Gather ’round and prepare yourself for the tinfoil hat theory yours truly has as to why the Big Ten and Pac-12 are not going through with their proposed non-conference alliance.
Three simple words that could become a common rallying cry for the coming years: blame the playoff.
Last week, Alabama declined a home-and-home series with Wisconsin in a precedent setting decision for college football’s new playoff era. Strength of schedule has been discussed as a determining factor for the playoff selection committee, but Alabama made a declarative statement that wins, guaranteed wins, would matter more.
As the strongest conference in the sport, the SEC sets the tone. The conference’s members are at an advantage over the rest of the nation, because its reputation allows for more leeway as it pertains to intraleague play. To wit, an Oklahoma State team with more wins over top 25 opponents was judged more harshly when assessed for its championship game worthiness than an Alabama team. The precedent this past season’s rematch set is that teams outside the SEC are judged not for their wins, but their losses. When given the choice of opponent, there’s a lot less likelihood of a loss against an FCS team than there is against a power conference opponent.
Yes, the playoff isn’t the BCS. It sure feels the same from the onset, though. Teams currently play for BCS berths. Those five bowls are the most high profile, and thus most lucrative. There are 10 such spots available. The playoff is the new brass ring, and it’s an even more exclusive pool. That means less margin for error.
Making the playoff is crucial, because it’s the difference between potentially two postseason games and the revenue that entails, vs. just one in a bowl game. And with the playoff expected to generate unprecedented bidding on television rights, the cash to be had is too tremendous to endanger missing out on.
The Big Ten/Pac-12 collaboration had landmark possibilities. When it was announced last December, I was giddy. Perhaps this could start a trend in the sport akin to basketball’s various interleague challenges. Shame on me for my optimism.
The conferences would be at a disadvantage. USC is already playing Notre Dame; adding say, Michigan State to the mix presents another landmine on the Trojans’ schedule. Meanwhile, their competition for a playoff bid is playing Western Carolina.
Certainly there are other factors at play. The Big Ten plays an eight-game conference schedule, while the Pac-12 plays nine. There are also programs in each league that have set match-ups out-of-conference, established through years of rivalry: USC-Notre Dame, Michigan-Notre Dame, Michigan State-Notre Dame, Stanford-Notre Dame…OK, so there’s a unifying theme of Notre Dame there. Perhaps it’s the Illuminati. That’s delving into a rabbit hole even this conspiracy theorist won’t go near.
The scheduling issues are not insurmountable, certainly no more so than they were in December. The variable that has changed since is the institution of a playoff.
Ultimately, there is postseason jockeying at stake. Yes, the Big Ten/Pac-12 series presents one intriguing match-up after another. Played on the same day, a new tradition would be established that could strengthen college football as a whole and give fans something new and exciting — which is what the playoff was in theory. There are two years until the format officially begins, much too far in advance to get too melancholy. Still, we are not off to a promising start.