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Playoff, Please
PHIL TAYLOR
December 11, 2006
Even before UCLA stunned USC, heightening the championship matchup debate, the BCS was as problematic as ever. SI offers an eight-team tournament with rebuttals to arguments against it
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December 11, 2006

Playoff, Please

Even before UCLA stunned USC, heightening the championship matchup debate, the BCS was as problematic as ever. SI offers an eight-team tournament with rebuttals to arguments against it

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This new system would address most of the BCS supporters' concerns, disingenuous as some of them may be:

A playoff would extend the season and cut further into the time players can spend in class. Academics didn't seem to be a concern when the NCAA voted last year to increase the maximum number of regular-season games from 11 to 12, a move that affected far more players' class time than a playoff system would. The season wouldn't end a day later than it does now, and the only additional games would be the four first-round matchups in mid-December, a period when most schools are on holiday break and bowl teams are cooling their heels at practice and growing stale. By the time Ohio State plays on Jan. 8, the Buckeyes will have gone 50 days between games. They may be the best team in the nation, but they might not look like it after the equivalent of a seven-week bye.

A playoff format would diminish the tradition and importance of the bowls and perhaps drive some of the minor ones out of existence. Incorporating the BCS bowl games into the playoff system would enhance their importance, not diminish it. As for the lesser ones, it's hard to believe that a playoff would steal some of the attention normally showered on games like the Pioneer PureVision Las Vegas Bowl. The bowl system, up to 32 games this year, has already been diluted by the creation of so many new ones over the last decade that mediocre seasons are rewarded with invitations. When Miami goes 6--6, engages in one of the ugliest brawls in recent memory and gets invited to the MPC Computers Bowl, perhaps it's time for some of the minor bowls to be abolished.

Regular-season games would be less meaningful. "I hate to use the word playoff, but in a sense, the BCS makes every weekend a playoff," says Slive. That's not quite true. If anything, this year has proved that the regular season isn't as unforgiving as BCS supporters make it seem. USC's surprising loss to Oregon State on Oct. 28 was thought to be a crippling blow to the Trojans' title chances, but after Michigan lost to Ohio State three weeks later, USC was back in contention. Arkansas absorbed a 50--14 whipping by USC in its opening game, yet the Razorbacks were in the running for a title-game berth until their loss to LSU on Nov. 24.

In some ways a playoff system would make the regular season even more meaningful. Consider last Saturday's dramatic action: Wake Forest edged Georgia Tech 9--6 for the ACC title; Florida beat Arkansas for the SEC championship in a game full of lead changes and shifts of momentum; and West Virginia beat Rutgers in a triple-overtime classic. Those games would have been even more thrilling had the stakes been even higher--if a playoff spot (and not just a BCS berth) had been on the line. Under SI's playoff system, winning the conference title would be the only sure way to reach the playoffs, ensuring that league games would still be crucial. Playing a strong nonconference schedule would also be encouraged, both as a way of preparing for the all-important conference season and to help a team's BCS standing in the event it is fighting for an at-large berth.

Fans may not be willing or able to travel to multiple games to support their team. This argument against the playoff system may have some merit. The bowl games count on the participating teams to bring a sizable contingent of fans. That's reasonable when the fans have only one bowl to attend, but it becomes problematic if they are expected to crisscross the country for two or three weekends with their team. "The fans have to make decisions on whether they think their team is going to make it past the first round," says Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. "And then are they going to go to the second round? Or both? And then the championship game? A lot of people aren't thinking about the practicality of what a playoff system would be at the I-A level." But the first-round games would be at home stadiums, and the added significance of those games and the semifinals being playoffs would attract more local fans not associated with the schools. What's more, considering the fan bases of the schools that would normally appear in these games, any seats left untaken would likely be grabbed by those who usually get shut out of their school's single bowl appearance.

There's also the likelihood that increased television revenue would help offset any shortfall from a potential drop-off in out-of-town attendance. Fox paid $320 million for the rights to BCS bowls except the Rose for the next four years, and a true playoff system would seem to be even more marketable to a television network. This season's elongated BCS bowl schedule--the Rose and the Fiesta on Jan. 1, the Orange on Jan. 2, the Sugar on Jan. 3 and the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 8--may be a trial run to test the ratings in a playofflike format. Television money may be the only force capable of putting a playoff system in motion.

For now, the playoff movement seems to be spinning its wheels. Two weeks ago Florida State president T.K. Wetherell told reporters that he was working with Florida president Bernie Machen on an eight-team playoff proposal to present to the NCAA, but both men have since said that no such proposal is in the works. " President Wetherell and I have discussed the general concept of an alternative to the BCS system," Machen says, "but there have been no serious discussions nor are there any plans in place to overhaul the BCS."

Griping about the BCS has become as much a part of college football's culture as marching bands and tailgating, and supporters of the system seem immune to the constant calls for a playoff from fans and media, or even coaches and athletic directors. "The BCS this year has helped make a great regular season of college football," Slive says. "Attendance is up, ratings are up, interest is up."

Frustration is also up among those who want to see a champion emerge from surviving a gantlet of the top contenders, as in every other sport. "Looking at USC on paper, there's no way anyone would expect us to beat them," Cowan, UCLA's quarterback, said after the Bruins' upset. "But we just wanted to get on the field with them and see what happened. That's why they play the games." In the end, that's what the cluster of teams at the top of the BCS standings deserves. Give them a real postseason. Just let them play the games.

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