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So as I wrote two weeks ago, I'm a big fan of college football, even if it's governed by a broken entity (the NCAA) that has nonsensically embraced a non-playoff system (the BCS) to determine its champion, contrary to the way every other collegiate sport -- not to mention every other division of college football -- anoints its titleist. A system that depends solely on two undefeateds emerging from "major" conferences to stage a faux title game is laughable, and a simple eight-team playoff that incorporated the money-bequeathing major bowls might solve things.
And then my Sports Illustrated-building neighbor (and formerly one of the nicer dudes I'd met in the business), SI On Campus columnist John Walters, threw a haymaker at me and my kind for daring to suggest that Division I college football's continued laboring in the Stone Age was unfortunate.
I'll nutshell my new D-I playoff scenario: The top 12 teams -- as determined by a BCS-like formula, including a coaches' poll requiring all 117 D-I coaches to cast PUBLIC ballots -- qualify. The top four receive byes, and become host teams for four geographically logical bowl sites -- allowing fans of said teams to make travel plans three weeks out -- while incorporating one of the four major (read: BCS) bowls, on a rotating basis. The bottom eight would play in four second-tier bowls two weeks prior to the quarterfinals, slotted No. 5 vs. No. 12, No. 6 vs. No. 11, etc.; the winners would then move on to the quarters, seeded No. 1 vs. lowest surviving seed, etc. The semis would be held a week later at two of the remaining three major bowl sites, combining with the NFL divisional playoffs to feed a ravenous, football-mad nation. Finally, the following Saturday would offer a true national championship game at the last remaining major bowl site (again, determined by a four-year rotation).
Among its myriad improvements, my system would abolish the conference championship games -- ridiculous, redundant contests that skew competitive balance -- while including unbeatens from mid-majors (such as this year's Utahs and Boise States), once-beatens from premier conferences (Cal, Texas) and even a Cinderella or two (Louisville).
All of which means pure apoplexy to my man Walters, who considers himself a "true college football fan ... hopelessly in love" with the sport. The problem is, such intense ardor too often blinds the besotted, not letting them see the truth of the matter. So, for those of you too angry to click on Walters' screed -- and I don't blame you one bit -- allow me to parry his paraphrased thrusts, in bloodless self-defense (remember who started this, Walters):
1. I have no business opining about this, because I'm an "NFL guy." I cover the NFL for SI. And true, I think college football is facing an impending postseason crisis because it doesn't have a playoff system a la the NFL. But I ask you, John: Who, exactly, would you permit to have an opinion about this? Because I know journalists who cover collegiate soccer and water polo, Major League Baseball and the NBA -- not to mention religion in St. Louis and national politics in D.C. -- who think exactly as I do. So what makes them wrong?
2. The season is the playoff. Uh ... no, it's not. It's the season, exciting and meaningful, but also regular and inconclusive. To believe differently is to discount the nature of sport -- growth and improvement, by way of competition -- rendering, say, a talented but young team that loses in September or October, but coalesces thereafter into an unbeatable force, a national-title afterthought. (Let me hear you, Cal and Texas faithful.) Really, how can you say "the season is the playoff," when no two teams' seasons are alike? No, the season should do what it does in every other sport: separate the wheat from the Wisconsins, preparing the best of the best to measure themselves against one another in the POSTseason.
3. A playoff will dilute the regular season, and is exclusionary. Ah, yes, the cry of the truly desperate. In fact, quite the contrary is true: regular-season success will be just as important as it's always been, because teams will be striving for a shot at an actual, earned national title, and based on the current standings, few two-loss teams would qualify. See, John, the "importance" of the games that you offer as defense -- Cal at Southern Cal, Oklahoma at Texas A&M -- would only increase, allowing you to be moved by the excitement they generate while also glimpsing possible national-title contenders, as they build their respective resumes.
