- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

When it comes to college football, it’s time to get reactionary.

Throw away the Bowl Championship Series. Cease all the talk about a playoff system. Stop worrying about undisputed champions and embrace the imperfect elegance of the sport’s past.

That’s right, let’s go back to the way things were. Pollsters and pundits. Co-champs and tri-champs. Arguments, confusion and a fiesta of oranges, roses, sugar and cotton.

Crazy? Perhaps. But let’s begin by analyzing the current situation. Save for an entrenched few, nobody likes the BCS and its system of major-conference dominance, computer polls and silliness. And it’s true that to defend its creation is akin to defending the devil. The desire for a tournament-style playoff to determine a national champion is understandable.

But hatred for the BCS has created a thick, nearly impenetrable mist that has made it impossible to see that a playoff would most likely create as many problems as it would solve. Most notably, it would destroy, over time, the most significant traditions in college football.

Ah, yes, traditions. The essence of college sports. There are bands, there are fight songs, there’s the Paul Bunyan Axe and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

And there are bowl games, which in recent years have lost their luster and probably would implode under the weight of a playoff system. No doubt, the proliferation and commercialization of bowl games has turned many into farce. In no way is this an impassioned plea in defense of the Roto Rooter/Waffle House Cattle Bowl.

But it is time to reclaim many of the major bowls as true postseason rivalry games. Let’s have the Rose Bowl pit the Big Ten vs. the Pac-10 champs every year, without exception, just as it did for a half-century. Let’s have the Cotton Bowl played at the Cotton Bowl (take that, Jerry Jones) with a Big 12 and SEC team. Let’s make a trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl a tropically fun experience for an ACC team. These are events that, for decades, brought the best football teams from across the country together for weeklong celebrations that culminated in memorable games played on New Year’s Day.

Yes, remember Jan. 1, the day once set aside for a college football feast? It’s now a day for sleeping in and taking down Christmas decorations. And under a playoff system, its significance would be lost forever.

All of this BCS and playoff talk began nearly two decades ago, when college football fans decided they couldn’t — simply wouldn’t! — live with the notion of a shared football championship, where the Associated Press voters liked one team and United Press International liked another.

The BCS and its precursors were hatched after the 1991 season, which saw a split national championship between Miami and Washington. After months of bloody riots from this entirely unacceptable situation - both the National Guard and Army Reserves were called back from Kuwait to restore order - the heads of many (not all) major conferences decided to act. Computers came into the equation. Coaches replaced UPI. The Harris Poll replaced the AP. And 16 years later, everyone’s miserable.

While it may be natural — heck, downright American — to try and declare an absolute, undisputed champion, it just doesn’t work in college football. Consider that the average elite football team plays just 12 or 13 games a season, with several of them the “thanks for the easy win” variety. It does not leave a particularly large body of work by which to judge.

And a playoff would solve nothing.

Let’s take this season, for example. An eight-team playoff would include all of the major conference champions, plus two at-large teams (Utah and Texas). Left out of such a tournament would have been one-loss teams in Alabama and Texas Tech, plus an undefeated team in Boise State. A playoff could instead seed teams based on poll rankings and forget about conference championships, but then why bother to have conference champions at all?

As for a 16-team playoff? A football game on Mars is logistically easier to pull off.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament works because it is tremendously inclusive. Never has a team with a valid argument as the best team in the nation been left out. But there is no way in which a college football tournament could match basketball’s inclusiveness unless the regular season were to be cut down and rendered meaningless.

Now its true that some back-of-the-napkin playoff proposals have outlined ways for the traditional major bowl games to be included. Under the most common proposal, the four biggest bowls - Orange, Rose, Fiesta and Sugar - would be designated as the first four-round games. But weren’t the bowls designed to be season-ending games in and of themselves? And how would the traditional bowl tie-ins be meshed with appropriate seeding? What to do, for instance, if the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions enter the tournament ranked Nos. 1 and 2? Would the top two teams play in a quarterfinal, or would the traditional Rose Bowl matchup become a victim?

Headaches, once again.

It is time to eschew the notion that college football needs to declare a national champion. It is time to restore pride in winning one’s conference and to restore prestige in traveling to places like Pasadena, Miami and New Orleans over winter break. It is time … to go back in time.

• Tim Lemke reports on sports business issues for The Washington Times.

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