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A call for certainty

Supporters of the BCS lack an understanding of the essence of sport

Posted: Monday January 5, 2004 10:20AM; Updated: Monday January 5, 2004 10:20AM
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I'd rather be Oklahoma.

There are two national champions today, USC and LSU, and they have every right to celebrate. They are both exceptional teams that earned their share of whatever it is that passes for a title in Division I-A college football. The Trojans are the Rose Bowl champs and the No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll. The Tigers are the Sugar Bowl winners and the owners of the crystal trophy given to the BCS champions. Congratulations to them both.


But today, I'd rather be Oklahoma.

I'd rather be a Sooner even though it sounds an awful lot like loser, which is what Oklahoma has been in the two biggest contests of its season, the Big 12 championship game against Kansas State last month, and the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners looked like a badly shaken bunch on Sunday night against LSU. Their eyes seemed somehow vacant, like they still hadn't recovered from the shock of that 35-7 waxing by the Wildcats. It can't be easy knowing that a month ago they were being talked about as one of the best teams of all-time, and today Oklahoma doesn't even have a conference championship, much less a national title, to show for its trouble.

But I'd rather be one of them today than a Trojan or a Tiger, simply because the Sooners don't have to wonder. They have the gift of certainty. They know that they took their best shot, twice, and it wasn't good enough. The Sooners will have to deal with the disappointment of losing, but competitors can do that. It's much harder to handle the nagging question that has to accompany the euphoria that LSU and USC feel. No matter how unwilling they may be to admit it publicly, each champion has to wonder whether it could beat the other. They have to wonder which one of them would find, like Oklahoma, that their best shot wasn't good enough.

That's what the ridiculous BCS system has robbed them of -- the knowing. It has not only made a sham of the national championship, it is also an insult to the essence of sport. The beauty of sports is that they come as close as possible to eliminating the subjectivity that we endure in most other areas. We might have to debate who most deserved that promotion at work or who has the better singing voice, but who won the game? That should be crystal clear, not open for discussion. But college football deprives teams of even playing the game, at least the one that would give us a clear-cut national champion. The forces that keep the sport from going to a playoff format that would allow the champ to earn its crown on the field, not in the polls or through a computer, apparently don't understand what sport is all about. A real competitor would rather have a real answer, even if it's no. Anything is better than maybe.

If the college presidents and bowl officials and everyone else who insults our intelligence by trying to explain why a playoff is a bad idea aren't sufficiently embarrassed by this year's debacle to change the system immediately, then they need to be nudged. A good start might be for the media to refuse to vote in the AP poll. The poll is one of the factors in the convoluted BCS system, and as long as that's the case, the media should divorce itself from it. Supposedly objective reporters shouldn't be in the business of helping to determine the national champion, anyway. (It would be helpful if the coaches would similarly excuse themselves from the other poll, but as employees of the schools, that would be less feasible.) Anything that accentuates the dissatisfaction with this sham of a system, that pressures the policy makers to allow the winners and losers to sort themselves out on the field, would be a step in the right direction.

Fans who have followed the college football season deserve to know who would win a championship game between USC and LSU -- and more than that, the Trojans and Tigers deserve to know. The guess here is that both teams would rather play that game and lose it than be left with the semi-satisfaction they now feel.

Until then, I'd rather be Oklahoma.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button topic every Monday on SI.com.