LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- With the ratification of a new four-team playoff format for college football on Tuesday comes change, not all of it fully clear.
For the University of Louisville, given that it remains outside of the emerging "power" conferences -- the Southeastern, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12, and to a lesser degree, the Atlantic Coast -- there are even more questions.
How will the revenue split work? How will the playoff selection committee choose the four playoff teams? How will the premier bowl lineup work, what will be its payout structure and selection process?
It's hard to arrive at a complete picture where U of L and other Big East schools are concerned, but we can examine the outlines. Here are some key points to consider.
1). There is some good news. First, for all programs, finishing in the top four is easier than finishing in the top two. When all is said and done, regardless of conference affiliation, if you're a good enough football team playing a good enough schedule to finish in the top four, you're going to have to get consideration, which at the very least is more democratic than the system that is fading away. Granted, the deck will be stacked against teams from outside the Big Four conferences, if only from a strength of schedule standpoint. But a playoff, regardless of makeup, gives all teams a measure of self-determination and a chance to build a good enough team and strong enough schedule to make a run. As long as access is not barred for teams from outside the power conferences -- and in this scenario, it is not -- the chance is there. This alone makes anyone claiming that staying in the Big East takes U of L "back to the C-USA days" incorrect in a significant way.
2). It's more about team than about conference. There's a reason Boise State would have second thoughts about joining the Big East with the playoff discussion under way. Conference affiliation becomes less important for those outside the emerging big four conferences. Conference affiliation, though important from a revenue standpoint, guarantees you nothing when it comes to finishing in that top four. You can junk the old paradigm of "automatic qualifier" and "BCS conference." In the new system, you're looking at six "major" bowl games instead of four. In addition to the two national semifinals, four other major bowls are planned for the top tier. If this is the case, it will be an improvement and will provide more access to a wider variety of teams. One analysis provided to the BCS Presidential oversight committee said that if the new system had been in place for the last 12 years, and bowl slots had been awarded using BCS Ratings, five additional "non-BCS" teams would've wound up in the top tier bowls. (And though this new system is not, and should not be seen as, a substitute for a larger playoff giving some non-traditional teams a shot to settle it on the field, it is a start.) But being about team more than conference cuts both ways. Here's a sobering thought for the Big East. Think about 2009, when Cincinnati finished undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the BCS Rankings. Most analyses are that the Bearcats would've been left out of a playoff, because of strength of schedule. If you're not in a power conference, you're going to have to get very aggressive about non-conference scheduling, and that is usually going to mean hitting the road -- if you can find elite teams who will even schedule those games.
3). Conference shifting might not be over. While all signs (with the exception of a few bloggers who stir up speculation periodically to generate blog hits) point to U of L remaining in the Big East for at least the short-term future, the makeup of the Big 12 still could be affected by this playoff setup and details yet to be hammered out. If the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are setting their titles via championship games, are they likely to let the Big 12 escape having one of its own? The Big 12 could face the possibility of needing to expand one more time to bring itself into line with the other major conferences, with the additional revenue coming from the new playoff scheme helping to make the ultimate bottom line work out.
4). The financial factor is not what it once was. When U of L was climbing to reach a "BCS Conference" it had an athletic budget that ranked about 50th in the nation. Now, thanks to gains in basketball and football, it ranked last year in the top 15 in athletic revenue -- without being in a league that hands out a huge check at the end of every season. By necessity, U of L has found a way to get itself into a competitive financial tier without help from major conference dollars. The paycheck from the Big 12 would be nice. But U of L already is playing in the budgetary ballpark of many of those major schools. The big issue, then, is access. And that issue may be solved by the new structure. Which is more difficult? Winning the Big 12, or winning the Big East and building a non-conference schedule tough enough to make a push toward the top four? Both present major challenges, but both provide access.
5). Quality is key. With two years until the start of the new arrangement, U of L would seem to have everything in place but conference affiliation. Its team is built around juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has hopes of being a Heisman-type player (and don't forget the value of a marquee player in being part of a playoff picture). The Cardinals' coaching staff has remained largely intact over three years, and Charlie Strong's recruiting message continues to resonate impressively in Florida and other areas of the southeast. So what else needs to happen? U of L's attendance needs to improve. It needs to demonstrate the ability to fill its stadium on a regular basis. This not only will increase football revenues, it will begin to help U of L establish a football identity. Second, it needs to find a way to schedule some heavy-hitters in the non-conference. (And it wouldn't hurt to have rival Kentucky climb the ladder a bit in the SEC.) To do this, U of L may have to give up a road trip in some years without a return game, something that administration and coaches have been absolutely opposed to in the past. If given opportunities for major neutral-field games or early-season marquee matchups on a single-game basis, the new format might force them to rethink that position.
In the end, the ideal situation for U of L would've been to already have been admitted to a power conference. But even though the system still is weighted toward those programs, there also never has been as much access to the top tier as there should be in the emerging arrangement. The key for U of L is to be in position to crack that tier, no matter what its conference home might be.