It's Debatable Is college football better off with whimsical polls and co-champs like Michigan and Nebraska than with the vagaries of a playoff system?

January 12, 1998

There is one more game to be played, of course: No. 1 Michigan
against No. 1 Nebraska. Neutral field. Prime time. Team payouts
that look like NBA salaries. The Wolverines' remorseless defense
against the Cornhuskers' voracious offense. Quarterbacks Brian
Griese and Scott Frost. Heisman winner Charles Woodson and
Lombardi honoree Grant Wistrom. Sixty minutes, no questions left
unanswered. Trophy at midfield. Hats, with tags still attached,
proclaiming an undisputed national champion. Lights out.
Closure. Basketball season.

In your dreams.

Truth is, the 1997 college football season ended one game short
last week. The officials called for a measurement, trotted out
the chains and, you bet: It was one game short.

After Michigan's 21-16 victory over Washington State in the Rose
Bowl on New Year's Day, Wolverines junior strong safety Marcus
Ray stood on the field and dismissed Nebraska by saying that he
was going to the Lakers' game the next night and wasn't even
going to watch the Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl. A little more
than 24 hours later, after Nebraska's 42-17 win over Tennessee,
Frost challenged the 62 coaches who vote in the USA Today/ESPN
poll to base their decision on which team they would rather play
with their job on the line, Nebraska or Michigan. (If it's all
the same to you, Scott, I'd play Rutgers.) Fittingly, in the
small hours of last Saturday morning the season closed with a
split national title--Associated Press voters for 12-0 Michigan
and the coaches for 13-0 Nebraska--and with two power programs
clinging to the same trophy. This is the system. Champions are
determined in the same way that aldermen get their jobs: at the
polls. Feel free to weep or cheer.

Before you choose tears, however, consider that justice was done
on the first weekend of 1998, if awkwardly so. Michigan had done
what it had to do, as it had all season, and so had Nebraska.
Each deserves to be called national champion, and so they are.
Retiring Nebraska coach Tom Osborne rides into the sunset, and
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr basks in his newfound celebrity. This
is not such a terrible thing. Before you speak the word playoff,
consider that forcing college football into a January Madness
would come at a terrible price. College football is the major
team sport in America with the most meaningful regular season.
The college season is also passionate, enervating and memorable,
a rollicking ride from late summer into early winter that
sometimes extracts a small price by leaving one too many
national champions (or one too few, like undefeated Penn State
in 1994).

If there were an eight-team tournament for the national
championship, what would Nebraska freshman wideout Matt
Davison's miracle catch at Missouri have meant? Nothing. He
drops the ball, and the Cornhuskers maybe get a lower seed.
Traditional early-season games, such as Notre Dame-Michigan,
would be little more than preseason exhibitions, with teams
given two more months to recover. And a late-season defeat by a
traditional rival, such as Florida State's devastating 32-29
loss at Florida, would be quickly remedied by a first-round
tournament victory. A single loss in the regular season would
mean little. A tournament would put a period at the end of the
sentence and make nearly as much money as Dubai, but it would
slowly squeeze the life out of the fall. During its coverage of
the Orange Bowl, CBS incessantly hyped March Madness, as if
January and February do not exist in college basketball, which
they in fact do not.

Smaller playoff, you say? Take two teams and match them after
the bowls? Maybe. Michigan against Nebraska on the Saturday
before the Super Bowl would be a terrific show. But this would
surely kill what's left of the bowl system and the sanctity of
the New Year's break to college football. Moreover, it wouldn't
always be so easy to pick just two teams. Think about last year:
Florida and who? Ohio State? Florida State in a rubber match?
Heaven help us. In fact, many Januarys leave no confusion at
all; and then another game would be an anticlimactic dud.

