Bowls-polls disorder is perfectly in order

JOHN EISENBERG

November 22, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

If you accidentally drop an extra smidgen of flour into a bowl of cookie dough, do you throw out the whole batch?

When the murder mystery ends without the murder solved, do you howl in anguish or applaud the weirdness?

Can you sleep at night if your pencils are not sharpened to a perfect point and aligned from left to right in your desk drawer in ascending order of length?

In short, can you handle disorder?

Yes, sports fans, these questions do have a place here in the toy department this morning. They are offered as a public service, to help you assume your stance on a sporting issue that appears every autumn as regularly as the mountain of "beautiful" leaves on your lawn.

That issue, of course, is what to do about determining college football's No. 1 team.

Are you fond of arguments without winners? Gray areas? Disorder? Did you major in philosophy? Then you're probably in favor of the system of polls and bowls, which has always determined the champ.

Are you a hopeless neat freak? Did you major in statistics? Do you detest the map of the "new" Europe, with all those annoying little countries? Then you're probably among the faithful who sound the call for a national championship playoff when the picture gets murky, as it does every year -- and certainly did when Boston College buzzer-beat Notre Dame on Saturday.

It is one of those issues that can define you, like capital punishment, or John McEnroe, or drinking decaf in the morning. Either you love the arguments and anarchy and sheer ridiculousness of the polls and bowls, or the vagueness drives you nuts.

Me, I love the disorder. I can't help it. I love the regionalism and myopia and bowl officials wearing fuchsia jackets. I love fans in red hog-snout hats turning blue in the face making arguments with white-hot vehemence even though they can't prove a thing, because no one can.

I love that regular-season games still mean something, which they most certainly would not as soon as a playoff was installed. (See: basketball, college, in which the postseason tournament is the sole barometer of success. If there were a football playoff, Lou Holtz would have called the loss to BC "a good tuneup.")

I love the fact that there is still a corner of the sporting landscape that hasn't been sterilized by the stat police.

Arguing is more fun.

Just look at what is happening now. Notre Dame's loss left five teams staking claims on No. 1: The unbeaten troika of Nebraska, West Virginia and Auburn and once-beaten Florida State and Notre Dame. A sixth team, Florida, could sneak into the debate. It doesn't get any better than this, people. A complete mess.

Who is the rightful No. 1? Well, as they say in college football (at least in the Ivy League), it depends on your body politic.

My vote, if I had one, would go as follows: Auburn, Florida State, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Miami, Florida, Nebraska.

Because Auburn made it through the SEC undefeated, a feat that has the sport's highest degree of difficulty.

Because, even though Auburn is on probation (and cheaters should never prosper, noooo), the only difference between them and half of the rest of Division I is that they got caught.

Because, even though Notre Dame beat Florida State in South Bend, the Seminoles would beat the Irish anywhere else.

Because, even though unbeaten, West Virginia hasn't played enough tough teams.

Because, even though it hasn't lost, Nebraska has lost its last six bowls by a combined 175-83. (Their whining fans should have the decency to keep quiet. We've figured you out, that's all.)

Anyway, those are my opinions and I will argue them stridently -- at least until they change after next week's games.

Polls-and-bowls is a perfectly imperfect system, but that's the point. It's not supposed to be definitive. It's supposed to make everyone crazy. That's the fun.

And anyway, who says a playoff would definitively determine the best team? Was Villanova's basketball team better than Georgetown's? No way. A playoff upset rewards the hot team, not the best team.

Oh, well. Once the last regular-season games and bowls are played this season, the picture will look a lot clearer. That's the way it almost always works. You hear a lot of arguing around Thanksgiving, but not much on Jan. 2. Polls-and-bowls works most of the time. You can look it up.

The playoff lobby seems to be losing steam, too. It was louder a few years ago, when we heard the plaintive war cry -- "It's not fair!" -- every day. No longer. Maybe it's because the incoming president of the NCAA is against the idea of a playoff. Maybe it's because the members of the lobby are just exhausted. Or maybe they're too busy arguing about who's No. 1.

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