CHICAGO (AP) -- 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
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
"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."