BCS not providing the answer

After Nebraska’s blowout loss on Friday against rival Colorado and Oklahoma’s slip-up Saturday against Oklahoma State, college football followers were reminded of Division I-A’s version of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will.

Usually, the “wrong” refers to the BCS. I know this is no news flash.

In the three years since the BCS began matching its No. 1 and No. 2 teams in an official national championship game, only two unbeatens have gone head-to-head: Florida State and Virginia Tech in 1999. The polls could have picked that matchup.

The BCS does college football no good.

With an undefeated Nebraska versus an undefeated Miami national title game now impossible, it looks as though we’re headed for a third BCS fiasco in four tries. Even if Miami finishes unbeaten (they played late last night against Washington) and wins the Rose Bowl, you won’t be able to convince college football fans that the best two teams settled the championship argument on the field.

A number of teams — Florida and Oregon included — will be able to say they should have been in the big game, as Miami, Washington and Oregon State did when Florida State went last year.

The problem with college football and the BCS isn’t the computer rankings. It’s in how we judge the top teams. As it stands, we deem teams worthy of a national championship only if they are unbeaten and from one of the six major conferences.

The demand for perfection in Division I-A college football is as beautiful as it is perverse. In no other sport must a team play its best week-in and week-out for an entire season. Yet, many coaches judge the best teams by which is most effective at season’s end.

The only way to get the best teams to play the best competition for the national title is a championship tournament, the same way the NCAA does at every other level of football and in its other team sports.

But there’s too much money in the current bowl system to risk losing the huge crowds they draw.

How could we solve this mess?

Hundreds of ideas have floated around since the days that the AP and UPI polls decided unofficial national champions. Here’s one that will cover all the bases. The bowl games and the cities that host keep their fat paychecks while we the fans get our long-desired national champion.

Here’s the pitch: make the bowl games part of a national tournament that crowns a champion by mid-January.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

That’s because it really isn’t that hard. There are 25 Division I-A bowl games this year. A 24-team tournament with eight first-round byes would take 23 games to decide a champion.

Since the NCAA uses a 7.5-to-1 eligible teams-to-playoff participants ratio to decide the size of the fields in most sports, and since there are 117 Division I-A teams, I’m proposing a 16-team bracket. Divide 117 by 7.5 and you get 15.6.

So we take the top sixteen teams in the nation — heck, we could even use the BCS ranking formula to determine the seeds. The eight first-round games are the Peach, Holiday, Sun, Liberty, Outback, Motor City, Music City and Alamo Bowls. Winners advance to the next round: the Citrus, Gator, Cotton and Fiesta Bowls. The national semifinal games are the Orange and Sugar, and title game is the Rose.

Which bowls go where is negotiable. The formula isn’t.

If we do it like they do in Division III, or in Division I basketball, we’ll hand out automatic qualifiers. The ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-10, SEC, Conference USA, WAC, MAC and Mountain West champions could all qualify, then we’ll take the six best at-large teams after that.

The result would be a tournament that gives sixteen teams a fair shot at a championship. The .com bowls and those played on blue turf in Idaho could still hold their bowls by selecting from the remaining pool.

If BYU, Marshall or Fresno State wants a shot at a national title, they’d have to prove it by beating Syracuse, Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma on successive weeks, for example. Their fate wouldn’t be decided by their conference schedule before they ever play a game, and any team that wins four straight against the some of the top 16 teams in the country is championship worthy.

Under this system, a loss in an early conference showdown does not doom a team’s hopes. Nor does a late season stumble like Kansas State and UCLA had in 1998, where both teams were undefeated and lost their last game before the bowls.

The tournament would take four weeks at most, and that’s only for the two teams in the title game. Student-athletes wouldn’t miss any more class than they currently do spending four weeks preparing for one bowl game.

The hang-up is attendance. The current bowl system gives fans weeks to buy tickets and book hotels and flights. If a team needed to play four bowl games in four different locales to win a national championship, it could pose a problem for die-hard followers.

But the bowls would still fill seats and make their money. Think of it like you do the NCAA’s 64-team basketball tournament, where seats to regionals and “the Final Four” sell out a year in advance, long before anyone has an idea who is playing. I’d buy a ticket right now to see the two teams playing the best football as season’s end duke it out for the title in one grand finale bowl.

It would definitely be more appealing than the 1 vs. 2 pseudo-championship games we’re currently stuck with.

Keith McMillan is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or at [email protected]

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