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Playoff, Please

Dec. 11, 2006
Dec. 11, 2006

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Dec. 11, 2006

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Playoff, Please

Even before UCLA stunned USC, heightening the championship matchup debate, the BCS was as problematic as ever. SI offers an eight-team tournament with rebuttals to arguments against it

The Rose Bowlturf was soft and wet where UCLA players had doused coach Karl Dorrell with acooler of water last Saturday night, and the Bruins had just made theever-changing national championship picture even muddier than the groundbeneath his feet. But at the same time UCLA's 13--9 upset of No. 2 USC, whichdenied the Trojans a berth in the BCS Championship Game, made one truth clearerthan ever--that strange, unexpected things can happen when teams meetface-to-face rather than in a computer's circuitry or a voter'simagination.

For instance, a clever defensive coordinator just might devise a scheme thatenables his seemingly overmatched unit to shut down a prolific offense, as theBruins' DeWayne Walker did, blitzing USC quarterback John David Booty fromevery angle in ending the Trojans' NCAA-record streak of 63 consecutive gameswith at least 20 points. "They did a great job of changing up theirlooks," said USC wideout Dwayne Jarrett. "Their pressure affected ourtiming in the passing game." Or an unheralded quarterback just might makeenough big plays to win, as UCLA's Patrick Cowan did by, among other things,scrambling three times for 54 yards to keep a touchdown drive alive. Or asuperior team just might get caught underestimating an opponent, which seemedto be the case with the Trojans, who before stumbling against the Bruins hadbeaten three Top 25 teams in succession (Oregon, California and NotreDame).

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 2006 issue Original Layout

Keep all of thatin mind on Jan. 8, when top-ranked Ohio State and new No. 2 Florida play forthe BCS title. (The Gators made the most of USC's slipup by holding offArkansas 38--28 later on Saturday in the SEC championship game.) Even if weaccept that 12--0 Ohio State has proved itself worthy of its berth, wouldFlorida have reached the championship game if it had needed to beat Michigan,Wisconsin or Louisville--all one-loss teams like the Gators--to get there? If6--5 UCLA can derail 10--1 USC, could 12--0 Boise State, ninth-ranked and theonly other unbeaten team in Division I-A, have drawn up a game plan to beat anyof those schools given the chance?

There are noformulas, BCS or otherwise, that can answer those questions. The answers lie inpostseason games that, sadly, will never be played. The Bowl ChampionshipSeries doesn't require the best teams to prove themselves against each other onthe field, it simply chooses a pair of applicants from a set of similarrésumés. That's fine when there are two clear-cut choices, as was the case lastyear when undefeateds USC and Texas met, but that doesn't happen often enoughto justify the process.

It didn't happenin 2001, when the BCS system determined that Nebraska should play Miami for thenational championship even though the Cornhuskers didn't reach the Big 12 titlegame and Oregon and Colorado were arguably more deserving of the berth. Itdidn't happen in 2003, when Oklahoma was crushed in the Big 12 title game byKansas State yet advanced, instead of Southern Cal, to the BCS championshipmatch, in which LSU beat the Sooners. (USC, ranked first in both major polls atthe end of the regular season, won the Rose Bowl and was voted No. 1 in thefinal AP poll for a share of the title.) It didn't happen in 2004, whenOklahoma and USC, both undefeated, played for the national championship whileunbeaten Auburn was left out of the mix. We can add 2006 to the list of yearswhen the BCS formula left us uncertain that the two most deserving teams wereplaying for the championship.

There is only oneway to clean up the mess that the current system creates, and everyone from thelocker room to the chancellor's office knows what it is, even if not all ofthem will acknowledge it. It is time to end the BCS guesswork and allow thebest teams to prove themselves against each other, as they do at every otherlevel of college football. The lower divisions of the NCAA have made a playoffsystem work for years without nearly the resources of Division I-A, and there'sno reason such a setup couldn't be even more successful on the major collegelevel. "From a competitive standpoint, you can't make a good argumentagainst it," says Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "Let's just go to aplayoff and be done with it."

