any groundswell for an NFL-style playoff, from the commissioners or the presidents or the ADs or the coaches," he said.

Once they gather input, commissioners will meet early in 2012 and share consensus of their league members on a format for the next contract. Any refusal by one of the six automatic-qualifying conferences likely would scuttle a proposal. But a change in format could be presented to the television networks within a year.

"I'm a big fan and proponent of the BCS system," said Scott Woodward, the Washington athletic director. "But I always think there's room for improvement in everything we do.

"Going forward, we'll take the input of a lot of people, including the fan base, and consider some of the options out there, like a plus-one format within the current bowl structure."

Pac-12 presidents would have to be on board for such a proposal. But they might be inclined, given that the plus-one is the most limited form of playoff. They've also shown a desire to follow the leadership of commissioner Larry Scott, who has expanded the league and negotiated lucrative new TV contracts.

"There's an enormous amount of pressure (nationally) right now to do something a little different," said one administrator within the Pac-12. "And a plus-one might be a type of compromise."

This marks the first consensus at any level for a plus-one format in the Big Ten and Pac-12, two of the influential players among the six automatic-qualifying conferences of the BCS. In 2008, the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences advanced a plus-one formula, but found little support for it among the other four.

Some hurdles the plan would have to overcome:

• Just as the five nonautomatic conferences have criticized limited access to the BCS, threatening action in Congress, they would likely have some concerns about access to the semifinals.

• Some playoff opponents fear "bracket creep," the notion that a plus-one format would inevitably lead to a playoff. A possible solution would be a longer-term contract than the current four-year cycles of the BCS.

• Tickets and travel on short notice could be a headache for fan bases.

• An extra game goes deeper into January unless the semifinals are moved up. That's ammunition for critics of a long season, and it could potentially cause problems with players ruled academically ineligible for the spring semester or winter quarter.