November 30, 2004

Alternate BCS Solutions?

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It’s almost that time of year again. Bowl season. A great time to be alive and a great time to be a college football fan. As always, this year is likely to see some controversial bowl selections. Will it be Oklahoma or Auburn in the Orange Bowl? Will No. 5 Texas once again be left out of the BCS action, this time snubbed in favor of Utah?

Now when I talk about “college football” here, I’m talking about Division I-A. The division of “big-time” sports, with conferences like the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference. But there another division in our country — Division I-AA.

You don’t hear a lot of talk about Division I-AA bowl selections. That’s because the “lower” division doesn’t have bowls — it has a playoff. Just like in basketball.

Every year, 16 schools from leagues like the Ohio Valley Conference and the Southland Conference (but not the Ivy League, which bans postseason play for football teams) battle it out over the course of a few weeks. And at the end of it all, you have a I-AA national champion. No Bowl Championship Series. No controversy. Just a single-elimination playoff.

There’s been some talk over the last few years that the BCS system of Division I-A needs to be replaced. Last year’s co-champion debacle helped give that argument some more weight. And this year’s postseason could make the argument truly gargantuan.

After all, if both Oklahoma and Auburn finish undefeated, you have to say that both teams have an equal right to be in the championship game. However, only one team can meet No. 1 USC. If the Sooners end up in the Orange Bowl, you can be sure that half the state of Alabama is going to be upset. And that is never a good thing.

It also looks as if Utah is going to play in a BCS game. The Utes are undefeated this year, and will most likely play in the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl. But Utah is a member of the Mountain West conference — along with UNLV, San Diego State, and Wyoming. Sure, BYU and Colorado State are occasionally good, but this is not a great conference by any measure. If Utah played in the Big XII, I’m pretty sure it would not be undefeated, and the players would dream about getting into the Music City Bowl.

Boise State is also undefeated this year, but its extremely weak schedule (even weaker than Utah’s) means that the Broncos will probably go to the Liberty Bowl — where they will get destroyed by No. 7 Louisville.

So, why not a playoff? It would be fun and get huge TV ratings. It would make a lot of money for the TV networks, colleges, and bowl towns. And it would end all the BCS controversy.

But it would also destroy everything wonderful about college football. Because, believe it or not, the greatest moments in a college football season don’t happen in January at the BCS games in Miami or New Orleans. They happen on Saturdays in October, when 100-year old rivals meet at huge stadiums in small college towns.

The greatest moments happen when Michigan plays Ohio State, and it seems like the entire world has come to Ann Arbor.

The greatest moments happen when the Gators play the ‘Noles — and everyone in Florida has his own team to root for.

The greatest moments also happen in those late November games, when conference titles are on the line. In games where bowl dreams can be crushed by a single bad play.

Look back at this last season. A few weeks ago, the Wisconsin Badgers were 9-0, with a good chance of earning their first national championship ever. But Michigan State — a team that won’t even play in a bowl this year — beat Wisconsin 49-14.

That was it. One game. One day. And the season was ruined.

The Miami Hurricanes were 6-0 in mid-October, and hoping to run the table in the ACC. But unranked North Carolina had other plans, and beat the ‘Canes on a game-ending field goal. The Tar Heels fans rushed onto the field, and there was as much excitement in Chapel Hill that day as there is during March Madness.

A playoff would make these games much less meaningful. Without a playoff — and with only 11 or so games a year — there is little margin for error. Every game in the college football season counts. The best team in the country can lose all hope for a national championship if it loses in the first game of the year.

No game can be taken for granted, and every game matters. So every weekend, regular season college football has a kind of intensity you’d normally find in a postseason. And that’s a lot better than a having a few playoff games — BCS problems and all.

Archived article by Ted Nyman