- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ask a college football zealot who’s No. 1 after the recently completed season, and you’re likely to receive four different, though equally tenable, responses. Utah (13-0), Texas (12-1) and USC (12-1) all finished the season with resumes at least comparable to the two teams who were chosen to play in the national title game: Florida and Oklahoma.

The only consensus you’ll get after yet another college pigskin season limped to a clouded, controversial finish is that the Bowl Championship Series system stinks.

The time for a playoff is long overdue. Fans, players and coaches have always clamored for it, lamenting the fact that major college football is the only primary team sport on the planet that does not settle its championship with a playoff format.

“I don’t think any competitor who gets to this level would ever want to see it any other way,” said USC coach Pete Carroll on the eve of his Trojans’ Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. “I’m not saying the bowl system isn’t great and I love the traditional matchups, but I still want the issue settled on the playing field, and I wish we could do that.”

Now even politicians and attorneys are getting in on the act. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is considering bringing an antitrust suit against the BCS for excluding the Utes from its title game. And even President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to address the BCS mess.

The bottom line is that the playoff solution is astoundingly simple and would be far more lucrative for the NCAA, the teams involved and the television networks than the current bowl format.

Here are the basics:

A. Richmond recently won the Division I FBC (formerly I-AA) championship, playing 16 games, concluding with a four-game run through a 16-team playoff. That isn’t going to happen at football’s highest level. Why? There is a cap on the total number of games schools are willing to play; the current maximum is 14 games.

Presidents and chancellors of the major football powers claim the cap is driven by academic integrity. Bull. Last time we checked, the Richmond players also had to attend classes. Still, there’s no chance that college football’s major powers will agree to a schedule longer than a maximum of 15 games. And that dictates an eight-team playoff for two reasons:

First, the smallest acceptable conference slate for the massive leagues like the Big 12, SEC and ACC is eight games. A reduction to seven games not only creates a competitive imbalance in terms of scheduling, it reduces conference profits. No system that dips into the conference kitty will be accepted.

Second, every major school plays at least two and usually three “money games” per season; these are non-conference home games in which the visiting school gets a beating, not a return date at its own stadium. For instance, Tennessee played Alabama-Birmingham this season, but the Vols will not be traveling to Birmingham in the future. A home game at 100,000-plus seat Neyland Stadium generates nearly $5 million in ticket sales alone. These games drive the athletic department budget and aren’t going away.

So, eight conference games, plus three money games, plus a possible league-championship game, plus potentially three more games in an eight-team playoff equals a maximum of 15 games.

B. Filling the eight-team format would be far simpler. In order to get the six major conferences on board (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-10 and Big East), you would have to guarantee playoff slots to the champions of each major conference. In order to get the non-BCS leagues on board, you guarantee a slot to a non-BCS league team if it finishes in the top eight of the final BCS standings (Utah this season). The final slot would be an at-large bid given to the top-ranked team in the BCS standings not otherwise in (Texas this season).

One would then use the final BCS standings for seeding, and this season’s bracket would have appeared as seen in the chart at left.

Of course, such a system wouldn’t be a total cure-all. Though it would represent a massive improvement over the current model, there would still be controversy and inequities. For instance, Alabama wouldn’t have made the playoffs, and the Crimson Tide were ranked No. 1 for longer than any other team this season, finished the “pre-playoff” season with the same record as top seeds Oklahoma and Florida and was ranked No.4 in the final BCS standings. But with only one at-large slot available, Texas clipped the Tide. Texas Tech would have a similar argument after finishing 11-1.

On the flip side, fairly pedestrian teams from down leagues would get in like Virginia Tech (No. 19 in final BCS standings) and Cincinnati (No. 12).

And of course, the bowls would flip out. Even if you designated each playoff game a particular bowl, that’s only seven bowls. There were 34 bowls this past season, so the 27 left out of the projected playoff format would scream that they were being diminished by the new system. So what? The NIT and NCAA tournaments have coexisted peacefully and profitably in the college hoops’ postseason for decades.

As much as nearly everyone would revel in the excitement of what would become college football’s version of December Madness, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. The BCS just inked a long-term deal with ESPN that would seem to delay any alterations to the system through at least 2014.

Frankly, the best BCS-busting hope could be Mr. Obama. Given the state of our economy, it would be very Caesaresque of our new leader to begin his administration by focusing on fixing one of our most beloved games.

• Barker Davis reports on college football for The Washington Times.

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