The Big Ten entered the college football playoff discussion hoping to remove a label often applied to the league.
"We're trying to not be the barrier," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke recently told ESPN.com.
The Big Ten and its longtime commissioner, Jim Delany, have long been portrayed as the primary obstructionists to a college football playoff. The league has been steadfast in its desire to preserve the regular season and the prestige of the Rose Bowl game as much as possible.
But sensing the national momentum building for a playoff, the Big Ten shifted its stance this winter. The league entered the discussions much like it did with its recent expansion study -- wanting to consider all ideas and proposals without committing to one until it had to. Delany and other league officials have voiced support for certain elements and models along the way -- campus sites for games, access for conference champions -- but contrary to what you might have read, the Big Ten, unlike the SEC, hasn't publicly taken an official position on playoff specifics.
As a negotiating strategy, the Big Ten's approach could be called shrewd. Why put all your cards on the table right away? But from a communications standpoint, the league has come across as wishy-washy, out of touch or obstructive, depending on your perspective. The Big Ten did itself no favors last week by beginning a conference call with national media members by listing its preferences for the status quo and a plus-one model ahead of the seemingly inevitable four-team playoff model.
Why would the league reinforce the perception (often untrue) that it's reluctant and stuck in the past? Beats me.
But beneath the posturing, the Big Ten advocated for a plan that could end up unifying the leagues when they meet this week and next week in Chicago. The Big Ten put its support behind a selection committee to determine the four teams in a playoff. Delany, like SEC commissioner Mike Slive, thinks a playoff "should be the four best teams." But Delany went on to add that the current BCS standings components -- polls and computers -- aren't the best ways to determine the most deserving teams. He cited common criticisms of a poll ("it measures teams before they play a game") and the computer systems, which lack transparency and don't correctly weigh important factors like margin of victory and strength of schedule.
A selection committee isn't a perfect solution and would create some potential obstacles, but at least it could judge teams after the regular season, while taking important factors into account.
The Big Ten wants a committee to value conference championships. It wants a committee to value schedule strength, road wins and head-to-head victories. It wants a committee to take into account factors such as injuries. The Big Ten wants a committee to look at Oregon and Stanford from 2011 -- Oregon won the Pac-12 championship and crushed Stanford in Stanford Stadium, yet finished one spot behind the Cardinal in the final BCS standings -- and send Oregon to the playoff. The Pac-12 presidents feel exactly the same way.
The closest the Big Ten has come to an official position is this: It wants a selection committee with certain guidelines to determine the four teams in a playoff, which will be held inside the existing bowl structure with the championship game bid out nationally. There's support for a hybrid model that would send the top-three-ranked league champs and one wild-card team, such as No. 2 Alabama from last year, to a playoff. But the Big Ten isn't completely wedded to this model and probably could settle for a selection committee with guidelines.
The Big Ten also wants the process to be transparent, which is a welcome change of pace from the BCS era.
"The most important thing is to be transparent about the difficulties associated with the 1-4, conference champions, where the independents fit in," Delany said. "... The process has got to be more transparent and more open."
The selection committee idea shouldn't be that hard of a sell to other leagues. A committee that values conference championships will sit well with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC. A committee with the flexibility to choose the "best four teams," based on a variety of factors, should appease the SEC and Big 12, not to mention Notre Dame and some of the other leagues. Every major conference can cite at least one instance during the BCS era when the current ratings formula hurt one of its teams.
Delany and the Big Ten have put a lot of ideas on the table in recent months. The selection committee with guidelines appears to be the most proactive.
If the Big Ten sticks to it this week and next, rather than posture about unrealistic preferences, it could emerge as more of a unifier than a barrier.