If only it werethat easy. Despite the obvious flaws in the system, the university presidents,the only group with the power to replace the current system with a playoff, areunlikely to be moved by another season in which there wasn't a consensus on thetop two teams. "There really is no interest exhibited by our presidents orchancellors or many others in having a playoff," says SoutheasternConference commissioner Mike Slive, the BCS coordinator. "The bowl systemhas been very good for college football." Instead of "good," Slivemight just as easily have said "lucrative." According to the FootballBowl Association, over the past six years Division I-A schools have shared morethan $900 million from bowl payouts, and they will divide more than $210million this year and $2.2 billion over the next decade. The college presidentsare understandably hesitant to revamp a system that has been such a cash cow,and they point to more high-minded concerns, such as the physical demands onthe players from adding more games to the season and the academic harm thatcould be done by reducing the players' classroom time during the playoffs. Someadministrators are also reluctant to replace the bowl system, in which dozensof teams get the satisfaction of ending their season on a high note, with aplayoff system in which there is only one winner.

Down on the fieldthere's a different sentiment. Even Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose team hadthe BCS chips fall perfectly for it on Saturday, calls a playoff system the"only justifiable thing," although he's not sure of the best format."Don't ask me how to do it," Meyer said last week, "because I'm toobusy." Perhaps Meyer and, more important, the college presidents can findthe time to consider SI's suggestion for a playoff system.

•Eight teamsadvance to the playoff, with automatic berths going to the champions of the sixBCS conferences and two at-large berths reserved for the teams with the highestBCS ranking among the rest of the field (box, page 79). No more than two teamsfrom a conference can be included in the field. The four highest seeds wouldplay host to first-round games in mid-December.

•The losers ofthe four first-round games would be slotted into BCS bowls, and the fourwinners would play the national semifinals in two other BCS bowls--for instancethe Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl this year, the Fiesta and the Orange nextyear, and so on.

•The two winnerswould then play each other the following week in the national championshipgame.

This new systemwould address most of the BCS supporters' concerns, disingenuous as some ofthem may be:

A playoff wouldextend the season and cut further into the time players can spend in class.Academics didn't seem to be a concern when the NCAA voted last year to increasethe maximum number of regular-season games from 11 to 12, a move that affectedfar more players' class time than a playoff system would. The season wouldn'tend a day later than it does now, and the only additional games would be thefour first-round matchups in mid-December, a period when most schools are onholiday break and bowl teams are cooling their heels at practice and growingstale. By the time Ohio State plays on Jan. 8, the Buckeyes will have gone 50days between games. They may be the best team in the nation, but they might notlook like it after the equivalent of a seven-week bye.

A playoff formatwould diminish the tradition and importance of the bowls and perhaps drive someof the minor ones out of existence. Incorporating the BCS bowl games into theplayoff system would enhance their importance, not diminish it. As for thelesser ones, it's hard to believe that a playoff would steal some of theattention normally showered on games like the Pioneer PureVision Las VegasBowl. The bowl system, up to 32 games this year, has already been diluted bythe creation of so many new ones over the last decade that mediocre seasons arerewarded with invitations. When Miami goes 6--6, engages in one of the ugliestbrawls in recent memory and gets invited to the MPC Computers Bowl, perhapsit's time for some of the minor bowls to be abolished.

Regular-seasongames would be less meaningful. "I hate to use the word playoff, but in asense, the BCS makes every weekend a playoff," says Slive. That's not quitetrue. If anything, this year has proved that the regular season isn't asunforgiving as BCS supporters make it seem. USC's surprising loss to OregonState on Oct. 28 was thought to be a crippling blow to the Trojans' titlechances, but after Michigan lost to Ohio State three weeks later, USC was backin contention. Arkansas absorbed a 50--14 whipping by USC in its opening game,yet the Razorbacks were in the running for a title-game berth until their lossto LSU on Nov. 24.

In some ways aplayoff system would make the regular season even more meaningful. Considerlast Saturday's dramatic action: Wake Forest edged Georgia Tech 9--6 for theACC title; Florida beat Arkansas for the SEC championship in a game full oflead changes and shifts of momentum; and West Virginia beat Rutgers in atriple-overtime classic. Those games would have been even more thrilling hadthe stakes been even higher--if a playoff spot (and not just a BCS berth) hadbeen on the line. Under SI's playoff system, winning the conference title wouldbe the only sure way to reach the playoffs, ensuring that league games wouldstill be crucial. Playing a strong nonconference schedule would also beencouraged, both as a way of preparing for the all-important conference seasonand to help a team's BCS standing in the event it is fighting for an at-largeberth.

