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Bowlarama

The bowl games didn't always produce an undisputed champ. The BCS is junk. College football needs a new system.

11:01 PM, Jan 2, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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IF THE CREATORS of college football's Bowl Championship Series weren't already reeling from all the criticism they've gotten since Nebraska backed into tonight's national championship game in the Rose Bowl against Miami, they should be now. The Oregon Ducks finished the season ranked number two in both the sportswriters' and coaches' polls; they were champions of the Pac Ten, one of the tougher conferences this year, and finished the season 10-1, their only loss (a squeaker) coming against a very good 9-2 Stanford team. But Oregon didn't get to play number one Miami in the national title game; they had to settle for playing in Tuesday's Fiesta Bowl, where they beat a highly-touted Colorado team, 38-16. Why? Because Nebraska--which didn't even win its own conference, and was crushed by 26 points in its final game of the season against Colorado--finished number two in the all-important BCS rankings. So, even though the writers and coaches both have Nebraska ranked fourth (behind both Oregon and Colorado), the Cornhuskers get to play Miami tonight for the national "championship."

What is this dastardly BCS that is breaking the hearts of Oregon fans everywhere? A little background for the uninitiated: Every major collegiate sport in America quite sensibly determines their national champion through some sort of head-to-head competition (usually a playoff format, such as the "March Madness" of the NCAA basketball tournament). The exception is Division I football, which for decades has ended its season with "bowl games," such as the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl.

For the most part, the bowl system is a wonderful thing. Each year, almost 50 of the nation's best teams get to spend the holiday season in balmy tourist traps like Southern California, Florida, and New Orleans, and play one last game, with huge cash payouts (from the TV networks and corporate sponsors) going to the schools and their respective athletic conferences. Some great inter-regional rivalries have developed over the years as the bowls aligned themselves with various conferences (for instance, until this year the Big Ten and Pac Ten champs always met in the Rose Bowl). And unlike a playoff tournament, in which every team but the eventual winner ends its season on a losing note, the bowl system gives lots of teams the chance to end their year feeling positive.

But there's just one problem: For all their pomp and pageantry, the bowls often fail to provide a single, definitive national champion. Instead, for decades the sportswriters' and coaches' polls crowned an unofficial champ. Most years, one team was clearly the best; the coaches' and writers' polls concurred, and everyone went home happy. But every few years things went haywire: Two or three or four teams won bowl games and had the same record. Each team could legitimately claim that it was the best, and the writers and coaches picked different champions.

For example, take 1997, when two of the most storied programs in college football--Nebraska and Michigan--both went undefeated. (Though Nebraska got some help from a dubious, and probably illegal, touchdown that helped them escape an upset at the hands of Missouri. Full disclosure: Michigan is my alma mater.) Both teams won their bowls, leaving the poll voters in a bit of a fix. The sportswriters voted Michigan number one, but the coaches voted Nebraska number one--partly swayed, no doubt, by the fact that their peer, legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, was retiring at the end of the season.

After that debacle, the major athletic conferences got together and created the Bowl Championship Series. The idea was to keep the old bowl system more or less intact, while ensuring that the two best teams would play each other in a real national title game. To do this, a complicated ranking system was devised: Each team earns a score based on its ranking in the writers' and coaches' polls and a Byzantine formula that factors in the average margin of victory, the quality of opponents, and rankings in a handful of computer polls--most of which are run by computer geeks who admit they don't know anything about football. At the end of the season, the champions of the six major conferences, as well as two at-large teams, are selected, based on their BCS ranking, to play in the four major bowls, with the top two teams facing each other.

If all this sounds more confusing than the Electoral College, well, that's because it is. Nevertheless, in its first two years the BCS delivered as promised: It kept the bowls alive, and provided a consensus national champion. But in fact, the system was working almost despite itself. Only several miraculous upsets late in both seasons helped the BCS avoid its creators' worst nightmare: a scenario in which three or four teams could all legitimately argue that they deserved to play in the title game.