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This Week In The Pac-12: Playoffs Killed The Rose Bowl?

The day the dream died?
The day the dream died?

The Rose Bowl, our White Whale. For many Cal fans, it’s the raison d’être of football fandom.

But as we all know, what it takes to get to the Rose Bowl has been changing lately. The advent of the BCS meant that a team could win the conference and go to the National title game – or a team could fail to win the conference and still end up in Pasadena. The creation of the Pac-12 adds an extra game that must be won earn the trip. And now, with the BCS and conference commissioners finally bowing to the inevitable, might a four team playoff change the calculus once again?

A four team playoff does seem to be an inevitability, although hopefully it’s more inevitable than the Pac-16 was a few summers ago. Of course, that doesn’t mean conferences won’t be wrangling about various mundane details, like that crazy Big 10 proposal that attempted to preserve the Rose Bowl and their spot in any playoff deal. The relevant details:

  • It’ll be a 4 team ‘event*’
  • The semi-finals may or may not be played on campus or on neutral fields
  • Nobody is entirely sure how the teams will be selected.

OK, so maybe we don’t know very much. But it’s a change. And the larger question is "What about the Rose Bowl?" There appear to be two potential answers to that question

1) The Rose Bowl is just another bowl outside of the playoff, fighting over all of the non playoff teams like everybody else.

In this scenario, I imagine the Rose Bowl will get unintentionally degraded to a matchup between the 2nd place Pac-12 and Big 10 teams. If the commissioners require a team to have won their conference championship to earn a spot in the 4 team playoff, that means that in most years the four teams will come out of this 5 team group**:

ACC champion
Big 10 champion
Big 12 champion
Pac 12 champion
SEC champion

Sure, every once in a while a team from the even-weaker Big East or a smaller school like Boise St. might make a claim. But it’s going to be the major conference champions the majority of the time. And that means that if Cal wins the Pac-12, they’re very very likely to end up in the playoffs. So unless the Rose Bowl means so much that you’re willing to root for Cal to, say, lose the Pac-12 title game, a trip to Pasadena is really a consolation prize. The best consolation prize in the country, but still.

2) The Rose Bowl always hosts a semi-final game

And perhaps there will be a provision that if a Pac-12 and/or Big 10 team earn a playoff berth those teams are automatically placed in the Rose Bowl. That sounds appealing but also sets up the possibility that Cal wins the Pac-12 but fails to make the playoffs and thus is denied both the playoffs and the Rose Bowl, a nightmare possibility too cruel to contemplate.

There’s also the possibility that the Rose Bowl always hosts the title game, although I’m guessing east coast teams (SEC!) wouldn’t be pleased with their national title game always hosted thousands of miles away. Plus the Pac-12 and Big 10 wouldn’t want to force members to make the playoffs and then beat somebody else just to make the Rose Bowl.

The bottom line? The traditional Rose Bowl is probably dead. It’s been on life support for a decade, and the plug has finally, mercifully been pulled. And at the risk of incurring the wrath of the commentariat, I’m OK with that.

Cal fans, I think it might be time to change our mantra. I know, this is like asking cookie monster to give up the chocolate chip, like asking USC not to cheat, like asking Stanford fans to be. It’s not easy to change a part of our fandom that seems so immutably fundamental. But for so long we’ve been focused on the reward rather than the accomplishment. For decades Cal would go to the Rose Bowl if they won the conference. The Rose Bowl part may be shifting, but the conference part isn’t. Perhaps rather than ‘Rose Bowl before I die,’ the phrase should become ‘Win the Pac-12 before I die." If our Bears win the Pac-12 but don’t go to the Rose Bowl, the accomplishment of the players won’t have been diminished in the slightest.

Besides . . . since when is a trip to L.A. a worthy reward for a championship season?

I was raised pining for the Rose Bowl, but I’ll admit that my antipathy towards the concept has grown considerably over the last few years as the increasing graft and financial boondoggles within the bowl system have been revealed. The nostalgic pull of tradition is a strong one, but the BCS didn’t kill that tradition on its own. The bowls played their part and as a result have created a tradition of financial fraud that I don’t feel the least bit nostalgic about. I’m skeptical that a playoff will fix the many problems with college football’s post season, but anything that reduces the influence of the bowls is a step in the right direction.

So many things to talk about. Items for you to answer in the comments:

1) 4 team playoff – the perfect solution? A step in the right direction? An affront to tradition?
2) Neutral sites or on-campus sites for semi-final games – which side are you on?
3) Should playoff participants be required to win their conference to participate?
4) Generally speaking, how should playoff participants be picked and seeded? A goofy computer forumula? The polls? A selection committee?
5) What should happen to the Rose Bowl? Are you bothered by the potential changes to the holiest of holies?
6) Do you agree or disagree with my assertion that Cal fans need to move past the ‘Rose Bowl Before I die’ mantra?

*Yes, ‘event.’ The various powers that propped up the BCS have been anti-playoff for so long that now that they have finally given in they still refuse to use the word.

**I'm not counting a decimated Big East at this point, but I suppose that could change.