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The earmarks of athletics

Sheer lunacy of bowl games defies all traditional logic

Posted: Wednesday November 29, 2006 2:30PM; Updated: Wednesday November 29, 2006 2:30PM
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Mike Hart and the Wolverines probably won't get a shot at the title, even though many consider Michigan America's No. 2 team.
Mike Hart and the Wolverines probably won't get a shot at the title, even though many consider Michigan America's No. 2 team.
Al Tielemans/SI
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What would you think if, after the major league baseball league championships were played, the two winners practiced for a month or so and didn't play the World Series until around Thanksgiving? What would you think if, after the conference championships in college basketball were played, everybody retreated to campus, only to return many weeks later for the NCAA tournament? Hey, May Madness!

Naturally, you would say: This is crazy.

But, of course, that is exactly the way college football is run. Except for a handful of games this first Saturday in December, the regular season has concluded. But the championship game will not be played till January 8th. Ohio State, one of the teams in the title game, will therefore rest up for a full fifty days.

I call this the Bowl Gestation Period.

Obviously, all teams that are forced into this gridiron purgatory are bound to be different creatures when finally released to play again, so that the outcome is meaningless. But beyond that, the delayed schedule is inherently indefensible. It only derives from antiquity, because generations ago, bowl games in warm-weather cities were scheduled on New Year's Day so that intrepid fans of the competing teams up north might have time enough to board choo-choo trains and make the long trek south in the week after Christmas.

Hello ... there are airplanes now. The games are live, on television. You could have an eight-team playoff -- as indeed there are playoffs in all other NCAA sports, all other football divisions -- and be done well before Christmas, but the college presidents maintain that somehow this would be antithetical to the pursuit of academics. This is simply sophistry of the highest order. Allowing the championship and the other meaningless bowl exhibitions to be delayed and played as a prelude to Groundhog Day actually takes time away from book-learning. The bowls are only an excuse to allow coaches to keep the boys in pads for a few more weeks, and a chance for institutions of higher learning to have a nice payday.

Bowl games are the earmarks of athletics.

The cynicism of it all will be heightened this year, when the goofy congress of polls and computers that chooses the two teams for the championship game will surely spit out Southern California as Ohio State's opponent. Michigan lost only once -- by three points, at Ohio State. The oddsmakers speculate that home field advantage is worth no less than three points. Essentially, Michigan ties Ohio State on a neutral field, which is where the championship game is played. If Ohio State is No. 1, then Michigan is definitely No. 2, clearly deserving of the right to play for the title.

But Fox TV, which telecasts the game, and all the other people who make money off college football, don't want to see an Ohio State-Michigan final. Too regional, too Midwest. Bad for ratings. Instead, Southern California is glamorous and better positioned, demographically, you understand. So as rotten as the system always is, it will also be unfair this year. If Southern Cal beats UCLA this Saturday, which it always does, it will be voted into the championship game strictly on the basis of looks and money.