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November 29, 2004
My Annual NCAA Playoff Plea

Chris Dufresne's column in the Los Angeles Times provides the springboard for my annual gripe regarding Division 1-A college football. The season winds up this weekend as the last of the regular season peters to an end, bringing us possibly 5 undefeated teams and yet another month of arguing who "deserves" to play for the national championship:

Utah and Boise State have already clinched undefeated regular seasons. Neither has a stake in the national title race because they play in non-BCS conferences the Mountain West and Western Athletic.

Meanwhile, in the so-called "power" conferences, Pittsburgh of the Big East can clinch a major bowl bid next week even if it loses to South Florida and finishes with a 7-4 record. ...

Two-loss Michigan has already wrapped up a Rose Bowl bid and a two-loss team is going to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and a $16-million bowl berth. If Colorado beats Oklahoma next week, Gary Barnett's Buffaloes win the Big 12 title with an 8-4 record and could face 7-4 Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl.

So we have two teams with eight losses between them going to a major BCS bowl while at least two other teams that may go undefeated wind up at the Liberty Bowl (Boise State and Louisville). Why? Because not all schools in Division 1-A are created equal. The NCAA and the media treat the second-tier schools as if they're the minor leagues. The truth is that Boise State will never, ever get to play for the "championship" of its division. It isn't even eligible for it.

Nor is that the only problem that the BCS has. BCS rankings come from an arcane calculation that takes the record, the strength of schedule, margins of victory, and most of all the AP rankings of eligible college teams to determine the Top 10 teams for bowl assignments. This system works terrific for the AP and the rest of the media; the AP gets plenty of exposure, and the sports media gets to debate endlessly who got screwed by the BCS. Coaches seem to love it as well, since they get an excuse to run up scores on opponents. We saw this in the SC-Notre Dame game on Saturday, when Pete Carroll called a fake punt in the final seven minutes of a game he led by 24 points. College sports supposedly teaches sportsmanship, but that gets chucked out the window if you're in the BCS hunt -- a great lesson for the NCAA to promote through its athletic programs.

Who gets screwed? Colleges who remain outside the BCS orbit despite playing in the same division as eligible schools, and the fans who would like to see teams actually win their way to the championship. BCS supporters claim that the system produces the best two teams every year, but it doesn't do that at all; it merely produces the best two big-market teams, and sometimes not even that. It may be an improvement over the old system, where the AP and UPI simply decided the championship themselves, but that qualifies as damnation by faint praise.

As I say every year, the NCAA needs to come up with a system where each division champion gets to play in a tournament in order to become the national champion. They could include at-large teams in order to fill out a 32-team playoff system, which would require four weeks to determine the national-championship matchup. The NCAA could then seed the major bowls by matching the losing teams at each of the brackets as they descend, allowing the two semi-final losing teams to play each other and the four quarter-final losing teams to do the same, filling in the other three BCS bowls. Others could then be available for the minor bowl games, free agents to go where they please.

Why won't this work? One reason is the NCAA's resistance to the same playoff format it employs for its other football divisions and the rest of its sports programs. Another is the four-week leadup to the bowl games; they claim it will either extend the season too long for the players, or it will shorten the regular season for the schools not eligible for the tournament. Hogwash. Those schools who fail to qualify can certainly schedule one or two more games at the end of the season once it becomes clear they won't get in. Besides, the schools have plenty of bye weeks that they could forgo in order to get their games in before the tournament starts. UCLA played SC this Saturday after having the past two weekends off.

The NCAA needs to dump the BCS system and go with a true playoff system. Until they do, any claim to a national championship must be treated with suspicion for the claimant and contempt for the system that creates it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 29, 2004 6:01 AM

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