The Big Ten, which helped squash the notion of a four-team playoff to crown a national champion in college football several years ago, is taking another look.
"All of the Big Ten athletic directors are comfortable exploring the possibility of a four-team playoff," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said Tuesday. "Four is better than two."
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith agreed and said the discussions stem from feedback "that we need to do something different," especially after the recent BCS title game between LSU and Alabama drew lower ratings that other championship games.
"The fans have been loud and clear," Smith said. "We also recognize that structurally there's things that we want to try and change with the bowl system — how teams get in the bowls. It's time to be curious about everything."
The BCS title game pits the nation's top two teams based on poll and computer rankings. The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that one idea before the Big Ten calls for playing the two semifinal games on the campuses of the higher seeded teams, with the national championship held in a city awarded a the hosting rights.
The so-called plus-one format — two semifinals plus the title game — was proposed in 2008 by the commissioners of the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. It was shot down by the leaders of the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East, Big 12 and Notre Dame.
The 11 Bowl Championship Series conferences have already met to discuss possible changes to the system starting in 2014. NCAA President Mark Emmert has said he supports a four-team championship playoff and is strongly against a 16-team format.
Emmert has also said there has been talk of using a Final Four model, a scenario which would've matched LSU against Stanford and Alabama versus Oklahoma State this season, with the winners advancing to the title game.
Despite the Big Ten's interest in a playoff, there is at least one big hurdle: The Rose Bowl, with its storied history to two of the nation's biggest conferences.
"The Rose Bowl is extremely important to Michigan State just as it is to every school in the Big Ten and Pac-12," Hollis said. "There are more questions than answers about how any format would work, including where the games would be played and what the bowl-type experiences would be like in a championship format.
"My eyes are always open to explore all opportunities, but I don't think we want to exceed 15 games."
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, who is open to any option that includes keeping the conference and Pac-12 tied to the Rose Bowl, said he's not sure the plus-one model will please everybody.
"I know a lot of people would love to see one more great football game, but I'm not sure this type of playoff will make it more fair," Brandon said. "At some point, you have to draw the line. With four teams, there will be controversies about who those four teams should be because it's usually not clear."
Smith said there are too many bowl games, lagging ticket sales and teams are already playing "too deep into January" with players who happen to be students, too. He had reservations about a playoff where students play back to back games.
Still, he said there was a need to discuss the format now.
"This is the window of time before we go and do something with another partner, or current partner, we don't want to just do the same thing without trying to address some of those issues," he said. "But if we ended up with a plus-one playoff, it would be exciting for fans but there's a lot of issues around it."
BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said 50 to 60 possibilities for various changes were presented during a meeting in New Orleans, where Alabama beat LSU in the BCS title game last month. Hancock anticipated it would take several more meetings to reach a conclusion in July.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who declined comment Tuesday, has acknowledged he would consider the prospect of a four-team field.
"Four years ago, five of us didn't want to have the conversation," Delany told reporters last month. "Now we all want to have the conversation."
Asked about how the revenue from a playoff would be distributed, Smith noted that was a key issue.
"You know, as we went into the BCS system and it was developed over time, the distribution of money changed over time, right?" he said. "What we need to do is if we end up there, that needs to be decided early. I agree with our commissioner that whatever we do it needs to in my view a longer-term deal as opposed to a shorter-term deal so we can lock these things in and give it a chance to work. That includes the distribution of the funds. But that has to be talked about."
First-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas and Nebraska's Tom Osborne, whose school has been in the league for less than a year, both said they believe the champion will eventually be determined by a four-team playoff.
"If you were able to develop a two-game, four-team scenario that would give the masses a feeling that we're getting a better sense of a true national champion, I think that's a good thing," Thomas said.
Osborne noted that the NFL has its highest seeds play at home in the playoffs and doing the same thing in college would solve travel concerns for at least some of the fans.
"I think if a team is ranked higher and has done better in the regular season, it makes some sense to play on their home field even though it may be a cold-weather environment and then play the championship game in a neutral site," Osborne said.
But Osborne, who won three national championships as coach of the Huskers, knows no plan will satisfy everyone.
"Everyone who looks at the plus-one model realizes that if you have four teams in play, you're still going to have the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth teams saying we got a bad deal, we should be one of those four teams," he said. "So there'll be continual unrest until you have some kind of a much larger playoff."
AP Sports Writers Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., and David Mercer in Champaign, Ill., contributed to this report.
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