College football is on the verge of finally having a playoff, its own version of the final four.
For the first time, all the power brokers who run the highest level of the sport are comfortable with the idea of deciding a championship the way it's done from pee-wees to pros. And the way fans have been hoping they would for years.
"Yes, we've agreed to use the P word," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said Thursday.
They want to limit it to four teams. That's for sure. Now they have to figure out how to pick the teams, where and when to play the games and how the bowls do or do not fit in. The new postseason format would go into effect for the 2014 season.
As for the 14-year-old Bowl Championship Series, it's on life support. Any chance that it survives past the next two seasons? "I hope not," said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, who pitched a four-team playoff four years ago but was shot down at this same hotel beachside hotel.
"This is a seismic change for college football," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said after the 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame's athletic director wrapped up three days of meetings in south Florida.
That Hancock actually used the word playoff when describing what was being considered alone signaled a shift in thinking for the BCS. In a memo leading up to these meetings, the term "four-team event" was used to describe creating two national semifinals and a championship game.
Hancock said the commissioners will present a "small number" of options for a four-team playoff to their leagues over the next month or so at conference meetings. He estimated that between two and seven configurations are being considered.
It'll be up to each conference to determine which plan it likes best. The commissioners will get back together in June and try to come up with a final version, and eventually the university presidents will have to sign off on it. Hancock has said they'd like a new format ready for approval by July 4.
And he warned that if no agreement is reached, the fallback could be sticking with an overhauled version of the old system, which aims for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 championship game.
But that's a longshot.
"It's great to get to a point where there seems to be general consensus that a four-team, three-game playoff is the best route to go," Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford said. "The next challenge obviously is figuring out a format that brings consensus where we can truly make that work. The more this narrows, the more challenging it gets."
The first step is figuring out the where and when. The when should be easy.
The commissioners all agree the college football season needs to wrap up as close to Jan. 1 as possible. That would mean semifinals soon after Christmas and the title game within a few days of the calendar flipping.
"One of the goals is to make the postseason a celebration of college football," Slive said. "And to focus in on a reasonable time frame that is consistent with a reasonable bowl season. And then be able to have a championship game and semifinals at a time and a place that would allow us to really celebrate college football at a time when people are thinking about college football, which is in and around the end of December and early January."
Where is the best place to celebrate college football? That figures to be a heated debate.
Slive has made it clear he's not a fan of playing semifinals on campus, a plan the Big Ten has presented and the Pac-12 supports.
"I'm a big proponent of it," Scott said. "That was the choice we made in our conference with our championship game. Collegiate atmosphere. Guaranteed sellout. We've said all along preserving the regular season is important. What better way to emphasize the importance of the regular season then having a chance to earn a home game? It's a proven NFL model."
Slive prefers playing the games at neutral sites, the way the NCAA basketball tournament does.
That leads to the question: How do the bowls fit in?
The national championship game has shifted between the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Rose bowl sites during the 14 years the BCS has been in existence. First, the bowl itself was the championship game. Then the BCS moved to a five-game model in which the championship was played after the bowls but at one of those four stadiums.
The commissioners are considering allowing the bowls to be involved, but not necessarily calling the three playoff games "bowls."
The Fiesta Bowl would be fine not hosting a bowl in certain years, if it can host a playoff game. On the other hand, the Rose Bowl would prefer to just be the Rose Bowl, sticking with its traditional matchup of Big Ten champion vs. Pac-12 champion on New Year's Day. But those league champions will often be heading to the playoffs in a new format.
"They definitely want to be part of the system," Scott said of the Rose Bowl.
The commissioners won't even get into how they pick the teams until after they have presented a format to the presidential oversight committee.
"The whole topic of selection and who would get in is something that we've really parked for now," Scott said. "We realize that's going to require a whole lot more debate and study."
Among those debates: Slive prefers the four top-ranked teams regardless of conferences in the playoffs. Scott likes the idea of taking the top four conference champions as a way of moving away from the subjectivity of polls that dominant the current BCS standings.
Much to be decided, but at least everybody is talking the same language: playoffs.
"I've always tried not to use the dreaded P-word," Slive said. "But now we're all using it. So what the heck?"