BCS has flaws, but still beats playoffs

November 21, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

There are college football seasons in which two teams clearly belong in the national championship game, and there are seasons when the situation is, to say the least, muddled.

Last season, Southern California and Texas were the only unbeaten teams at the end of the regular season. They met in the Rose Bowl. Texas won. There was nothing to debate.

This season is shaping up as a cloudy one. Ohio State, the nation's top-ranked team after beating Michigan on Saturday, clearly belongs in the title game. But a handful of teams with one loss, including Michigan, are vying to play the Buckeyes in the title game.

The Bowl Championship Series' complex system of polls and computers will eventually decide whether Michigan, USC, Florida or someone else gets to play Ohio State. For the record, I don't think it should be Michigan; those teams have played. Let's see the Buckeyes beat someone else before we crown them.

This kind of season leads people to scream that college football needs to junk the BCS and concoct a Division I-A playoff system that would result in the title being determined on the field, of all places. Fortunately, there's no evidence the sport is leaning that way. Who needs it?

For starters, the arguments college football incites are the best in sports. Did you hear Florida coach Urban Meyer go off like a 5-year-old when someone dared suggest Michigan deserved the title-game berth ahead of his Gators?

"If that does happen, all the [college] presidents need to get together immediately and put together a playoff system, I mean like now, January, or whenever to get that done," Meyer said.

Sure, Coach. Ain't gonna happen, by the way.

Coaches, alumni, fans - everyone loses his cool and goes bug-eyed over this stuff. What could be better?

As I've written before, I think big-time sports is better off with at least one gray area, a place where everything isn't quite so precisely folded. College football is perfect for that. Maybe one-fourth of Division I-A is playing for a national title, and everyone else just wants to win its rivalry game and go to a decent bowl. (See: Maryland.) If you diminish the bowls - and going to a playoff would surely diminish the bowls if not entirely eradicate them - you'd ruin the party for the majority of Division I-A.

Besides, who says the BCS system is so awful at crowning the best team? It might not be perfect, but other sports' systems of using a drawn-out playoff season to determine a so-called No. 1 isn't so perfect, either.

Were the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals the best team in baseball in 2006? Hardly. They just happened to get hot at the right time.

Were the Pittsburgh Steelers, seeded sixth in their conference, the best team in the NFL last season? Probably not, but they, too, got hot at the right time and won the Super Bowl.

Sure, there are plenty of years in every sport when the best team wins, but just as many when some team surprises. I would argue that college football's percentage of crowning the best team is at least as high, if not higher. The BCS system virtually guarantees that two of the nation's top three or four teams will play in the championship game. The got-hot-at-the-right-time flukes don't make it. Since when is that a crime?

Please understand something: Long, drawn-out playoff seasons are universally accepted as the preferable method of deciding a winner, but they exist primarily to generate extra revenue, not to ensure that the most deserving team wins. If crowning the best team were the only goal, there'd be no wild cards; why reward a team for not winning its division/league? But profits are the goal, so sports and leagues clutter up their playoffs with wild cards and extra qualifiers, and, well, may the hottest team win - but not always the best team.

College basketball's regular season is little more than a tuneup for the NCAA tournament, which every team uses to judge its season as a success or failure. What happened in January and February is rendered irrelevant by March Madness. So why even play those earlier games?

In college football's system, the regular season means everything. A team that hopes to compete for the national championship can't afford to slip more than once, if that much. Every snap counts. That's good. There's something to be said for being consistent over the long haul.

If football had a big playoff tournament, Saturday's Michigan-Ohio State game wouldn't have mattered nearly as much. Both teams would be headed for the playoffs. It would have been a basketball-like tuneup. Instead, it was a dramatic elimination game.

I'll happily admit the BCS isn't perfect, but the notion that college football has it all wrong is just false.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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