Plus, there's hope on the way. Next season the Pac-10 and the
Big Ten conferences join the Bowl Alliance, creating the Super
Alliance and, at last, an annual game between the No. 1- and No.
2-ranked teams. Those teams are expected to be determined by a
formula that will take into account AP and coaches' poll
rankings. This isn't perfect, either. Some years might produce
three unbeaten or once-beaten teams gunning for the top two
places at the end of the regular season, mercilessly running up
scores to secure them. Worse yet, the bowl season could still
end with two of those three teams having identical records,
leaving the poll voters in a predicament similar to this
season's. In other years there might be just one unbeaten team
and a half dozen with one loss lining up for a shot at the king.

If the Super Alliance had been in effect a year ago, unbeatens
Florida State and Arizona State would have played for the
championship in the Sugar Bowl, and once-beaten Florida, which
won the national title, would have been eliminated on selection
day. This year, Michigan would have played Nebraska.

Polls, sadly, will remain at the core of the process. Coaches,
with no fear of having their votes made public, can manipulate
the USA Today/ESPN poll to their personal benefit. (At least one
coach didn't vote Michigan first or second this year. How could
this be? After second-ranked Florida was crushed by Nebraska in
the '96 Fiesta Bowl, a coach voted the Gators 11th.) Neither the
coaches nor the media are given voting guidelines. Are they
supposed to reward a team for seasonlong excellence or rank
teams based on who they think would win a head-to-head matchup?
The game needs a new rating system. Keep the polls for fun, but
designate a committee, perhaps one similar to the NCAA
Basketball Tournament Committee, to select the teams who play in
the big game.

For now, sustain yourself with a game in the imagination.
Impressions of teams' relative strengths are so fleeting that by
late last Friday night Michigan's brave performance against an
underrated Washington State team had been wholly overshadowed by
Nebraska's crushing of Tennessee, which, face it, rolled over
and died in the middle of the third quarter--just as the
Volunteers have done so often against SEC nemesis Florida. In 24
hours Nebraska became the hot team again. Oddsmakers made the
Cornhuskers a 6 1/2-point favorite in a mythical game. (Osborne
shamefully alluded to that point spread in his day-after press
conference.)

In fact the teams are difficult to separate. Nebraska scored 607
points to Michigan's 322, but any college football aficionado
knows the Huskers are often slow to find the brakes in a
runaway. Meanwhile Michigan was so kind in a 37-0 rout of
Indiana that Hoosiers coach Cam Cameron thanked Carr for not
having his team score more. The Wolverines gave up 100 fewer
points. Michigan and Nebraska had two common opponents; the
Wolverines beat Colorado 27-3, while the Cornhuskers defeated
the Buffaloes 27-24. But Michigan's win was in its season opener
and at home. Nebraska's was in late November and on the road.
Both also played Baylor. The Wolverines trampled the Bears 38-3
in Ann Arbor; the Cornhuskers won 49-21 at Waco. Michigan's
schedule looked brutal in August, but with Notre Dame and
Colorado combining for 12 losses, not so tough in January.
Nebraska beat a good Washington team in Seattle but only after
knocking out the Huskies quarterback. The Missouri team that
almost beat the Cornhuskers got beaten by Colorado State in the
Holiday Bowl.

No doubt Nebraska is terrific, but it isn't the '95 thresher
that embarrassed Florida and every other team. There's no way
Michigan's defense, as quick as Tennessee's but more physical
and far more courageous, would yield the way the Volunteers did.
Frost would be in third-and-long far more often. Just as surely,
Michigan would struggle to sustain its offense against the
Nebraska defense. Griese would get punished. If you say a
matchup between the two wouldn't be a close game, you're either
deluded or dressed in red-and-white or maize-and-blue.

Someday there will be a playoff. The power schools in the NCAA
will slowly effect change, usurping power from the bowls and the
conference commissioners. The financial payoff will grow too
large and too tempting to resist and, just like that, the Road
to Pasadena will be a reality. For now, think of college
football's postseason progress as a trip from New York to Los
Angeles. About now the sport is advancing on Cleveland. It's on
a perfect pace.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER In a perfect world Frost (7) would have given Josh Williams and the Wolverines a run for the undisputed No. 1 ranking. [Photomontage of Josh Williams reaching to tackle Scott Frost]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)