Will the Rose Bowl Stand in the Way of a Bigger College Football Playoff?

PASADENA, Calif. — Last month, the Big Ten’s influential commissioner, Jim Delany, endorsed discussions to expand the College Football Playoff, just five seasons into the format’s 12-year contract.

Expanding the four-team playoff to six or eight teams is likely to be a hot topic at the meetings many conferences will hold Monday, before that evening’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson in Santa Clara, Calif.

“It’s probably a good idea, given all the discussions and noise around the issue, to have conversations with our colleagues,” Delany told The Athletic.

Delany might have ulterior motives — the Big Ten has now gone two seasons without getting a team into the playoff. But John Swofford, the Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner, echoed Delany last week in Arlington, Tex., before Clemson played in its fourth straight national semifinal.

“What I see is a willingness to evaluate, take a look and gauge what a bigger field would mean,” Swofford said. “What are the implications? And are there ways to make something that I think is outstanding at the moment even better?”

Then there are those who say there are only ways to make a good thing worse.

On New Year’s Day, Kris Mapes, who won a free trip to the Rose Bowl from a raffle at a sports bar in Columbus, Ohio, lauded the purity of this year’s contest while tailgating in the parking lot. With Ohio State playing Washington, the game featured the Big Ten champion versus the Pacific-12 champion — just like in the old days, when, for more than 50 years, beginning in 1947, that matchup was a given.

“With the playoff, there’s always an argument,” Mapes said, referring to the gripes of some teams left out of the four-team College Football Playoff. “When you go Big Ten versus Pac-12 champs, there’s no argument. You’re the winner of the Rose Bowl.”

It was the traditionalist’s response to a question increasingly being given the nontraditional answer. It’s also probably the only easy answer to a complex question.

The most popular proposed reform to the playoff is to expand it further, making the bracket bigger at the expense of traditions like a classic Rose Bowl.

The Rose Bowl is at the center of the playoff debate because of its importance to the Big Ten and the Pac-12, and because it is the oldest and most famous bowl game. That has historically made it the biggest stumbling block to altering the postseason: first with the creation of the Bowl Championship Series for the 1998 season; then, later, with the larger playoff that began with the 2014 season.

“In order to make any type of agreement that led to the B.C.S., you had to have the Rose Bowl be a part of it,” said Roy F. Kramer, the former Southeastern Conference commissioner who helped start the B.C.S., from his home in Tennessee.

Under the current playoff system, the Rose Bowl hosts a national semifinal game every three years, with teams selected by a committee with no regard for conference affiliation. In the other two years, like this one, the Rose Bowl matches a Big Ten team with a Pac-12 team, but it must release those conferences’ champions should they qualify for the playoff. Two years ago, for instance, the Pac-12 champion was placed in a semifinal, so the Rose Bowl featured the conference’s runner-up, Southern California.

During halftime of Tuesday’s Rose Bowl game, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott reiterated his support for the status quo, saying the playoff “works very well for us.”

“Washington had 27,000 tickets to sell. They sold all of them,” Scott said. “They’d never come anywhere close at the Fiesta Bowl, which they were in last year, or the semifinal game two years ago. The fans don’t respond to the semifinal, to the Fiesta Bowl, the same way they do to the Rose Bowl.”

Whether that is gospel or merely a negotiating position remains to be seen. The powers behind the Rose Bowl have bent before and may again.

Scott Jenkins, chairman of the Rose Bowl Management Committee, wore a red blazer as he described the game’s appeal during the second quarter. “Especially if you’re back in the Midwest,” he said, “where it’s probably cold, maybe there’s snow on the ground — it’s New Year’s, you see on television the sun and the mountains and everybody smiling and happy, and bright colors on the field — real grass.”

Jenkins pledged that the Rose Bowl would continue to insist on certain particulars, saying, “If you’re looking at red lines in the sand: Pasadena. Jan. 1. Two o’clock.”

He could have pointed to this season’s television viewership, which was essentially identical to the national semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, according to ESPN.

Yet with the power of college football settled firmly in the South, it is difficult to see an expanded playoff accommodating all of Jenkins’s demands, and nearly impossible to envision one that has room for a Rose Bowl that pits the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions against each other.

The most commonly suggested eight-team system would replace conference championship games with the national quarterfinals, while giving automatic bids to major conference champions — making traditions like a “true” Rose Bowl exceedingly rare.

To many casual fans, who tune into broadcasts of differently colored teams on similarly shaded fields that may as well be in Topeka or Tokyo, turning the Rose Bowl into just another playoff game — or into even more of what they might already consider an exhibition game — would not matter much. For them, expansion will simply more than double the number of playoff games.

That makes expansion advocates on the inside of college football see dollar signs. It also raises the hopes of some unknown number of casual fans that their team can someday sneak into an eight-team tournament, generating unparalleled excitement and entertainment through December.

But Kramer, who as much as any individual is responsible for the advent of a unified postseason, suggested caution.

Expansion, he said, “would be a mistake.” For one, it would devalue the regular season, he argued.

For another, it would threaten the importance of the bowls, which, however meaningless they may be in terms of championships, still hold value for participants and their fans.

“I’ve been to a lot of bowl games,” Kramer said, “and I never saw a team that was disappointed by going to a bowl game.”

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