Evidence is in: Jury still out on polls and bowls

JOHN EISENBERG

November 22, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

There are times when you must admit that the evidence against you is overwhelming. It happened to some poor soul in every episode of "Perry Mason." It happened to Richard Nixon, to Milli and Vanilli, to the Denver Broncos shortly after kickoff in the last Super Bowl. Now, it is happening to me. I come to you today with hands in the air, admitting defeat.

Yes, I've paid my taxes. Yes, I've paid my #$%&! parking tickets. But, no, at least for this year, I'm not on the right side of the debate about using a playoff tournament to determine the No. 1 team in college football. I'm against it. Always have been, always will be. But 1990 has been a bad year for the anti-playoff lobby.

The current system of polls and bowls -- to which I'm particular, and which almost always works -- has been a colossal failure this year. The race for No. 1 is a glop of nonsense, and it won't be any clearer after the bowls, because the big bowls got nervous and greedy and committed too early.

The current No. 1, the Colorado Buffaloes, would be far down the list if some officials hadn't erred and given them a fifth down in the last seconds against Missouri, turning a loss into a win. The Buffs' record should show two losses and a tie, but because it doesn't, they've risen to No. 1.

The No. 2 team, Miami, has two losses. A team with two losses should never win a national title, especially if one is to BYU. The Hurricanes have more losses than Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12 and 20. They're ranked high because they lost early instead of late. The LSL (Late Season Loss) Syndrome is a major drawback of polls-and-bowls. Early-season losses are worth half the demerits of a late one.

There are top teams with better records than Miami. Texas is 8-1 against a schedule including Colorado, Penn State, Houston, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. The No. 6 Longhorns should be No. 2. Miami belongs behind No. 7 Notre Dame. Both have two losses, and the Irish whipped the Hurricanes. The same logic gave Miami a national title last year, when the Hurricanes and Irish finished 1-2. For some reason, it doesn't apply now.

As it stands now, the Nos. 3 and 4 teams are Georgia Tech and BYU. Give me a break. Tech is unbeaten, having a great season, but it has played only two ranked teams. BYU has played one. That's hardly a test of championship mettle. But no matter. Another drawback of polls-and-bowls is that, as Nebraska proves every year, it pays to load up on Eastern Washingtons.

So, who is No. 1? Who knows? You can make a case for a dozen teams, then shoot holes in them all. The best five I've seen are (not in order) Florida, Colorado, Tennessee, Notre Dame and Miami, and they've got eight losses and three ties. If the season were a piano competition, they wouldn't award first place. Clearly, a playoff is the only answer.

It hurts to admit that. I've always been dead against a playoff. The biggest reason is that, while polls-and-bowls may involve silly biases and unwritten rules, it does work most of the time -- four years out of five, say. You can look it up. Somehow, some way, after all the deal-making and debates, a clear champion almost always stands out on Jan 2.

A playoff would make the season too long (no college team should play 15 games). A playoff would render the regular season meaningless (now that the NFL is letting 12 teams into the playoffs, baseball and college football are the only sports in which the regular season means something). A playoff would be equally unscientific. (By what criteria would teams qualify? Be seeded?)

A playoff would not necessarily crown the best team. (Was Villanova better than Georgetown?) A playoff would completely undermine the bowls. (The pro-playoff lobby always comes up with these patronizing plans they think would keep the bowls important and happy. They don't get it. The bowls are nothing unless they're the end-all.)

A playoff would generate millions, but I'm convinced the money would only further separate the haves and have-nots. Doubt it? Look at the havoc wreaked by the billion-dollar bas

ketball deal. The big wallets are squeezing the little ones, such as Towson State, right off the playing field. These people are beyond greedy. Give them enough money, and they'll shoot everyone.

The main reason I'm anti-playoff, though, is I love the ambiguity and arguments of polls-and-bowls. It is maddening, idiosyncratic and a little insane. A playoff would be sterile,

professional. What's wrong with a touch of vagueness, especially if it usually gets resolved? Are we so simple that we need everything spelled out plainly?

This is not the year for me to be on this soapbox, though. The bowls didn't do themselves proud. They got paranoid and lined up teams before the signing date, and now the Sugar is a dud and the Orange isn't as hot as it could have been. The Cotton got lucky with Miami -- if Texas makes it. The Rose is a washout. The Fiesta is a Fiasco, but that's another story.

The system just broke down this year. It happens, and the pro-playoff pod people (PPPP) always come flying in waving their plans and mock brackets. (I use them to line the cat boxes in my basement.) I admit they've got the evidence this year. My white flag is up. But we start over again next September, and my white flag comes down. As Jimmy Cagney said: "You may think you got me, but you doesn't."

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