CHICAGO — As he watched the BCS championship game last season, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook could not help but wonder:
What if a playoff system were in place? Would the Spartans be playing for the biggest prize?
No need to wonder anymore. The old BCS system is out. A four-team playoff to determine a national champion is being implemented this season, and that could open some more opportunities for the Big Ten and the other four power conferences.
“Hopefully, this will give everyone an equal opportunity to play for a national championship, which everyone wants,” Cook said Tuesday as the Big Ten wrapped up its two-day media event.
It was a chance the Spartans would have loved to have last season.
They went 13-1, beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and knocked off Stanford to capture the Rose Bowl. But when the BCS matchup arrived, it was Florida State taking on Auburn.
“You’re watching Auburn and Florida State and (thinking), ‘You know what? If we were playing either one of these teams, we feel like we could have won,” Cook said.
The last Big Ten team to win a national championship was Ohio State in 2002, and no one from the conference has played for one since the 2007 season, when the Buckeyes lost their second straight BCS title game.
Michigan State comes into this season with big goals. So does Ohio State after going 24-2 overall and 16-0 in regular-season conference play its first two years under coach Urban Meyer, but it’s not just the traditional powerhouses. Competitive programs that aren’t quite marquee names see an opportunity now that a playoff system is in place.
How about a national championship for Northwestern at some point? To coach Pat Fitzgerald, that’s now a possibility and his reasoning goes beyond unbridled enthusiasm.
He sees a more even field and a bigger opportunity for his program under the new system. A big reason is the initial Top 25 released by the selection committee in late October will be based solely on performance to that point. The BCS Top 25 was released around the same time, but it incorporated the coaches and Harris polls, which had preseason rankings. That, in turn, might have skewed the strength of schedule component.
“Up until this year, I don’t know if we did (have a shot),” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know if we did. I’m not sexy. We’re not sexy, you know? Our fans don’t click on websites enough, on dot-com sites. All that nonsense is gone. It’s all gone, and I’m not saying the BCS was bad. You’ve got to win, period, and I like it. I think everybody in this room should feel real confident that if you win the Big Ten championship game with a competitive schedule (you’ll be in the playoff). And you’ve got to win now. Don’t think in any of these conferences that you’re going to be a nine-win conference champion or a 10-win conference champion and you’re going to be in the final four; it ain’t gonna happen.”
Under the new system, Fitzgerald said, strength of schedule becomes a more fluid element. Playing an opponent that is unexpectedly struggling could hurt it. Then again, a team on the rise might give it a boost. And what about a team that’s short-handed because of injuries?
“We play a team in November that may have won eight games already but lost two or their of their star players in one of those games, and now we beat them by three touchdowns,” Fitzgerald said. “Now, the narrative from you guys is Michigan didn’t have A, B and C, that’s why Northwestern won by three touchdowns. That’s what’s going to be interesting to me, how those things influence it as opposed to what the strength of your conference has been in the past.”
The new system probably won’t solve everything. There will be that fifth — and sixth, seventh or eighth — team that feels it deserves to be in the field.
For fans, travel could be an issue. If they go to the first playoff game, will they be able to afford a second trip? And if they decide to wait a round, their team might be eliminated.
The playoffs could also be a grind for the players, Meyer said. Ohio State could go from playing rival Michigan to the Big Ten title game, a semifinal and a national championship.
“That’s a tough road,” said Meyer, who’s in favor of the playoffs. “I think the teams that play a rival, then a championship game … at Florida, we played FSU and then played the SEC championship game, then played the title game. Now you add one more after that. I’m not sure you’ve got enough steam in the engine to finish that game.”