2005 Orange Bowl despite a perfect record.
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMI
The news that ESPN is in negotiations to purchase the rights to the Bowl Championship Series doesn't sound the death knell for the playoff argument, but it sure comes close.
Looking to up its annual payout from $82.5 million to $125 million, the BCS is currently seeking a four-year, $500-million deal for the broadcast license to its games. Since Fox owns those rights until 2010, this would put off even the possibility of a postseason tournament until 2015. Now, I don't expect playoff proponents to be tired of arguing their case seven years from now, I just suspect that with the amount of money being thrown around, their words are going to be falling on even deafer ears than they are already.
There's a fundamental point about the BCS that even today many college football fans fail to understand: it has never been about deciding a national champion. In response to my column on the TCU-Utah tilt from last week, several readers commented that the purpose of the BCS was to determine No. 1. This is incorrect. The national championship game is a crumb that the lords of the series -- that would be the various conference commissioners, who were instrumental in creating the beast -- threw to the fans. Their primary goal was to secure the lucrative payouts that the bowl games produce every year. They didn't (and still don't) care about No. 1. They care about the money. For an excellent primer on how the BCS came into being, I refer you to a story by SI's Tim Layden, which ran in the Nov. 29, 2004 issue. Here's a key nugget:
"One big factor was that this would be a system controlled by the commissioners and the major conferences," says a person who was involved with the '96 negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity. "There was noise back then about the NCAA getting involved in postseason football, and that was something nobody at the commissioner level wanted. This gave them control over where their teams went and how the money was shared."
So please don't get the idea that college football is moving inexorably towards a playoff system. The venerable Dr. Saturday, Matt Hinton, says that "the entire trajectory of the sport for the last 25 years is toward a playoff." Respectfully, I disagree. When USC goes to the Rose Bowl, USC is not the only school that reaps the financial reward. Stanford gets money. Arizona gets money. The entire Pac-10 gets money. And on, and on. Pete Carroll might suddenly be in favor of a playoff. So might the president of USC. Barack Obama might be in favor of a playoff. But they aren't the only ones with a stake in the BCS.
And don't forget that with its rankings, the BCS does exactly what it was created to do. I sympathize with Auburn fans. I really do. They went undefeated in 2004 and were frozen out by the BCS. But the fact is that the Tigers played a cupcake non-conference schedule and the system punished them for it.
It will be interesting to see if the commentariat over at ESPN continue to agitate for a playoff if the network is successful with its BCS bid. With such a lucrative stake in the series, would the World Wide Leader still allow itself to be seen as advocating for its systematic dismantling? These are curious times indeed, my friends.
Just don't get the idea that curiosity is going to lead to a playoff for college football. The debate may rage on, but the decision has already been made.