Authors: By PAUL NEWBERRY
As the powers-that-be ponder the future in smoke-free back rooms - one of the few areas where college football has kept up with the times - maybe we're finally stumbling toward the era of a true champion.
One determined on the field, with all the cards on the table.
But we have to slow our roll. We can't get too giddy about where the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision is headed in the next month or two, just because the decision makers are suddenly throwing around the p-word.
Remember, this is a sport that has been governed from one millennium to the next by a group that would've green-lighted "John Carter" instead of "The Avenger." They would've put their money on rotary phones instead of the iPad. And these folks actually did claim it was best, for decades and decades, to determine an alleged national champion with a you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours system of bowls and ballots rather than a legitimate playoff, like every other sport.
Those people didn't just go away.
They merely came to grips with the billions and billions they've been leaving on the table.
As always, it's all about the money - or to be more specific, the amount of money.
Only now, the greenbacks are flowing like never before. Conferences are forming new alliances faster than Kim Kardashian goes through a marriage, which has forced the oligarchs who run these rapidly changing alliances to change the way they've always thought about their good ol' boys club.
If I was in your shoes, I'd be ...
Having a four-team playoff! What a good idea!
Unfortunately, Otter, Boon and the rest of the "Animal House" gang can't decide some of the more pressing issues: Where will the games be played? Are the bowls going to be part of the mix? Should the champions of the strongest conferences get some sort of preference? Will four teams be enough to determine a legitimate champion?
Already, they're staking out their positions. The conferences want to come up with a plan sometime over the next month, with the university presidents having something to vote on by the Fourth of July, thereby freeing us all from the tyranny of the redcoats, a.k.a. the Bowl Championship Series.
The Big Ten wants to craft a playoff system out of the current bowl structure, largely because it has such strong ties to the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl, which has traditionally matched its champion against the winner of Pac-12. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany also says any new format shouldn't include a team that doesn't win a division within its own conference - a definite shot at the current national champion, Alabama, which finished second in the Southeastern Conference West but got a second chance against LSU in the BCS title game.
"I don't have a lot of regard for that (sort of) team," Delany said.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott is pushing to have two semifinal games played at campus stadiums, which seems to address the concerns of playoff opponents who say that such a system would lessen the importance of the regular season. After all, that would reward the two highest-seeded teams with a home game - a huge incentive and major advantage.
"We've said all along preserving the regular season is important," Scott said. "What better way to emphasize the importance of the regular season then having a chance to earn a home game? It's a proven NFL model."
Not so fast, says SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who prefers a playoff with neutral sites, mirroring the hugely successful NCAA basketball tournament. Then, looking to give himself some Rose Bowl-like leverage, he aligned with the Big 12 just last week to announce yet another new bowl game, one that would pit those two conference champions on New Year's Day beginning in 2014.
"A new January bowl tradition is born," Slive gloated. "This new game will provide a great matchup between the two most successful conferences in the BCS era and will complement the exciting postseason atmosphere created by the new four-team model."
Sorry, commish, but the rest of us are more confused than ever now.
Before any more new bowls are announced - absolutely the last thing we need - let's present our plan for a playoff:
-To start with, having an eight-team playoff is better and perfectly manageable within the confines of the current season and academic schedules. Already, that great sage, South Carolina ball coach Steve Spurrier, expressed his support for a four-team playoff in a newspaper interview but quickly added a caveat, "I (will) like the eight team when we go to that in about five years." Cut to the chase. Make it eight now.
-Five conference champions - SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC - should get automatic bids, helping to preserve the importance of the regular season. Three at-large teams would be selected by a panel of former coaches, athletic directors and players representing all regions of the country, much like the NCAA basketball selection committee. No more computer rankings that only Bill Gates can understand. No giving Notre Dame special preference. If the Fighting Irish want to remain independent, they'll have to be worthy of an at-large to get in.
Sure, there would be plenty of arguments from teams that are left out, but that's OK. No matter how many are selected, there's always going to be griping. That we can live with. Conference runner-ups, by the way, would be eligible for at-large spots. It certainly wouldn't have been fair for Alabama to be left out of an eight-team playoff altogether. But, the league champions would be guaranteed the top five seeds, with the ranking of one through eight also determined by the selection committee.
-The quarterfinals would be played at campus sites, hosted by the top four seeds. That should further eliminate any complaints about the regular season being diluted, and would ensure that a team such as Alabama would have to play at least one road playoff game after finishing second in its division. Further echoing Scott, this format should mean a guaranteed sellout and electric atmosphere at each first-round site.
-Three bowls would rotate as hosts of the semifinals and championship game. The Rose Bowl is an obvious choice. The Sugar and Orange are the other logical selections, due to their long traditions. The Fiesta would be dropped from the mix, which is only fair given its much shorter history and the shenanigans that went on under former boss John Junker. In exchange for getting a spot in the playoffs, the Big Three bowls should be subjected to much tighter regulations, limiting the pay of their leaders and guaranteeing a sizable chunk of their profits actually go to worthwhile charities.
-The quarterfinals would be held around Christmas, the semifinals on New Year's Day, and the championship game about a week later, which would largely encompass the holiday break at most schools. So, little to no class time would be missed - which probably isn't a major consideration, but humor us while we look at the players as actual student-athletes. Next season, for instance, two quarterfinal games could be played on Saturday, Dec. 22, while the others could be set for Monday, Dec. 24, and Tuesday, Dec. 25. The semifinals could be played on Jan. 1 in New Orleans and Miami, with the championship game in Pasadena on Jan. 7 or 8.
As for the other kazillion bowls, who cares?
They can do whatever they want, as long as they don't get in the way of our new playoff.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963