Fans may not bewilling or able to travel to multiple games to support their team. Thisargument against the playoff system may have some merit. The bowl games counton the participating teams to bring a sizable contingent of fans. That'sreasonable when the fans have only one bowl to attend, but it becomesproblematic if they are expected to crisscross the country for two or threeweekends with their team. "The fans have to make decisions on whether theythink their team is going to make it past the first round," says Ohio Stateathletic director Gene Smith. "And then are they going to go to the secondround? Or both? And then the championship game? A lot of people aren't thinkingabout the practicality of what a playoff system would be at the I-A level."But the first-round games would be at home stadiums, and the added significanceof those games and the semifinals being playoffs would attract more local fansnot associated with the schools. What's more, considering the fan bases of theschools that would normally appear in these games, any seats left untaken wouldlikely be grabbed by those who usually get shut out of their school's singlebowl appearance.

There's also thelikelihood that increased television revenue would help offset any shortfallfrom a potential drop-off in out-of-town attendance. Fox paid $320 million forthe rights to BCS bowls except the Rose for the next four years, and a trueplayoff system would seem to be even more marketable to a television network.This season's elongated BCS bowl schedule--the Rose and the Fiesta on Jan. 1,the Orange on Jan. 2, the Sugar on Jan. 3 and the BCS Championship Game on Jan.8--may be a trial run to test the ratings in a playofflike format. Televisionmoney may be the only force capable of putting a playoff system in motion.

For now, theplayoff movement seems to be spinning its wheels. Two weeks ago Florida Statepresident T.K. Wetherell told reporters that he was working with Floridapresident Bernie Machen on an eight-team playoff proposal to present to theNCAA, but both men have since said that no such proposal is in the works."President Wetherell and I have discussed the general concept of analternative to the BCS system," Machen says, "but there have been noserious discussions nor are there any plans in place to overhaul theBCS."

Griping about theBCS has become as much a part of college football's culture as marching bandsand tailgating, and supporters of the system seem immune to the constant callsfor a playoff from fans and media, or even coaches and athletic directors."The BCS this year has helped make a great regular season of collegefootball," Slive says. "Attendance is up, ratings are up, interest isup."

Frustration isalso up among those who want to see a champion emerge from surviving a gantletof the top contenders, as in every other sport. "Looking at USC on paper,there's no way anyone would expect us to beat them," Cowan, UCLA'squarterback, said after the Bruins' upset. "But we just wanted to get onthe field with them and see what happened. That's why they play the games."In the end, that's what the cluster of teams at the top of the BCS standingsdeserves. Give them a real postseason. Just let them play the games.

BOWLBREAKDOWN

For complete bowlcoverage, including Stewart Mandel's ranking of all 32 games, go toSI.com/collegefootball.

The BCS doesn't require the best teams to PROVETHEMSELVES against each other, it chooses two applicants from a set ofrésumés.
"The BOWL SYSTEM has been very good for collegefootball," says Slive. Instead of "good," he might just as easilyhave said "lucrative."
"From a competitive standpoint, you can't make agood argument against it," says Tuberville. "Let's GO TO A PLAYOFF andbe done with it."
PHOTOPhotograph by Josh Thompson/Cal Sport MediaYOU'REOUT
UCLA linebacker Eric McNeal tipped, then intercepted a last-minute USC pass,ending the Trojans' national title hopes.
PHOTOBOB ROSATOCOMPUTER ANALYSIS
Chris Leak and Florida jumped to No. 2 thanks to their SEC championship gamevictory over Arkansas.
PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYEREIGHT ILLUSTRATIONSCHARTPHOTOAL TIELEMANSHARTBREAKER
Michigan lost at Ohio State by only three points, but Mike Hart and theWolverines didn't get their rematch.
PHOTOED REINKE/APWHATABOUT US?
Louisville slipped up against Rutgers, but Brian Brohm still led the Cardinalsto the Big East title.