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 College Bowl

It's Debatable

Is college football better off with whimsical polls and co-champs like Michigan and Nebraska than with the vagaries of a playoff system?

by Tim Layden

Posted: Wed January 7, 1998


There is one more game to be played, of course: No. 1 Michigan against No. 1 Nebraska. Neutral field. Prime time. Team payouts that look like NBA salaries. The Wolverines' remorseless defense against the Cornhuskers' voracious offense. Quarterbacks Brian Griese and Scott Frost. Heisman winner Charles Woodson and Lombardi honoree Grant Wistrom. Sixty minutes, no questions left unanswered. Trophy at midfield. Hats, with tags still attached, proclaiming an undisputed national champion. Lights out. Closure. Basketball season.

In your dreams.

Truth is, the 1997 college football season ended one game short last week. The officials called for a measurement, trotted out the chains and, you bet: It was one game short.

After Michigan's 21-16 victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, Wolverines junior strong safety Marcus Ray stood on the field and dismissed Nebraska by saying that he was going to the Lakers' game the next night and wasn't even going to watch the Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl. A little more than 24 hours later, after Nebraska's 42-17 win over Tennessee, Frost challenged the 62 coaches who vote in the USA Today/ESPN poll to base their decision on which team they would rather play with their job on the line, Nebraska or Michigan. (If it's all the same to you, Scott, I'd play Rutgers.) Fittingly, in the small hours of last Saturday morning the season closed with a split national title—Associated Press voters for 12-0 Michigan and the coaches for 13-0 Nebraska—and with two power programs clinging to the same trophy. This is the system. Champions are determined in the same way that aldermen get their jobs: at the polls. Feel free to weep or cheer.

Scott Frost Before you choose tears, however, consider that justice was done on the first weekend of 1998, if awkwardly so. Michigan had done what it had to do, as it had all season, and so had Nebraska. Each deserves to be called national champion, and so they are. Retiring Nebraska coach Tom Osborne rides into the sunset, and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr basks in his newfound celebrity. This is not such a terrible thing. Before you speak the word playoff, consider that forcing college football into a January Madness would come at a terrible price. College football is the major team sport in America with the most meaningful regular season. The college season is also passionate, enervating and memorable, a rollicking ride from late summer into early winter that sometimes extracts a small price by leaving one too many national champions (or one too few, like undefeated Penn State in 1994).

If there were an eight-team tournament for the national championship, what would Nebraska freshman wideout Matt Davison's miracle catch at Missouri have meant? Nothing. He drops the ball, and the Cornhuskers maybe get a lower seed. Traditional early-season games, such as Notre Dame-Michigan, would be little more than preseason exhibitions, with teams given two more months to recover. And a late-season defeat by a traditional rival, such as Florida State's devastating 32-29 loss at Florida, would be quickly remedied by a first-round tournament victory. A single loss in the regular season would mean little. A tournament would put a period at the end of the sentence and make nearly as much money as Dubai, but it would slowly squeeze the life out of the fall. During its coverage of the Orange Bowl, CBS incessantly hyped March Madness, as if January and February do not exist in college basketball, which they in fact do not.

Smaller playoff, you say? Take two teams and match them after the bowls? Maybe. Michigan against Nebraska on the Saturday before the Super Bowl would be a terrific show. But this would surely kill what's left of the bowl system and the sanctity of the New Year's break to college football. Moreover, it wouldn't always be so easy to pick just two teams. Think about last year: Florida and who? Ohio State? Florida State in a rubber match? Heaven help us. In fact, many Januarys leave no confusion at all; and then another game would be an anticlimactic dud.

Plus, there's hope on the way. Next season the Pac-10 and the Big Ten conferences join the Bowl Alliance, creating the Super Alliance and, at last, an annual game between the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams. Those teams are expected to be determined by a formula that will take into account AP and coaches' poll rankings. This isn't perfect, either. Some years might produce three unbeaten or once-beaten teams gunning for the top two places at the end of the regular season, mercilessly running up scores to secure them. Worse yet, the bowl season could still end with two of those three teams having identical records, leaving the poll voters in a predicament similar to this season's. In other years there might be just one unbeaten team and a half dozen with one loss lining up for a shot at the king.

If the Super Alliance had been in effect a year ago, unbeatens Florida State and Arizona State would have played for the championship in the Sugar Bowl, and once-beaten Florida, which won the national title, would have been eliminated on selection day. This year, Michigan would have played Nebraska.

Polls, sadly, will remain at the core of the process. Coaches, with no fear of having their votes made public, can manipulate the USA Today/ESPN poll to their personal benefit. (At least one coach didn't vote Michigan first or second this year. How could this be? After second-ranked Florida was crushed by Nebraska in the '96 Fiesta Bowl, a coach voted the Gators 11th.) Neither the coaches nor the media are given voting guidelines. Are they supposed to reward a team for seasonlong excellence or rank teams based on who they think would win a head-to-head matchup? The game needs a new rating system. Keep the polls for fun, but designate a committee, perhaps one similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament Committee, to select the teams who play in the big game.

For now, sustain yourself with a game in the imagination. Impressions of teams' relative strengths are so fleeting that by late last Friday night Michigan's brave performance against an underrated Washington State team had been wholly overshadowed by Nebraska's crushing of Tennessee, which, face it, rolled over and died in the middle of the third quarter—just as the Volunteers have done so often against SEC nemesis Florida. In 24 hours Nebraska became the hot team again. Oddsmakers made the Cornhuskers a 6 1/2-point favorite in a mythical game. (Osborne shamefully alluded to that point spread in his day-after press conference.)

In fact the teams are difficult to separate. Nebraska scored 607 points to Michigan's 322, but any college football aficionado knows the Huskers are often slow to find the brakes in a runaway. Meanwhile Michigan was so kind in a 37-0 rout of Indiana that Hoosiers coach Cam Cameron thanked Carr for not having his team score more. The Wolverines gave up 100 fewer points. Michigan and Nebraska had two common opponents; the Wolverines beat Colorado 27-3, while the Cornhuskers defeated the Buffaloes 27-24. But Michigan's win was in its season opener and at home. Nebraska's was in late November and on the road. Both also played Baylor. The Wolverines trampled the Bears 38-3 in Ann Arbor; the Cornhuskers won 49-21 at Waco. Michigan's schedule looked brutal in August, but with Notre Dame and Colorado combining for 12 losses, not so tough in January. Nebraska beat a good Washington team in Seattle but only after knocking out the Huskies quarterback. The Missouri team that almost beat the Cornhuskers got beaten by Colorado State in the Holiday Bowl.

No doubt Nebraska is terrific, but it isn't the '95 thresher that embarrassed Florida and every other team. There's no way Michigan's defense, as quick as Tennessee's but more physical and far more courageous, would yield the way the Volunteers did. Frost would be in third-and-long far more often. Just as surely, Michigan would struggle to sustain its offense against the Nebraska defense. Griese would get punished. If you say a matchup between the two wouldn't be a close game, you're either deluded or dressed in red-and-white or maize-and-blue.

Someday there will be a playoff. The power schools in the NCAA will slowly effect change, usurping power from the bowls and the conference commissioners. The financial payoff will grow too large and too tempting to resist and, just like that, the Road to Pasadena will be a reality. For now, think of college football's postseason progress as a trip from New York to Los Angeles. About now the sport is advancing on Cleveland. It's on a perfect pace.

Issue date: January 12, 1998



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