Can You Say Playoff?

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It is only good manners, before we take a hydraulic jackhammer to this FUBAR Bowl Championship Series, to congratulate its biggest beneficiaries. Felicitations, Ohio State, for having the good sense to be idle last weekend, while No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia were pratfalling their way out of the national title game. Don't take it personally, Buckeyes, if the rest of the country doesn't share your joy. People remember what happened last year when you made it to the game known as the 'Ship (Florida 41, OSU 14).

And hats off to you, LSU, for retaining the Hat -- coach Les Miles, he of the surgically attached Tigers ball cap. Miles looked to be Ann Arbor-bound until he declared two hours before the SEC title game in Atlanta that he wasn't going anywhere, then knocked off Tennessee 21-14. That win, coupled with the dual swoons of Mizzou and the Mountaineers, launched LSU's Bob Beamonesque leap from No. 7 to 1500 Poydras Street, a.k.a. the New Orleans Superdome.

Bepatient, BCS loyalists counseled over the latter half of the season. This will all sort itself out. Instead, with the top two teams taking the pipe for the second straight week, the national championship picture took on all the clarity of an Etch A Sketch artist gone mad. Lining up for the coveted No. 2 slot, and the right to face the Buckeyes, were no fewer than seven squads with bona fide arguments. LSU, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech had just won their conference championship games. Georgia and USC are on fire. Kansas has but a single defeat, Hawaii none at all. The truth is, the 60 coaches in the USA Today poll and the 114 Harris poll voters, who slotted LSU into the title game (with help from the system's six computers), were all asked to do the same thing: take a wild guess. Right now, no one has the first clue as to who the two most deserving teams are.

There is only one way to find out, and it involves brackets -- either a 16-team playoff (not going to happen) or a "plus-one," in which the top four teams in the BCS would square off in semifinal games, and then the title game, or "plus-one," would kick off a week later. (Because of TV contracts, that probably won't happen before 2011.)

Since its inception in 1998, the BCS has delivered plenty of unfulfilling resolutions. But no season in its 10-year history has cried out so desperately for a playoff. SI's modest postseason proposal features an eight-team field and is a compromise between a four-team plus-one, which doesn't go far enough, and a 16-team bracket that would be too taxing -- not on the athletes but, rather, on the hearts of purists who contend that a playoff will sap the vitality from the regular season. The field would be determined using the final BCS rankings. The top four seeds would host first-round games. Three of the four BCS bowls would host the semifinals and the title game, and first-round losers would be slotted into other bowls. Now let's explain why, despite widespread appeal among fans, a playoff won't be coming to college football anytime soon.

How fitting that in the final game of the Season of the Upset, the Bayou Bengals will be ranked No. 2 yet favored over the Buckeyes. Pittsburgh's mind-boggling 13-9 win in Morgantown marked the sixth time in 2007 that a No. 2 team had gone down and the 13th time a top five team had been dumped by an unranked foe. True, West Virginia's star quarterback, Pat White, missed much of the game with a dislocated right thumb. But then, LSU survived the Vols with backup Ryan Perrilloux. The Tigers beat six top 20 schools, including defending national champion Florida; ACC champ Virginia Tech, 48-7; and SEC East champ Tennessee -- which hammered Georgia by three touchdowns. For those reasons, and because both of the Tigers' losses came in triple overtime, voters saw fit to leapfrog them over the Bulldogs, Jayhawks and Hokies.

Buckeyes versus Tigers (a.k.a. the Vest versus the Hat) is the title game we thought we were going to get three weeks ago, before the season went wildly off the rails. It promises to be a chess match between native Ohioans. Miles grew up in Elyria, 23 miles west of Berea, where Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel went to high school. What this Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game won't be, the redundancy in its title notwithstanding, is a true championship.

Yes, BCS coordinator Mike Slive told SI last week, the university presidents he serves "remain interested in continuing to explore" the idea of a plus-one. Translation: They are keeping an open mind about the possibility of someday, years hence, opening their minds. Hopefully, this season's train wreck will light a fire under their backsides.

A plus-one is being considered, Slive goes on, only because it fulfills three criteria: First, it won't devalue the regular season. Also, it won't damage the current bowl system -- heaven forbid any harm befall, for instance, the Poinsettia, New Mexico or Motor City bowls! Finally, says Slive, a plus-one "keeps [football] a one-semester sport. There is a point where it needs to come to an end."

Let's examine these criteria in more detail:

1. The sanctity of the regular season. This concern for what is, we agree, the most urgent, impassioned, meaningful regular season in sports, loses something when it is put forward by people from conferences (ACC, Big 12, SEC) that have already devalued their regular season by tacking a title game to the end of it for the sole purpose of creating a fat payday.

2. Preserving the bowls. The assumption is that a playoff would toll the death knell for the vast constellation of bowls capping the season. Once a school gets knocked out of the playoffs, this gloomy theory holds, its fans will have no interest in going to watch the team in some consolation bowl. Really? Michigan's fans traveled en masse to the Rose Bowl last January, despite the Wolverines' having lost their previous game, in a playoff-type atmosphere, to Ohio State. Nebraska fans outnumbered Auburn partisans at the last Cotton Bowl, even though the Cornhuskers were coming off a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.

