UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Bielema believes playoff system a step forward

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Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema sounded excited to be a part of college football history with the advent of a four-team playoff that will replace the BCS model beginning with the 2014 season.

Doing the simple math, though, he expressed the one obvious concern that is shared by all of his fraternity brothers in the coaching profession. There is a concern, you ask?

"Yeah, if I'm No. 5,'' he said, grinning. "Everybody used to talk about the No. 3 and No. 4 teams that didn't get to play for the championship. Now they're going to be talking about No. 5 and No. 6.

"I think it's probably legit to say that every year you're going to have teams that can play the excuse game on why they should be there.

"But to have four teams that will have a shot to win it all now is really cool.''

The Rose Bowl will not only be part of the six-bowl rotation for the two semifinal games, but it will be locked into a 4 p.m. (CST) kickoff on Jan. 1 through 2026 (Jan. 2 if New Year's Day is a Sunday).

The Tournament of Roses also announced Thursday that the Rose Bowl would continue to honor a Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup in those years that it's not playing host to a national semifinal.

That type of stability and/or continuity is priceless, Bielema pointed out.

"Of course, we're all a little biased,'' he conceded. "I've been there as a player and a coach. I know the Rose Bowl is a sacred, hallowed ground for college football, especially for the Big Ten.''

The new system will render polls virtually meaningless in their current form, thereby eliminating what has always been a healthy source of debate and controversy for fans, players and coaches alike.

The preseason polls, in particular, were problematic; especially from Bielema's viewpoint. The Badgers were off the radar in 2006, his first season; yet fought all the way back to a No. 5 final ranking.

"I was a new head coach with a new team and people had questions,'' he recalled. "But we finished 12-1 and I felt like we were a BCS (bowl) level team (that had to settle for something less).

"I've always been in favor of ranking teams later in the year because you have a chance then to truly find out who has good teams -- and it's not based on just good projections.''

College football is expected to adopt the NCAA's basketball model for a selection committee, which would include a collection of current athletic directors and league commissioners.

That would eliminate the importance of two BCS staples: the USA Today Coaches Poll and the Harris Poll. There have been reports, too, that the tweaked system will rank teams by tiers; another notable departure from the past.

Winning a conference title will carry weight with the committee, especially if teams are comparable in other criteria. Strength of schedule will also become a key component in the equation.

Bielema, for one, has long been an advocate of spacing out the non-conference opponents, as opposed to playing all four games at the front of the schedule in advance of Big Ten competition.

Alabama, for example, will open SEC West play the third week of the season: Sept. 15 against Arkansas. The Tide will then go out of conference for Western Carolina on Nov. 17.

"Playing those (FCS) teams is just a fact of life,'' Bielema said. "But I think a conference's strength of schedule is going to be a big part (of the new formula).''

One of football's greatest strengths, he noted, is still the regular season.

"I hear basketball coaches talking all the time about how they've got to win six games at the end of the year to win a national championship,'' he said. "Well, we've got to win 13, sometimes 14.

"I like that element to our sport -- the importance of the regular season -- which is unprecedented in the world of college sports. I like the hype around our college game day.''

By extending the season with a playoff, some questions have been raised about the physical toll that the extra games might take on those players who are involved, however many are exposed.

It might be the greatest argument, in fact, against the potential for an eight- or 16-team playoff. University presidents have addressed these concerns by locking into a four-team playoff for 12 years.

Bielema, the quintessential player's coach, recognizes the risks.

"I think we're at the limit right now,'' he said of the 15 games that the two finalists would play. "We're maxing them out. If we did anything more, we'd have to change the way we train them.''

Added Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash, "These guys are still 18- to 21-year-old student-athletes and there's already a lot on their plates.''

Even though it will only impact a few teams, Ash was pleased to hear the semifinals will be staged on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day and the championship on the second Monday of January.

"These kids are here all summer and show up for training camp in August,'' Ash said. "They're here all fall. They don't get a Thanksgiving break. They don't get a Christmas break.

"If you were to take away their winter break -- between the first and second semesters (in January) -- it would have been really tough on the student-athlete.''

Ash, like Bielema, is excited to see how the playoff is going to fall into place logistically.

"You knew it was going to come and I'm kind of curious to see how it will all work out once we get to that point,'' Ash said. "Change is good, and it kind of seemed like it was going in that direction.''

Expanding to four teams that will compete for the championship is one thing. "But honestly,'' Ash said, "there are probably only about 20 to 25 teams who have a shot of getting there.''

Wisconsin has definitely put itself in that company. Over the last three years, the Badgers are among the winningest programs in the nation; their overall run includes 10 straight bowl appearances.

UW offensive line coach Mike Markuson believes the playing field nationally is more level than people think, despite the fact that the SEC has won the last six national championships.

Markuson coached at Mississippi and Arkansas, so he has a good frame of reference.

"College football is every changing and a playoff is something that people have been screaming about for awhile,'' Markuson said. "To me, it's going to give somebody a chance that was maybe hovering out there (among the top teams) and thinking, 'Why not us? Why weren't we involved?'''

Given that backdrop, he added, "I'm excited to see what it's all about up here (in the Big Ten).''

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