After weeks of tortuous (and, for the media sent to cover them, torturous) meetings, the Commissioners of the six BCS Conferences and the AD of Notre Dame have officially announced their recommendation for a College Football Playoff model to replace the current Bowl Championship Series format.
Heading into this latest round of negotiations, all parties (or, at least, the ones that mattered... i.e. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and his SEC counterpart Mike Slive, as well as PAC-12 and Big Twelve heads Larry Scott and Bob Bowlsby, who, as this ESPN the Magazine article trenchantly observes have "quietly lined up" behind Delany and Slive, respectively) were agreed that a 4-team model was the only viable way forward, with chancellors and league officials from the Big East, ACC, Mountain West, and other leagues protesting vigorously that any such model would unfairly cut out, well... any of the schools not from one of those four top Conferences.
Delany at first resisted the idea of a playoff at all... it's been the SEC fanbase, with its voracious appetite to prove its gridiron superiority over the tradition-laden programs from the Midwest that has driven the playoff conversation in recent years. Delany had been far more interested in protecting the Big Ten brand and in expanding its financial success, but, recently, the momentum to create a playoff system of some sort had become unstoppable.
Once Delany did come around, he pushed vigorously for a requirement that any teams participating would have to have won their respective leagues. But this insistence on making eligible only Conference Champions was an absolute non-starter for the SEC's Slive, who wanted leagues to be able to have more than one team represented, if that league boasted 2, or even 3, of the 4 best programs in the country any given year. Slive's intransigence on this particular point makes a lot more sense when it's pointed out that, heading into the final weekend of the BCS rankings last year, 3 of the Top 4 teams in the country--LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas--not only came out of the same conference (the SEC), they all hailed from the same Division!
The Big East and ACC heads were unhappy with pretty much all of the proposals, because if it were 4 teams, all of whom would have had to have won their respective Conference titles, then it seems very unlikely that, most years, a Big East or ACC school would get picked over a Big Ten, SEC, Big Twelve, or PAC-12 Champ. The ACC might have a decent shot if a particularly dominant Florida State or Miami put together a run, and the PAC-12 was having a down year, but even an undefeated Cincinnati or Louisville probably wouldn't get picked over a two-loss Oregon, much less an undefeated Oklahoma.
So what ended up happening?
The recommendation as announced this afternoon entails of a 4-team, seeded, "Plus One" model. There are two different ways that "Plus One" term has been used, but here it refers to having all of the bowl games played, with two of the current BCS sites (e.g. the Fiesta and Rose) being designated as "National Semi-Finals" in which the "best four" teams, as chosen by an independent selection committee (a la Men's Basketball), would play. The respective winners of those two Semi-Finals would then face off in an additional game (a "Plus One (More Bowl)"), which would serve as the de facto National Championship Game, and would be played in a neutral city, determined by the highest bidder.
Delany gave up the most, because there was not a guarantee that the 4 teams invited would have to have been Conference Champions. But, in exchange, he did get an independent selection committee--as opposed to the polls--and a commitment that the committee would give "preference" to these Conference Champions. Slive got his way, because the SEC could easily have more than one team among those Top 4 in any given year. And Scott, Bowlsby are happy if Delany and Slive are happy. Swofford and the rest are taking a "wait and see" attitude, but, as it stands, the new format is about as good as these non Big-4 leagues could've hoped for. Yes, an 8-team playoff would've been better from their standpoint, but there simply wasn't enough support for it from the bigger conferences. Notre Dame, as always, is content to haul in the money from its unique TV arrangement and merchandising deals.
What does this mean for conference realignment?
At least for the moment, there shouldn't be too many more major shifts. If it's the four best teams, then an undefeated Louisville or Florida State (or Boise State) could make the Top 4, especially if they win their league and the Conference Champ of a power conference has one or two losses, as has happened frequently in recent years with Big Ten and PAC-12 champs. Sure, schools in the ACC and Big East would rather jump to the Big XII, but there isn't the same degree of urgency as there was a few months ago. If anything, better for Florida State to stay in the ACC (or Louisville to remain in the Big East), schedule a few name-brand OOC opponents (which for FSU is already Florida) and go 12-0, convincingly winning their games, than to try and go undefeated in a far more treacherous Big XII or SEC.
Another interesting ripple in all this is that schools will have to figure out how to schedule Out-of-Conference (OOC) foes. If Strength of Schedule is taken into consideration by the Selection Committee, as was indicated today, then it won't have been enough to win a power conference and have gone 3-0 against Furman, North Dakota State, and Troy. A 12-1 Michigan squad that's faced Notre Dame, Alabama, and Air Force in its non-conference slate is absolutely going to get picked over a 12-1 Georgia team that spent its September punching the lights out of Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, and Georgia Southern.
But it's a delicate art... schedule too tough of an OOC schedule, and you risk a loss. Not to mention season-ending injuries and the general wear-and-tear that can wind up costing a team down the stretch, leading to an unexpected stumble against an inferior opponent. Schedule too easy a schedule, and this new selection committee could punish you.