For two weeks, college football has revolved around this little trophy. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Vacations Are Overrated: So, we return after a 12-day absence to note that pretty much nothing whatsoever has changed in the world of college athletics since we last visited. This is normal for July, what with it being the middle of the three months in which college athletes aren't normally busy being athletic.
Of course, that doesn't mean there's been no news; there was the announcement of the ACC's tie-in with the Orange Bowl, which has elicited a stream of almost universally negative commentary either from those affiliated with the Big Four conferences (who question whether they deserve what amounts to an auto-bid) or from the Big East and other have-nots (who note that this really means the auto-bid designation is still a thing, even if they're not calling it that).
As hard as this is to reconcile, I think everyone's right. The ACC has performed abysmally against the Big Four, punctuated by Virginia Tech getting their heads handed to them in the 2007 Orange Bowl by KANSAS of all teams. The Big East has probably been the more successful conference on the field over the last 15 years, although the numbers can be juggled to work either way. It's also quite true that the scramble to secure tie-ins -- every last one of which now has the "champion or, if the champion is in the playoff semifinals, the runner-up" tag -- means it's entirely possible that things could play out so that nine of the twelve slots in the six "not-BCS but really BCS" bowls can be spoken for right out of the gate in a given year.
On the other hand...Addressing the first half of that paragraph, the Big East that arguably out-performed the ACC over the last 15 years is dead, or at least will be by the time the new system kicks in. West Virginia (the team responsible for most of the Big East's argument) is gone, now camped out with us here in the Big 12. Syracuse and Pitt will be gone, too, and while that actually benefits the Big East speaking purely from a performance numbers perspective, it doesn't counteract West Virginia's departure. In their place, the Big East has added Boise State, true. They've also added a whole bunch of programs which range from potentially competent to Memphis. As much as the ACC is not on the same level as the SEC/B12/B10/P10 square dance, the new Big East is a step down from the new ACC. More importantly for the people making all the decisions, the Big East has a serious marketability problem; they've added a lot of potential television sets, but the people who own those sets aren't exactly prone to watching the teams they're allegedly attached to with the exception of Boise State (and Boise, of course, is one of the smallest base markets in college sports). The ACC, on the other hand, has Miami and Florida State and Clemson, all of whom are major keys to any CFB television deal to which they might be party.
As to the access argument, I have to conclude that even though the risk of a shut-out due to bad alignment allowing for only three "at-large" teams is a real one, in practice it probably won't happen. For starters, and this point is paramount, you can bet your life savings that the Rose and Champions bowls will not under any circumstances both host semifinals in the same year. That means that in eight out of twelve years of the deal, at least one of them will be hosting. If that game just happens to include two teams from conferences that bowl is not contractually tied to, the real effect will be for the twelve-team pool to have at least five at-large berths. Further, there is no guarantee that champions of the Big 10 and Pac 12 (if the Rose is a semifinal) or the Big 12 and SEC (if the Champions is) will receive a berth in any of the other bowls should they fail to qualify for the playoffs. This is really, really important to consider when analyzing this. Even the Big Four conference champions don't get "automatic" qualification to the new six-bowl system if their contractually-linked bowl is taking its turn in the semifinal rotation.
Now, I don't think this will ever be an issue for the big four conferences as their champions rarely finish outside the top ten, but at the same time, nobody is going to bitch about a team in the top ten playing in one of these six bowls. The thing the Big East and the other underwater conferences need to understand, though, is that their champions aren't going to get left out either if they can get themselves into the top ten; in fact, I would argue that since the selection committee will be picking all twelve teams and not just the four playoff teams, all it's really going to take for a team outside the big five conferences to secure a big payday is a top-15 finish. If an East Carolina somehow goes 12-1 and is still only ranked #15, I would be absolutely stunned to see them left out in favor of a team ranked #12 who finished in third place in their conference. It would make a mockery of the entire "winning a conference championship will be an important factor in who gets selected" claim.
In fact, I think there will be tremendous pressure to make sure this does happen, as the simple reality of this -- of this entire situation, when it really comes down to it -- is that whenever it comes to making a decision about who that last team in the field is going to be, whether we're talking about twelve football teams or 68 basketball teams, one thing is inescapably and indisputably true: the only people who stridently argue against including the cinderella are those associated with the major school who's going to lose their place as a result, and that school's conference-mates. It can't have passed anyone's notice that the only people who thought Virginia Tech should be in the Sugar Bowl last year were Virginia Tech and ACC fans. Everyone else pretty much agreed that the other slot should have gone to Boise or Kansas State.
You might argue that this pressure doesn't prevent the California from being invited to the NCAA basketball tournament over Drexel, but it's a slightly different dynamic for football. Drexel didn't go 24-2, after all, and basketball is much more well-connected mathematically as a result of playing many, many more non-conference games. If an East Carolina is 12-1, we can argue they didn't play a very tough schedule and they don't face the weekly punishment and yadda yadda yadda, but what we can't say is that we know they aren't any good. The only argument against the "lesser" conferences in this context is "we don't know", not "we know".
Summing up: the new system is not perfect (still tied to bowls and bowl committees and the associated graft, playoff is not quite expansive enough), but the flaws being ascribed to it by those concerned they won't have access are overblown and most probably incorrect.
Other News: Not a whole heck of a lot. SBNation has opened its very own College Football Hall of Fame, which you should check out, and in a great behind-the-scenes read we find that apparently Sun Belt commish Karl Benson really truly tried (among other things) to make the SUNBEAST happen.
Programming Note: Through the rest of July and into early August, for obvious reasons (including my personal antipathy toward anything involving "news reporting" about recruiting, The National will be sporadic, more focused on commentary than link dumps. As the football season looms closer, things will start moving back to normal.