Can You Say Playoff?

With all due respect to Ohio State and LSU, if ever a season screamed for the BCS to be blown up, it's this one. But that won't happen until the folks at the Rose Bowl come to their senses
December 10, 2007

IT IS only goodmanners, before we take a hydraulic jackhammer to this FUBAR Bowl ChampionshipSeries, 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 shareyour joy. People remember what happened last year when you made it to the gameknown as the 'Ship (Florida 41, OSU 14). ¬∂ And hats off to you, LSU, forretaining the Hat—coach Les Miles, he of the surgically attached Tigers ballcap. Miles looked to be Ann Arbor--bound until he declared two hours before theSEC title game in Atlanta that he wasn't going anywhere, then knocked offTennessee 21--14. That win, coupled with the dual swoons of Mizzou and theMountaineers, launched LSU's Bob Beamonesque leap from No. 7 to 1500 PoydrasStreet, a.k.a. the New Orleans Superdome.

Be patient, BCSloyalists counseled over the latter half of the season. This will all sortitself out. Instead, with the top two teams taking the pipe for the secondstraight week, the national championship picture took on all the clarity of anEtch A Sketch artist gone mad. Lining up for the coveted No. 2 slot, and theright to face the Buckeyes, were no fewer than seven squads with bona fidearguments. LSU, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech had just won their conferencechampionship games. Georgia and USC are on fire. Kansas has but a singledefeat, Hawaii none at all. The truth is, the 60 coaches in the USA Today polland the 114 Harris poll voters, who slotted LSU into the title game (with helpfrom the system's six computers), were all asked to do the same thing: take awild guess. Right now, no one has the first clue as to who the two mostdeserving teams are.

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

Since itsinception in 1998, the BCS has delivered plenty of unfulfilling resolutions.But no season in its 10-year history has cried out so desperately for aplayoff. SI's modest postseason proposal features an eight-team field (chart,page 62) and is a compromise between a four-team plus-one, which doesn't go farenough, 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 thevitality from the regular season. The field would be determined using the finalBCS rankings. The top four seeds would host first-round games. Three of thefour BCS bowls would host the semifinals and the title game, and first-roundlosers would be slotted into other bowls. Now let's explain why, despitewidespread appeal among fans, a playoff won't be coming to college footballanytime soon.

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

Buckeyes versusTigers (a.k.a. the Vest versus the Hat) is the title game we thought we weregoing to get three weeks ago, before the season went wildly off the rails. Itpromises 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, theredundancy in its title notwithstanding, is a true championship.

YES, BCScoordinator 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 willlight a fire under their backsides.

A plus-one isbeing considered, Slive goes on, only because it fulfills three criteria:First, it won't devalue the regular season. Also, it won't damage the currentbowl system—heaven forbid any harm befall, for instance, the Poinsettia, NewMexico 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 anend."

Let's examinethese criteria in more detail:

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

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

Besides, the bowlsystem doesn't need protection—it needs a flamethrower. We now have 32 of thesegames, 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 acelebration of mediocrity, showcasing 6--6 teams in games that are too oftenplayed in half-empty stadiums for indoor-soccer-sized TV audiences.

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

Wringing theirhands 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 mostof 'em don't even have classes," says DeLoss Dodds, the athletic directorat Texas, who believes the buzz created by a playoff would equal if not surpassthe excitement of the Final Four in basketball. "If we had an eight-teamplayoff," says Dodds, "it would capture America."

In the nextsentence he explains why it can't happen. "The plus-one won't work," hesays, 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 isPac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, who replies, "Uh, no," when asked ifhis conference is open to the possibility of a plus-one.

