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Newly-concocted college football playoff leaves room for improvement

Since journalists are meant to be objective, reserved types, there was no dancing, nor were there fireworks set off when commissioners from the 11 FBS conferences and lone wolf Notre Dame announced that a four-team playoff would replace the fetid BCS to determine a college football champion, beginning in 2014.

That’s a good thing, since integrity is important in our business. But many writers, analysts and commentators share significant responsibility for the new set-up, which replaces one of the most contrived, transparent cash-grabs in recent sporting history. (And that’s saying something.) Were it not for the tireless efforts of those who realized that the BCS was fraught with inconsistencies and outright conflicts of interest, college football would still be relying on computer geeks and the comedic Harris Poll to determine the best team in the land.

Worse, we would still be subject to the propaganda that BCS overlord Bill Hancock spewed about how “every game mattered” under the crazy system, when in fact, each week made more and more games meaningless, as the quest to find just two worthy title combatants winnowed the field and eliminated teams from contention – and significance.

From the standpoint of the schools involved in the BCS (it is not an NCAA-sponsored program), the system made perfect sense. Rather than turn over the administration of its championship apparatus to an organization that would retain a significant amount of the money involved, the big-time football schools ran the thing themselves, with maximum revenue the ultimate goal. If there happened to be a legitimate meeting of the top two teams in the country (who could know for sure?) as a by-product of the process, all the better. But the ultimate goal was to make sure the bowl dough settled into the coffers of the conferences, not the NCAA, which would never have guaranteed a complete payout.

It was something of a Bonfire of the Vanities. Since the NCAA isn’t the most popular group around, and the BCS was widely considered to be the disfigured spawn of a self-serving group of athletic departments, it was hard to favor one side over the other. That’s why so many members of the media wretched at the mere utterance of the letters B-C-S. They knew why the system had been created and were irate that its proponents and propaganda partners tried to convince us that it was legitimately devoted to finding college football’s finest team.

Two years from now, things will change. The BCS will be no more, replaced by a four-team “playoff.” And while that is cause for a celebration of sorts, media members must be careful not to rejoice too much. There is still work to be done.

First off, remember that while commissioners from 11 conferences (and the outlaw Fighting Irish) met to concoct the latest incarnation, only six leagues – five, once the Big East completes its disintegration into a version of C-USA – will reap the riches. By keeping the playoff at only four teams, it’s unlikely we’ll see a Cinderella from the Sun Belt Conference playing for the title. Perhaps a Boise State-style candidate will find its way into the Final Four once in a great while, but with a selection committee charged with the job of selecting the participants, it’s less likely a school from the Great Unwashed will get a shot.

And what about that committee? Will it be an egalitarian group, with representatives of the Mountain West and Mid-American Conferences sitting next to power brokers from the SEC and Big 10? That’s unlikely. Again, there may be a token representative from the small leagues allowed into the boardroom, but he won’t likely have the influence to force a mid-major school into the quartet.

Further, we must know what the criteria will be for choosing the combatants. During the meetings that have led up to this moment, we heard about representatives from certain conferences demanding that only league champs apply. Others (hello, SEC) want it open to the four “best” teams, regardless of their regular-season finish. The media must hold this committee accountable for its decisions and demand transparency, the better to find out exactly why certain teams have been chosen. Remember that while four teams are better than two, there will still be schools left outside to make strong arguments for inclusion.

The end of the BCS is a big step for college football fans. Incorporating the bowl games into the championship “tournament” is a good idea (two bowls will host the semifinals each year) that maintains tradition. And getting rid of the preposterous system that chose the title game participants is a huge step forward.

But let’s not get complacent, folks. This new model is far from perfect, and it’s up to the media to make sure the methods used to choose the teams are legitimate. We are not so naïve as to think this is an altruistic nod to fans and playoff proponents. We understand this remains about control of huge amounts of money. But that doesn’t excuse the media from its job as vigilant watchdogs over those who would rather see a fat bottom line than a genuine method of choosing a champion.

Enjoy the moment, but it will soon be time to get back to work.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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