The problem is that the Sugar Bowl, like all Bowl Championship Series bowls, does not really preserve the past or ensure the future. Both sides of that claim ring false. The Sugar Bowl is a competitive ellipsis, an empty bridge between what we once had (the bowl system) and what we think we might one day have (a playoff).
At this point, you are probably thinking "Oh, great! Just what America needs: another columnist screaming that any functioning democracy needs a college football playoff, and that without one we're basically North Korea with better pizza."
It's true that columnists have been screaming for a playoff for years, and will continue to scream for a playoff for years, and so if I scream for a playoff right now, I would be preserving the past and ensuring the future. But I won't do that.
I see the merits of a playoff, I really do. I see them more with every season of the BCS. For now, though, forget a playoff. Forget the future. Let's focus on the past. The old bowl system would serve college football better this year than the BCS would.
In 1993, as Cheers finished its glorious run, the great philosopher Woody Boyd declared "I hate change." Well, what if college football had taken Woody's words to heart, and basically froze in 1993? Were we better off 19 years ago than we are today?
I think we were. For the past two-decades, college football has been half-stepping toward a playoff system, without actually implementing a playoff. In the old days, conference champions were locked into certain bowls. The Big Ten champ played the Pac 10 champ in the Rose Bowl. The Big Eight champion -- which was pretty much always Oklahoma or Nebraska -- went to the Orange Bowl. The Southeastern Conference champion played in the Sugar Bowl. The best at-large teams -- including the big independents Notre Dame, Miami, Florida State and Penn State -- filled out the rest of the top spots.
You knew what you were getting. You didn't always like it. And it certainly wasn't a perfect way to determine the national champion every year. But you knew what you were getting.
That is the problem with the BCS: It claims to be something it is not. The BCS is supposed to preserve the bowl system, but it has actually robbed it of much of its appeal. Mostly, the BCS is supposed to give us a real national champion. But oftentimes, it doesn't do that either.
This year, for example, I think we would have been much better off with the old system.
Consider the matchups:
No. 1 LSU, as the SEC champ, would play in the Sugar Bowl against the top available runner-up: No. 4 Stanford.
Is Stanford the second-best team in the country? I doubt it. But LSU has already beaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and in the old days, that would have counted for a lot more. People understood that LSU won something important that day -- a spot ahead of Alabama in the pecking order. Nobody would have argued that Alabama "deserved" another chance on a neutral field. Everybody understood that college football's playoff began in September. If LSU beat Stanford, the Tigers would be no-questions-asked national champions.
No. 2 Alabama, meanwhile, would play the No. 3 team, Big Eight/12/Whatever champion Oklahoma State, in the Orange Bowl. This would have been an extremely compelling matchup: the Cowboys' dazzling offense against the Crimson Tide's dominating defense.
Both teams have lost -- Alabama to LSU, Oklahoma State to Iowa State -- so they (rightly) would need help to win the national title. That was always part of the deal. But Oklahoma State and Alabama would hold out hope that Stanford could shock LSU and let them into the back door of the national-title race.
And anyway ... well, this is hard to explain to anybody under the age of 30, who grew up in the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and now the Bowl Championship Series era. But back then, the national title was not the be-all, end-all of human existence. Sure, it was a big deal. But it was a debate, it was imperfect, and everybody understood it was a matter of opinion. It was uncontrollable. The only concrete goals were:
1. Winning all your games.
2. Winning your league, going to that league's designated top bowl, and winning that bowl.
And No. 2 was at least as big as No. 1. You could see it in the scheduling. It was rare to see teams try to pick up a gimme W against Division I-AA competition (which is now FCS). Top teams often played at least one and sometimes two tough nonconference games.
There were other benefits. It was stable. If college football had stuck with the old system, we wouldn't have today's preposterous realignment shuffle, with every conference desperate to do anything to keep automatic-qualifier status in the BCS.
I don't want to over-romanticize that era. A lot of people complained about the lack of a national championship game. Split championships never really bothered me, but when Colorado and Georgia Tech split the title in 1990, or Washington and Miami split the title in 1991, it drove some folks nuts. In 1994, Penn State went undefeated and finished No. 2 in both major polls behind Nebraska. The incredible USC-Texas national title game after the 2005 season could not have happened under the old system.
So no, it was not perfect. But I still preferred it to what we have now, because at least it made for a better sport from September to January. College football was different, it was quirky, it was largely regional, and without even really trying, it churned out quite a few undisputed national champions.
Back then, when two teams had a claim for the national title, do you know what happened? Two teams claimed they won the national title. Simple as that. There was no "official" BCS championship to reject them. The argument was just an argument.
When Alabama and LSU face each other next week, we are supposed to accept that they are clearly the two best teams. (I think they are, but nobody can say for sure, and we will NEVER be able to say for sure.) We're supposed to believe that we NEED the two best teams to play each other in the "title game," even if they already faced each other during the regular season, because the people in charge are so desperate to give legitimacy to their illegitimate system. Some years it all works out. This year the old system would have been better. And more honest, too.