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

So"injurious" and abhorrent do Hansen and his ilk find suchcrime-against-nature bowl matchups that they are only too pleased to block thepath to a playoff. And so tied to tradition is the Rose Bowl that, having lostOhio State to the title game, it invited 13th-ranked Illinois, the onlythree-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 thedefense of his Pac-10 counterpart is Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whotogether with Hansen forms a kind of Axis of Obstruction. Pointing out thattheir conferences already compromised once, back in 1998, when they joined theBowl Alliance—later christened the BCS—Delany says, "We gave up a lot. Idon't feel like we're takers. I feel like we're givers."

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

Delany has nopatience for arguments that a plus-one could ratchet up interest in the gameeven further. Yes, March Madness is sublime, he agrees, but the frenzy itcreates 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--NorthCarolina."

Clamor for aplayoff 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 squirrelfound the acorn; the BCS got it right. No. 2 Texas' 41--38 win over top-rankedUSC was one of the best college games ever. But since Longhorns quarterbackVince Young took over in the Rose Bowl two years ago, it seems that playoffpartisans have been losing ground.

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

Machen declined tobe interviewed for this story, anticipating, perhaps, that he would hear thefollowing 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, aplayer said to him, "Sounds like you're catching a plane onMonday."

Earlier thatmorning, ESPN had reported that Miles was headed to Michigan to replace theretiring Lloyd Carr. To quash a potentially major distraction, Miles called ateam meeting to assure the Tigers that he wasn't going anywhere. He forcefullyrepeated that assertion in a hastily called press conference at the GeorgiaDome. "I have a championship game to play," he said, "and I'mexcited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play init." He was talking about the SEC championship game, of course. Who couldhave predicted that he might as well have been talking about the BCS titlegame?

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

Dodds believes the BUZZ CREATED BY A PLAYOFF wouldequal if not surpass the excitement of the Final Four.

College football IS BEING HELD HOSTAGE, as onefrustrated athletic director puts it, "by the Rose Bowl parade."

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ONLY AT SI.COM

The SI Playoff Proposal

Take the top seven teams in the final BCS rankings andNo. 10 Hawaii (sorry, Kansas, the only undefeated school in Division I-Adeserves a shot to win it all), and you're left with a bracket that isintriguing, to say the least

COLUMBUS, OHIO

OHIO STATE 41

Buckeyes use their size to manhandle game Warriors

HAWAII 20

OKLAHOMA 24

Home field carries Sooners in a meeting of two red-hotteams

GEORGIA 17

NORMAN, OKLA.

ROSE BOWL

21

OU's balanced attack, massive O-line too much fornation's No. 1 defense

24

SUGAR BOWL

WINNER

LSU 28--24

In a rematch from four years ago, the Tigers gamble ona key fourth down and rally to beat the Sooners

ORANGE BOWL

38

Healthy again, LSU plays as it did when it was the No.1 team in the land

31

BATON ROUGE

28 LSU

RB Jacob Hester is the difference in a dreamfirst-round matchup

27 USC

23 VA. TECH

Tigers spring an upset as their high-powered spreadgets back in gear

31 MISSOURI

BLACKSBURG, VA.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesIN LUCK LSU made a huge leap in the rankings by beating Tennessee, while Ohio State moved up four spots without playing. PHOTODUSTIN SNIPES[See caption above] PHOTOMARCO GARCIA/AP (HAWAII)LET DOWN Hawaii was the only team to run the table, while Virginia Tech won the ACC. PHOTOJAMES LANG/US PRESSWIRE (VIRGINIA TECH)[See caption above] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (WEST VIRGINIA)ARE YOU KIDDING? West Virginia's shocking loss to Pitt threw the BCS into chaos. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (USC)BAD MATH USC and Oklahoma, each with two losses, are less worthy than LSU, with two. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (OKLAHOMA)[See caption above] PHOTOBILL FRAKES (HESTER) FOURTEEN PHOTOS PHOTOBOB ROSATO (GEORGIA)HAPPY CAMPERS Georgia and Kansas got BCS bids without even playing for a league title. PHOTOWD/ICON SMI (KANSAS)[See caption above]

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)