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Quick Fix

There's an easy way to get an undisputed college football champ AND keep the bowl system.

10:30 AM, Jan 2, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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OF ALL THE PROBLEMS IN THE WORLD, the easiest one to solve is how to use the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to crown an undisputed champion of college football. It's simple: arrange playoffs inside the bowl game format that leave only one major team with an undefeated record. This can be done without dissing the numerous other bowl games outside the BCS. Really.

My plan is hardly original. Other sages (including Standard associate editor Lee Bockhorn) have advocated a playoff system for college football. My innovation is to keep the playoffs as actual bowl games, allowing more cities to participate. Schools, fans, students--they all love bowl games. Why else would 20,000 Virginia supporters and 35,000 fans of West Virginia have bought tickets to the most obscure of bowl games, the first ever Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 28?

Of course the first step is to acknowledge that playoffs are the way to go. They are already in place for every other level of college football (Divisions I-AA, II, and III) and for every other college sport (men's Division I-A basketball starts with 65 teams and winds up with one champ). Playoffs work for high school sports as well.

So the question becomes: What's the best system? Obviously it's to pick the top eight teams, as the BCS already does. The problem now is that each team plays only one other BCS team. Sure, the two teams with best records (this year, Miami and Ohio State) meet in the top BCS game to decide a champion. But that championship may be suspect. USC has been the best team in the college football for the second half of the season. If the Trojans clobber Iowa in the number two BCS bowl game, as is likely, that will surely evoke claims that they're really the best team.

There's a better way to handle this. The select teams would have playoffs over three weeks. