Tuesday's announcement that a four-team playoff system will be implemented in 2014 changed the offseason conversation for college football, putting to rest -- at least for now -- all the speculation about what schools were possibly going to jump from one conference to another.
Florida State has been one of the most coveted universities potentially on the open market, as conjecture has bandied about for months that the Seminoles are a prime candidate to depart the basketball-centric ACC in favor of the football-rabid Big 12. Even though the school's president and athletics director publicly backed the ACC at every turn, the Board of Trustees and even football coach Jimbo Fisher admitted that the size of television contracts matters and FSU may have to be selfish from a dollars-and-cents perspective.
If the 'Noles are looking for a reason to leave behind the Tobacco Road types of the ACC and be welcomed in by the Texas-style open arms of the Big 12, there are many of them out there -- financial and otherwise. ACC commissioner John Swofford has always been a basketball-first guy and isn't regarded as much of a forward thinker in the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics, while new Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is a passionate football man with a progressive mind and deserves at least some of the credit for the Big 12 going from shrinking to expanding in a relatively short period of time. Not to mention the fact that Florida State could earn a few million dollars more per year from TV by playing the likes of Texas and Oklahoma instead of Clemson and Virginia Tech.
However, many believed being a part of one of four "super conferences" -- the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12, with the ACC likely on the outside looking in -- would make it easier to gain entry into any proposed playoff, but since conference affiliation isn't a factor in this "Final Four" format, perhaps the Seminoles stay put.
"It's a great day for college football," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said. "As soon as the commissioners realized they could do this and protect the regular season, the light went on for everybody."
Swofford had been a proponent of an eight-team playoff as opposed to four, no doubt because he knew the ACC was at best No. 5 in the conference pecking order when it came to pigskin. FSU isn't the annual national-title contender of seasons past, Miami hasn't so much as played in the conference championship game yet and the league's record in BCS bowls is nothing short of atrocious: 2-13. The SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12 are a combined 46-35 in the BCS era, during which time the ACC has sent sacrificial lambs like Maryland and Wake Forest to the Orange Bowl -- soon to be drummed, of course -- only because it had automatic-qualifier status.
But if the 'Noles return to the form that earned them invitations to the first three BCS title games from 1998-2000, there is every reason to believe they will pop up on the selection committee's radar for any sort of four-team shootout.
"It's a best-of-both-worlds result," said Virginia Tech president Charles Steger. "It captures the excitement of a playoff while protecting the best regular season in sports and also the tradition of the bowls. A four-team playoff doesn't go too far. It goes just the right amount."
Naturally, the most important institution in the conference realignment game is Notre Dame, and the Irish have no doubt been courted by the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12. Able to rake in all kinds of money because of an exclusive television pact with NBC, a move toward super conferences -- and possibly being left out of any playoff scenario -- may have forced the Irish hand once and for all. Instead, Tuesday's announcement virtually guarantees that the "University of Football in America" can keep operating on its own little island in South Bend with no fear of leaving dollars on the table or being excluded from the chase for the Coaches' Trophy.
The four-team playoff is now on the books through 2025, so look for ND to remain independent on the football field through the first quarter of the century.
"Notre Dame is obviously the biggest fish in conference expansion, with at least three conferences coveting the Golden Domers, but this news likely kills any chance of them committing to a conference any time soon," said Jason Staples, the football analyst for NoleDigest.com. "Unlike most programs, money is never a problem for the Irish and won't be the reason they join a conference. Under the new system, given Notre Dame's typical strength of schedule, they will still have at least equal access to the playoff compared to what they would have in any conference, so they have no reason to consider giving up their treasured independence, which the vast majority of their deep-pocketed alumni base prefers anyway."
FSU's hypothesized exit from the ACC started to pick up steam when the SEC and Big 12 agreed to feature their conference champions -- provided they're not in the national-title hunt -- in a postseason game, much like the Rose Bowl has traditionally been a matchup between Big Ten and Pac 12 powers. Some wondered if those games would serve as the de facto Final Four, leaving the ACC, Big East and non-AQ conferences on the cutting-room floor. But with those two games simply being part of a six-bowl rotation for the semifinals over the course of a 12-year agreement, the ACC is on much more solid ground than it was 24 hours ago, plus Pittsburgh and Syracuse will be coming aboard soon to match the SEC's total of 14 members.
If the 'Noles exit stage left now, it will only be for the increased payout they could get from the Big 12's enviable TV deal. But all of a sudden that's a tougher sell to anyone not involved with the football program, even if cynics say the bottom line is the only thing that truly matters. Florida State can still capture a national championship coming from the ACC, as it has twice before.
And there is plenty of money to be made if it does so once again, especially with a television contract for the playoff sure to be of the multi-billion-dollar variety.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
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