CFB adapts in times of major change

College football these days lives in zero gravity. It's not that the playing rules of the game are changing. It's that the rules of intercollegiate athletics themselves are no longer connected to Mother Earth.

In the last week alone, half of the FBS took flight, ready to start delivering more benefits to its student-athletes; one day later, a federal judge in California ruled in the O'Bannon case that football and men's basketball players should be compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses to the tune of at least $5,000 per year.

The NCAA, like a coach down five touchdowns and unwilling to pull his starters, will appeal the O'Bannon ruling. The changes won't take effect for two years, which is a good thing because, in the immediacy of the ruling, no one is sure about how to implement the most radical change to intercollegiate athletics in recent memory.

Those two events have overshadowed the arrival of the College Football Playoff, otherwise known as the Christmas, Hanukkah and Fourth of July of every college football fan. For the first time in history, the season will conclude with a four-team playoff. That appears to be a cause for public celebration, even if Joe Fan remains unsure of how the College Football Playoff is different from the BCS, or why Condoleezza Rice's opinion of Ohio State is suddenly more important than his.

College football is at a crossroads, and its GPS isn't getting a clear signal about where to go.

"Dean Acheson was secretary of state after the conclusion of World War II," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said. "He witnessed firsthand the immediate postwar political and economic reconstruction that led to the new balance of power -- the Cold War. Mr. Acheson liked to say that he was 'present at creation of the new world order.'

"After the NCAA activity of Thursday and Friday," Luck said. "I feel like Mr. Acheson."

In recent years, offseasons have filled with stories of serial child abuse, illicit tattoos, realignment, vacated Heismans, boosters gone wild and more realignment. In this offseason, we saw a Heisman winner vacate a Publix with some crab legs, and, surely by coincidence, a decision to feed student-athletes three meals a day. We had a unionization vote, and a lament, without supporting evidence, from Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby that cheating has become as easy as second-and-1.

And then, in the space of 24 hours, three weeks before the season began, the Earth moved. With that in mind, let's all take a deep breath, a step back and a long view. The changes are huge, and, if past is prologue, their effect on what happens on the field will be -- hold your breath -- barely noticeable.

At some point in the mid-to-late 1990s, a group of Division I-AA (now FCS) schools proposed that the classification be eliminated and that all of Division I play football under the same umbrella, as happens in every other sport. It appeared to be the smaller programs' method of trying to attach themselves to the money that had begun pouring into the coffers of the larger schools.

You would think that the powers that be at the time would have been incensed. But when someone asked Roy Kramer, then the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, about the proposal, he all but shrugged. Pressed for an answer, Kramer responded with a question.

"Who were the best programs in college football 30 years ago?" Kramer asked. "Alabama, Michigan, Texas.

"Who are the best programs in college football today?" Kramer continued. "Alabama, Michigan, Texas."

In the 1950s, when players received "laundry money" and the NCAA had no scholarship limits, national champions included Auburn, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oklahoma, all of whom played in BCS bowls a year ago.

In the 1970s -- when the NCAA set scholarship limits at 105 per season, teams rarely played on television and cheating began to spread throughout the major conferences -- national champions included Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and USC. All four programs have won or played for a national championship in the past decade.

In the 1990s, when the NCAA reduced the scholarship limit to 85 and the major conferences formulated what would become the BCS, the national champions included Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Nebraska, all of whom have won a national championship or had a 10-win season in this decade.

If a program has a fan base, tradition and a history of success, its stewards will adapt to the rules of the day and to the economic demands. Some schools choose to fall out of the race. The Ivy League did so after World War II. The service academies scaled back in the 1960s. Other programs, mostly in NFL cities, wanted to keep up but couldn't.

Here's what you need to remember: In 1993, the year Penn State joined the Big Ten, seven major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Eight, Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and SWC) featured 66 members. Twenty-one years later, the seven major conferences have whittled to five. But they include 64 teams (drop Houston, Rice, SMU and Temple; add Utah and Louisville).

No program is impervious to poor leadership or ineffective coaching. Tennessee has spun its wheels in the mud of mediocrity for several seasons; Washington, six years removed from an 0-12 season, climbed slowly back into national prominence. Auburn went from 3-9 to :13 short of a national championship.

And now the FBS has split in half. The aforementioned five conferences and Notre Dame -- 65 schools in all -- have separated themselves from 63 other FBS schools. Among those left behind, only Army (last in 1945) and BYU (1984) ever won a national title.

The state of intercollegiate athletics is chaos. Any official who claims to know how the NCAA manual will read in five years is telling you a story. The playoff has become yesterday's innovation before it even gets off the ground. But as the new college football world order asserts itself, Tennessee still will have checkerboard end zones. Michigan will still wear maize and blue. Oregon will still wear God knows what.

In times of fundamental change, there is comfort in the familiar.