Besides, the bowl system doesn't need protection -- it needs a flamethrower. We now have 32 of these games, meaning that more than half the teams in Division I-A will go bowling. What was once a reward for an outstanding season has devolved into a celebration of mediocrity, showcasing 6-6 teams in games that are too often played in half-empty stadiums for indoor-soccer-sized TV audiences.

3. The academic/attrition argument: A playoff will force the lads to miss too much class time and absorb too much physical punishment. The proper response to this argument: Give me a break. If the presidents and chancellors were that concerned for the well-being of their student-athletes, they wouldn't have green-lighted a 12th game for Division I-A two years ago. "Do they understand how hypocritical that makes them look?" asks one network TV exec. Lose that 12th game and Division I-A can do what Division I-AA does: have a 16-team playoff.

Wringing their hands about the missed class time is even more asinine. Baseball players, basketball players and golfers all miss substantially more classes. "Football players miss four or five Friday afternoons a year -- on a day most of 'em don't even have classes," says DeLoss Dodds, the athletic director at Texas, who believes the buzz created by a playoff would equal if not surpass the excitement of the Final Four in basketball. "If we had an eight-team playoff," says Dodds, "it would capture America."

In the next sentence he explains why it can't happen. "The plus-one won't work," he says, wearily, "because to do it, you've got to seed the [top] four teams. And if you do that, the Rose Bowl won't accept it."

Confirming that is Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, who replies, "Uh, no," when asked if his conference is open to the possibility of a plus-one.

"If you seed the teams, and that's the only fair way to do it," he says, "then you're going to seed the conference champions out of their traditional bowl games. And that would be very injurious to all those games."

So "injurious" and abhorrent do Hansen and his ilk find such crime-against-nature bowl matchups that they are only too pleased to block the path to a playoff. And so tied to tradition is the Rose Bowl that, having lost Ohio State to the title game, it invited 13th-ranked Illinois, the only three-loss team to get a BCS bid, to face USC. The sport is being held hostage, as one frustrated AD puts it, "by the Rose Bowl parade."

Springing to the defense of his Pac-10 counterpart is Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who together with Hansen forms a kind of Axis of Obstruction. Pointing out that their conferences already compromised once, back in 1998, when they joined the Bowl Alliance -- later christened the BCS -- Delany says, "We gave up a lot. I don't feel like we're takers. I feel like we're givers."

It is the rest of college football's problem that they are no longer in a giving mood. That nine-year-old decision to play ball with the Bowl Alliance "was not a first step toward a playoff," Delany emphasized last Friday, "but a last step." The Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl recently signed an eight-year deal with ABC. (Fox has the rights to the four other BCS bowls in a contract that runs through 2014.) Says Delany, "We intend to honor that commitment."

Delany has no patience for arguments that a plus-one could ratchet up interest in the game even further. Yes, March Madness is sublime, he agrees, but the frenzy it creates comes at a high price. "Look what it's done to the regular season. There's only one game in the country that carries a premium: Duke-North Carolina."

Clamor for a playoff built steadily from 2000 to '04, as a series of worthy teams -- Oregon, USC and Auburn -- were excluded from the title game. But in '05 the blind squirrel found the acorn; the BCS got it right. No. 2 Texas' 41-38 win over top-ranked USC was one of the best college games ever. But since Longhorns quarterback Vince Young took over in the Rose Bowl two years ago, it seems that playoff partisans have been losing ground.

Last year, when it looked as if Florida might miss out on a berth in the championship game, university president Bernie Machen took up the playoff banner. When pressure was brought to bear on him last April, Machen recanted like Frankie (Five Angels) Pentangeli contradicting his sworn affidavit against the Corleones in Godfather II. ("I don't know nothin' about that.") On that occasion last spring, an SEC presidents meeting in Destin, Fla., Machen went in a passionate advocate for a playoff, only to walk out convinced that "the best way is to work within the BCS structure."

Machen declined to be interviewed for this story, anticipating, perhaps, that he would hear the following admonition: "You had it right the first time, sir."

For LSU's Miles, Saturday's drama began hours before kickoff. At chapel in the team hotel, a player said to him, "Sounds like you're catching a plane on Monday."

Earlier that morning, ESPN had reported that Miles was headed to Michigan to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr. To quash a potentially major distraction, Miles called a team meeting to assure the Tigers that he wasn't going anywhere. He forcefully repeated that assertion in a hastily called press conference at the Georgia Dome. "I have a championship game to play," he said, "and I'm excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it." He was talking about the SEC championship game, of course. Who could have predicted that he might as well have been talking about the BCS title game?

A victory over the Buckeyes would provide a consolation for Wolverines fans who thought they had Miles, a Michigan alum and former Wolverines assistant coach, locked up. It would vindicate his decision to stay in Baton Rouge. The game wouldn't be any tougher if the Tigers were meeting Ohio State in the final of an eight-team playoff. It would just be more meaningful.