As for the alleged unjustness of a 12-team playoff because No. 13 gets cut out, I say only this: Then don't be No. 13. In other words, I give you my playoff idea's guiding precept, the "Who Are You OK With Angering?" factor. The WAYOWA is already put to use during college basketball's March Madness, which I'd guess everyone agrees is a grand, and just, event. But wait a second: No. 66 was just as deserving a spot in the touney as No. 65 -- HOW CAN YOU JUSTIFY EXCLUDING THEM? Simple: The WAYOWA.
Walters asks, "...why imprint [a playoff] upon college football?" And -- aside from the massive surge of dollars and interest (not to mention logic and reason) into the sport -- I say, simply: Because the nation clamors for one. Because the players who've sacrificed for the glory (and coffers) of their universities deserve one. Because why else have polls, or -- forgive my extremism -- even play the games?
And because -- despite Walters' appropriately meandering comparison of the sport to his favorite "road pictures," meant to imply that, say, 11-0 Utah's or 11-0 Auburn's satisfaction should lie in the journey, not the end result -- I think people really want from their sports exactly what they demand of their favorite films: Stories, writ large and grand, compelling and unpredictable, full of magic and wonder and truth.
But here's the inarguable rub: You can't have stories without story arcs -- without beginnings and middles and, most important, ends. And ultimately, that's what D-I college football is these days. A story, without an end.
NFL'S TOP FIVE (OR SIX) TEAMS, BECAUSE I SAID SO
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1. Pittsburgh (10-1): Almost moved the Steelers down a spot, since I'm feeling a Steeltown loss at desperate Jacksonville on Sunday night. Then I realized that good pal (and 'Burgh native) Devin Pedzwater would kill me if I did. So I'll wait until they lose.
2. New England (10-1): What do I love about the Patriots this week? They believe in their coaches without question. How else to explain a secondary that's survived lately with a linebacker at safety and a wide receiver (!) at nickel corner? "Whatever you say, Coach ..."
3. Philadelphia (10-1): God help the NFC if these guys are upset in the playoffs.
4. San Diego (8-3): Winning at Oakland two weeks ago was nice. But last week's win at Kansas City was nicer. Indy fans may squawk, but I'm ranking teams here -- not transcendent individual players -- and I say the balanced Bolts nip the Mannings on a neutral field.
5. Indianapolis (8-3): Atlantans' spit-takes aside, the Colts are clearly deserving of this spot. That said, Peyton Manning's recent TD-pass gluttony has come against some not-so-good competition. Finish what you've started, and you guys will rise.
6. Atlanta (9-2): There's no shame in being sixth on this list. After all, I think the Falcons are the second-best team in the NFC (even if that's like saying they're like Alexander to Philly's Gladiator). Just remember, Mr. Vick: The sideline, and the slide, are your friends.
DROPPED OUT: Denver (7-4): You can't lose an 11-point fourth-quarter lead to Oakland in your own snow and stick around this poll.
ONE NON-SPORTING THOUGHT (NYC Tourist Edition)
1. I'm not a fan of musical theater. Stone me if you must, but I hear that first ill-conceived, space-filling song and I'm instantly flipping through my playbill, counting how many numbers remain until I can go home. (And because most musical theater is just excruciatingly bad.) But with Mom and my 92-year-old O'pa in for a visit, we saw The Producers last night. I'll admit to some serious pre-show worry; after all, the original movie (my father's favorite) is one of the five funniest ever made, and I thought it impossible for anyone else to inhabit roles made for Zero Mostel and a young, brilliant Gene Wilder. But I must say it rocked -- by far the best musical I've ever seen, and the best theatrical experience of my New York habitation. If you come here, you must see this hilarious, completely enjoyable show.
It's 12:32 a.m., and I'm tired after a night out at the theater, and in a few hours I'll rise and drive to Hempstead, L.I., to grab a minute with the Jets' stud rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who'll win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors if his former college teammate, Denver linebacker D.J. Williams, doesn't.