The Big Ten is planning to propose a four-team college football playoff system to supplement, not replace the current bowl structure and BCS. Previously, the Big Ten was one of the fiercest opponents to a playoff system, but now recognizes that many, if not most, college football fans consider the current system a failure. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips summed it up thusly:
"We have to listen to the fans; we cannot be tone-deaf. The Big Ten is open and curious."
This is not the "plus one" model that's been frequently been proposed, but instead a real playoff system. Oh, it still takes the top four teams in the final BCS standings, but rather than sending those teams to two bowl games as semifinals, the top two teams in the standings will host the number three and four teams in the BCS.That's right. Home fields, just like every other playoff system. That's the way they do it in the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NHL. It's a bold move that addresses the weaknesses of all previous proposals and the current bowl system. And for the other 116 teams that remain outside the playoff, the traditional bowl games will still remain and operate as they are. The Rose Bowl will still match up a Pac-12 and Big Ten team. Other bowls can still exist, provided that there is still a market. (Which there will be: ESPN still needs holiday programming and bowl games still outdraw just about everything else.)
I've long felt that utilizing bowl games for the semifinal games was destined to fail. Travel costs for bowl games are high enough that expecting fans to travel to two separate bowl games is too much. Fans may be willing to drive, but flying across the country on short notice is not something most fans can do. Playing the games on home fields makes just too much sense. College stadiums typically hold more fans than most bowl games can accommodate. That means more ticket sales. Plus the games are located closer to the fans of the actual teams that are playing. They can drive instead of having to fly.
It also makes the regular season even more relevant. Why is that? While it's true that teams probably can get away with a loss (maybe even two) and still make the playoffs, there is a huge incentive to going undefeated and finishing in the top two. A home game. You play on YOUR home field, in front of YOUR fans.
Some argue that's not fair, pointing to the potential of playing a December football game in bad weather. Funny, but it doesn't stop the NFL from doing it. But it's actually more fair. Teams like USC, Florida, and Texas know that bowl sites in their states are close enough to give their teams a decided advantage in bowl games. Big Ten teams? They all have to fly a thousand miles or more to get to a bowl game. Bowls favor the "good weather schools" who have dominated the BCS title games as of late.
Imagine what Boise State might do, scheduling wise, if they know that a top-two finish in the BCS is going to be good enough to land a Florida or Southern Cal in Idaho for a national semifinal. Maybe they'll schedule up.
It's bold thinking on the part of the Big Ten. I've long been an advocate of a home-field based playoff system. I personally would prefer eight or 16 teams, but four, quite honestly, is good enough.