College football will institute a playoff starting in 2014. That seems hardly disputable at this point, thankfully, since the sport's method for determining a champion remains an outdated and convoluted process that triggers annual hand-wringing.
How a playoff ultimately will look is stirring up lively discussion, strong viewpoints and some snide comments that could intensify as conference commissioners seek compromise on a postseason model at several high-level meetings this month.
As it stands, top conference officials differ on the format, the number of teams involved and the selection process. Their differences aired in tones that some liken to a political debate.
The Big Ten weighed in Monday following a meeting of league presidents and chancellors and announced its preferred options. The conference's leaders scribbled "status quo" at the top of their list, which is wasted energy because preserving the current bowl system is no longer an option and the Big Ten knows it.
Commissioner Jim Delany said the presidents' second choice is a plus-one model -- a matchup of the two highest-ranked teams after bowl games. Their third choice is a four-team playoff, which is the most likely scenario and a model the Big Ten appears willing to back under certain conditions.
(My preference remains an eight-team playoff, but that's too much change for a discussion that's moved at glacial speed. My hope is that a four-team playoff eventually will expand to eight in the future, but this is a good starting point.)
The main sticking point is the method used to select the four teams. The SEC is steadfast in its belief that the four highest-ranked teams should advance to the playoff, to the degree that Florida president Bernie Machen insisted the league would not compromise. That was a direct shot at conferences -- the Big Ten included -- that prefer automatic qualifiers for top-ranked league champions, even though Delany never actually drew a line in the sand on this issue.
We tend to side with the best-four model. In the most logical sense, if you're going to have a four-team playoff, shouldn't it include the best four teams? Alabama didn't win the SEC last season but held the national championship trophy on the final night, a scenario that couldn't happen in a playoff model with only automatic qualifiers.
But this discussion requires some form of compromise. One idea floated is a so-called "three-and-one" model in which the three highest-rated conference champions and one wild card advance to the playoff. This model would allow a conference to send two teams -- one champion, one at-large -- to the playoff, which ultimately might be palatable to the SEC, which has won six consecutive BCS championships.
Delany agreed that any playoff should include the four best teams, but here's the rub: How do you pick that group? Delany finally joined the chorus of anti-BCS folks in acknowledging the current system is inherently flawed. The Big Ten prefers a selection committee, but that option lends itself to biases and self-interests.
This is where things get messy. The BCS formula, which combines computer rankings and human polls, lacks transparency and is overly confusing. As others have noted, Oregon finished one spot below Stanford in the final BCS rankings last season despite winning the Pac-12 title and drilling Stanford by 23 points. Oregon finished the regular season with one more loss than Stanford, but that came against LSU.
It's hard to support any system that produces that type of result. However, the thought of a committee of 10 or so individuals locked in a board room to decide a four-team field doesn't sound all that appealing either.
This is not the same as the college basketball selection committee picking the 68-team tournament field. Whatever team gets left out of that postseason probably deserved it and wouldn't win the title anyway. Imagine the pressure and scrutiny a football committee would endure in choosing between the fourth- and fifth-best team. Plus, how would you find anyone associated with college football who doesn't own some sort of bias?
There is no perfect formula though, and everyone must show some compromise. But at least they're having this discussion. A playoff in college football is inevitable. That's certainly better than status quo.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org