Pac-12 cautious about playoff plans

PHOENIX -- Pac-12 coaches and athletic directors generally expressed optimism over the expected move toward a four-team college football playoff in 2014, but there was plenty of caution as well as a smack of defiance during the conference's spring meetings at the posh Arizona Biltmore Hotel.

Some, such as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Washington State coach Mike Leach, don't think four teams is enough. Some worried about losing the bowl games, particularly the Pac-12's longstanding and storied connection to the Rose Bowl. And just about everyone was concerned about the selection process.

That defiance? It's rooted in the general belief that some other conferences excel at masterful scheduling (read: avoiding challenging competition) and massaging public perception (read: creating a consensus of superiority based significantly on subjective judgments).

If the Pac-12 and Big 12 play nine conference games, and the ACC, SEC and Big Ten play eight, then those conferences are playing by different standards that have myriad measurable effects. If one conference features a majority of teams playing at least one or two tough nonconference foes a year and another features a majority of teams playing four directional schools, then those conferences are playing by different standards that have myriad measurable effects.

Even if one of those conferences has won six consecutive national titles.

"You need some competitive equity within all of the conferences if you are going to do this thing," USC athletic director Pat Haden said. "But if you're going to have a conference, it seems to me you should be playing your conference opponents rather than non-conference opponents. In USC and Stanford's case we really have 10 conference games if you include Notre Dame, because we both have a long history of playing Notre Dame."

While the sentiment is strong among the coaches to reduce the Pac-12 conference schedule to eight games, sentiments mostly lean the other way among the athletic directors. The topic was discussed this week, but commissioner Larry Scott confirmed that there is no short-term plan to reduce the conference slate to eight games.

A big reason for that: There's a wait-and-see attitude on the details of the four-team playoff. While, based on media reports, there seems to be considerable momentum behind incorporating the bowls into the new system, there is little consensus on the selection process for the four participating teams.

That is where the coaches have a dog in this fight. They don't really care where they play, but they do want to know how they get there.

"I'd hate to go to just one little group or one committee that picks the teams," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I think it's way too important. The more people you have involved, probably the better."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly pointed out that if there was a final four in place last fall, then Stanford would have been in and his Ducks would have been out, despite their decisive win in Palo Alto. The biggest reason for that? Oregon lost to LSU in the season-opener, giving it one more defeat than Stanford. If the Ducks had played San Jose State, they almost certainly would have finished fourth.

"There seems like there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered before anybody can say, 'Hey, that's a great idea,'" Kelly said.

Therein lies the caution. And the defiance. There was a clear undercurrent with Scott, the coaches and athletic directors that they didn't want to be pushed into anything, particularly when the Pac-12 (and Big Ten) are being asked to sacrifice something -- their tie to the Rose Bowl -- while other conferences aren't. There's a widespread perception that the BCS standings favored an SEC way of doing things, and played a role in that conference's recent dominance. So how does it help the Pac-12 if the new format still relies on a BCS-like evaluation?

There's a concern that if, say, Oregon and Alabama both finish 11-1 that the Crimson Tide would benefit from a "just because" edge, one based entirely on a subjective judgment of SEC superiority. Such a judgment could give the SEC a near-annual second team in a final four while knocking the Pac-12 -- and other major conferences -- out entirely.

"I think a lot of people are going to want the human element out of it, because it would be hard for humans to make those decisions and not be biased in some way," USC coach Lane Kiffin said.

Which is why some, such as Whittingham, favor an expanded playoff.

"From my perspective, you can take it out of the hands of voting and more to on-field performance," he said.

Said Leach, "I'd like to see it more than four. My suspicion is eventually there will be. Because, five years ago, if somebody had said this was going to happen, the room would have started laughing."

Meetings here were long, and there were plenty of other topics, from officiating, to bowls, to scheduling. But the back-and-forth on the potential new playoff scenarios was the centerpiece of the week, at least in terms of intrigue.

Change is coming. That's almost certain. But the process this summer of putting together a concrete plan among entities with competing agendas figures to be contentious.

Said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, "I think there are still a lot of conversations to go."