Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The BCS mess

The BCS has finally proven itself to be worthy of all the derision and abuse it's taken in the media for five years. Oklahoma, despite losing its final game (and league championship) by 28 points, will play Louisiana State for the "national championship" in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, USC, the current No.1 team in both polls, traditionally the determinator of the "national championship," plays no. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl instead of hosting LSU in the Sugar Bowl for the title. Now there's talk of a split championship should USC win the Rose Bowl and remain No.1 in the AP poll.

Everything that went wrong here points to a true playoff to determine a champion. Every other NCAA sport in every division has a playoff system; only the money invested in the bowl structure and the BCS keeps Division 1-A football from having a playoff. I've heard all kinds of schemes to create a playoff system: 8 teams starting in December, 4 teams in January, one game after the bowls end, played on Martin Luther King Day. One of the craziest appeared in Dan Shanoff's Daily Quickie column on on Tuesday. Shanoff advocates a 117-team bracket beginning in the middle of the college football season. The first five games are rivalries and tuneups, then the real fun begins in week 6 when all the Division 1-A teams are seeded into a bracket. Of all the ideas, that's definitely the least likely to happen. It would mean the end of the athletic conference system as far as football is concerned, it would screw up traditional rivalry weekends at the end of the season, and because it makes the most sense.

Here's what I would do:

1. Shorten the season. Eleven games is enough for everyone. If you play in an early-season "kickoff classic," that counts as one of your 11 games.

2. I'd keep the bowl system in place, but require seven wins for a team to be bowl-eligible. If you can't go 7-4 at least, you shouldn't play in the postseason. Teams that don't get seeded into the playoff bracket are eligible to play in non-playoff bowls.

3. I would use the major bowls for my eight-team playoff system. We'd start with 8, and then see if we could expand it later. But you use the computer rankings and polls for seeding purposes only, just like March Madness, and then play the first round of games in mid-December, the semifinals on New Year's Day, and the final game two weeks later, ideally, when the NFL takes a week off between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. The two championship teams would play 14 games, which is not unreasonable since most of the college players will have played that many games in a season in high school, assuming they went to the playoffs, and you'd be done before the spring semester really got started. Six bowl games would be used for the playoffs, maybe the Sugar, Rose, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Gator Bowls, and the rest are for non-playoff teams. Or you could rotate the bowl games in the playoff system, so that the Rose Bowl could occasionally get its usual Pac-10 vs. Big-10 matchup.

I know this plan isn't original; I've seen it somewhere before and can't remember where. But I think it's the most workable solution for the next few years. Everyone gets what they want: a real way to choose a national champion in football. The extra games are kept to a minimum. The schools gets millions of dollars in advertising and network rights. Bowl organizers get increased interest in their games. If the playoff system expands to 16 teams, even more bowls get even more interest.

If I can remember any, I'll bring up counterarguments tomorrow.

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