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Systematic change

College football should play a true national title game after the bowls

Posted: Friday December 12, 2003 2:35PM; Updated: Friday December 19, 2003 3:11PM
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It has been a lousy week for college football. Long gone are the days when writers and broadcasters -- and I was one of them -- could play the "mythical" (that's what it was called) national championship system for laughs and get away with it. Long gone are the days when we could argue that controversy was good for the sport and thus dismiss the gaping holes in the lack of a system that guarantees selection of a national champion on the field.

This week the jokes stopped being funny because, at long last, the BCS completely crumbled under the weight of its own mainframes. You all know the story by now, how USC wound up ranked No. 1 in both the AP and coaches' polls and yet just No. 3 in the BCS rankings, and thus will not play in the official national championship game.


However, the injustice here is not that USC is being left out of the Sugar Bowl. Don't cry for the Trojans. They get to play in the Rose Bowl in SoCal, against a red-hot Michigan team that will give them all they can handle -- and if USC wins, we who vote in the AP poll will award them with half the national championship. Another banner will hang in Heritage Hall. The Trojans will be just fine and their fans will remember the national title long after they've forgotten the BCS controversy.

The real injustice here is that there are three one-loss teams and no sensible means to separate them. This scenario has always been the BCS' worst nightmare. In this case, USC is ranked No. 1 in the polls because its loss is most distant, back on the last weekend in September. LSU is No. 2 because the Tigers lost in mid-October. Oklahoma dropped to third because the Sooners laid an egg in the Big 12 championship game in December. In the rush to condemn computers, critics have forgotten the grand flaw in human poll rankings. None of us who votes has ever known how to weigh a September loss against one in December. The logical thing would be to assume that the later the loss, the more damaging, and that a team on a season-ending win streak is more deserving of a higher ranking.

But that's flawed, too. Kansas State was on a roll when it beat Oklahoma last Saturday. At any rate, the point is this: Nobody truly knows which of the three one-loss teams is weakest. (And, in fact, whether Michigan is, right now, better than any of them.)

Hence, the system will slowly be overhauled. Not for at least a couple more years, as the current BCS contract is played out, but eventually. It is most likely that we will see a championship game played after the bowls, rather than a full-blown playoff. That may happen someday, but university presidents and big-conference commissioners will fight it for a decade.

It would be only a small change and it would serve the sport and public. The national champion needs to be chosen on the field. However, there will be losses. Almost any suggestion of how to fix the BCS recommends that a national title game incorporate "the bowl system." In other words, play the Rose and Sugar Bowls and then match the winners in, say, the Cotton Bowl. And then rotate the host bowl.

I don't think this can work. Why? You have to understand the nature of bowls. They aren't just football games, they are civic events, built around the concept that truckloads of money-spending fans will come to a bowl site for a week, call it a vacation and then attend the game at the end. The actual game is just the culmination. You at home might only tune in to watch the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, but fans from Oklahoma and LSU will be roaming Bourbon Street for days in advance. And the money those fans spend is what makes the bowls viable. A game alone would not do it.

If a bowl becomes just a national semifinal game, it will be diminished to the point of economic irrelevance. Say Michigan is playing in the Rose Bowl. Do fans buy their tickets to Pasadena right away or wait to see if the Wolverines win and make it to the Big Game? In that case, maybe they'd just buy a cheap plane ticket to the West Coast for the Rose Bowl and then vacation in Dallas for a week. The bowls' concern -- and it's valid -- is that fans can't spend two weeks chasing their team around the country.

What about the NCAA basketball tournament, you ask? Fans travel three times for that, don't they? Sure they do, but only for a long weekend. And regional and sub-regional tournaments are not incorporated events with accompanying parades and banquets. Bowl games are. The BCS has already diminished non-title bowls. A championship bowl game might just kill the major bowls.

How about this: Play the true national title game after the bowls. And don't make it a bowl. Make it the "National Championship Game." The NCAA would run it, so the money would flow outside the BCS conferences, but at least they would have already collected their bowl money. Put the game up for annual bids, like the Super Bowl. Sell tickets a year in advance, like the Final Four does, and allow corporations to buy blocks and do hospitality. Pitch it as a weekend, not a week. No parade. No Queen. Just a big game.

It wouldn't be a bowl, but it could possibly be super.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.