For the past several months, it’s been imminent that the BCS would be re-tooling its configuration of bowl games and conference qualifiers, and today, BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock confirmed that there will be some form of playoff system. What’s more, the “Automatic Qualifier” designation will be eliminated. This is a very big deal.
What does this mean?
Well, for starters it means that all this preposterous conference realignment that’s been threatening to destroy collegiate athletics should be put on hold for a bit. See, there are two factors in the recent spate of league jumping (and both ultimately come down to money): 1) Television Contracts and 2) BCS Qualifier Status.
Television Contracts are pretty straightforward—a league with 12 teams and multiple major markets is in a better position to negotiate lucrative contracts with the likes of ESPN, CBS, and Fox than a team with 8 schools. (Moreover, 12 teams permits a conference to hold a Conference Championship Game, which is another cash cow, both in terms of television rights and ticket sales.)
Really, though, all of the leagues would like to follow the Big Ten’s model and launch their own respective Conference Networks. PAC-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has been explicit about this from the beginning, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive knows it’s the next inevitable step. Texas nearly scuttled the whole thing last year when the Longhorns went behind their Big XII brethrens’ backs and signed an exclusive deal with ESPN to create the Longhorn Network. BYU followed suit, and the Notre Dame Athletic Director has confirmed that the Fighting Irish are pursuing their own as well.
BCS Qualifier Status is more complicated. When the current BCS system was put in place, six leagues were designated “Automatic Qualifiers,” which meant that their respective conference champion was automatically guaranteed a slot in a BCS Bowl (estimated value of $20 million, on average). The membership of these six leagues: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, PAC-10, and SEC, has since evolved, most recently with Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving the Big East for the ACC, West Virginia bolting the Big East for the Big XII who is attempting to replace Texas A&M and Missouri, both of whom went to the SEC, and Nebraska, who left for the Big Ten, and Colorado, who joined the PAC-10. (Got all that?) The PAC-10 then added Utah, the Big Twelve nabbed TCU, and the Big East picked up pretty much every FBS school that was left. Then after that, they got Temple, whom they had previously booted from the league for being so abysmal at football.
Even with all these additions, it was looking like the Big East would lose its Automatic Qualifier standing, which is one of the main reasons why Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia went behind the backs of their peer institutions and sought another abode. The AQ designation alone is worth hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.
What’s more, schools from non-AQ leagues like Conference USA, the Sun Belt, and the Mountain West have been complaining more vocally that the whole AQ system was both unfair and illegal. Numerous elected officials have even pledged governmental investigations into the BCS’ anti-trust status, with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch holding hearings on Capitol Hill. This year, the Mountain West was almost certain to demand inclusion in the club, but the elimination of the AQ status renders all such arguments moot.
If Hancock is to be believed, Troy and Houston will be considered alongside Alabama and Michigan for inclusion in a National Championship playoff model. The details still have to get worked out—can a team that doesn’t win its own conference be selected for a playoff?—but for now, we know that the BCS system as we currently know it is officially dead.