The college football regular season is winding down and in the best of worlds would be gearing up for a national championship playoff to determine which team is truly the best in the country.
But a combination of politics, money-grubbing and in-fighting will again prevent college football from crowning a true champion, just as it does in basketball and every other sport that is played on the collegiate level.
True, the NCAA has moved inexorably closer to a national championship game but is afraid to make that final, last step. Until it does, the bowl system will reign supreme and deny fans and players alike a real national champion.
Brief background. Before there were hundreds of games on television and sponsors' names put in front of bowl games, the national champion was determined by the Associated Press and United Press International polls. The AP poll relied on sportswriters and sportscasters, the UPI poll was a survey of coaches. Each argued their system was better; the sportswriters claimed they were less biased in their balloting while the coaches argued they knew more about what a good team was all about.
It didn't seem to matter as much that rarely a No. 1 team would face a No. 2 team on New Year's Day. But that was before the game exploded in popularity, fueled by increased television exposure and to a lesser degree the success of the National Football League which was the eventual destination of the top stars from college.
About 10 years ago, college presidents decided a system needed to be worked out to try to have the No. 1 and No. 2 teams face off in a bowl game. But the Big Ten and Pac-10, locked into a long-term contract with the revenue-rich Rose Bowl, wouldn't participate. As a result, the best college football could hope for was a game between the top two teams outside of those 20 schools. Sometimes it worked, often it didn't. Even when it did, infighting among the major Jan. 1 bowls often posed roadblocks because of previously agreed to conference tie-ins.
Last year, the Big Ten (now with 11 teams) and Pac-10 caved in and agreed to throw their teams into the melting pot. The result became the current Bowl Championship Series which will presumably have the top two teams meeting in the Fiesta Bowl. The participants are determined by a complex rating system involving the writers and coaches polls, Sagarin and Seattle Times' ratings, strength of schedule and some believe (facetiously) the amount of popcorn consumed by cheerleaders.
As a result, No. 1 and unbeaten Tennessee, currently atop the BCS poll, will face the No. 2 team, most likely UCLA or Kansas State. But are those really the best two teams. Some will argue -- correctly -- that Florida State or Ohio State should be included. But because the Seminoles were upset early in the year, it would take a series of unlikely upsets to teams ranked ahead of them to include FSU in the mix. Ohio State was No. 1 until is was stunned at Columbus last week by Michigan State, but should one narrow loss knock you out of the mix altogether. And then there is Florida, again with just one loss, which has a chance to beat both Florida State later in the month.
There is a simple solution. Have an eight-team playoff. Sixteen teams would be too many and would reward some weaker teams the opportunity to knock off a No.1 team on a given Saturday. Four wouldn't be enough and would still leave out a quality team. Eight teams would require three extra games in December and wouldn't interfere with classes any more than the one bowl game the top teams each participate in. To satisfy the strong lobby presented by the bowl teams, the eight major bowls could rotate and have the championship game floated from among the likes of the Rose, Cotton, Fiesta, Sugar bowls each year. The playoff would likely create "December madness" on a comparable level to basketball's "March madness," which incidentally really didn't come to life until the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams.
The field could be determined by the formula that the BCS currently uses including strength of schedule, quality of the wins and might also ease (but unfortunately, not prevent) the running up of scores by national powerhouses against weaker opponents in an attempt to secure one of the top spots in the ratings. How much interest can be generated if a team continually beats up another 55-6 to say nothing of the fact the games are boring and usually "over" by halftime.
The ratings for the playoffs would be much higher than sitting through the Weed Eater or Humanitarian Bowls featuring teams most fans and collectors never heard of. It would also open up a bigger market for college football among collectors and fans alike.
However, until the bowl lobby is satisfied and factions within college football are satisfied, we will be continually saddled with a half-empty plate for the New Year's Day feast of college football. It may be some time before a true national champion is crowned in college football.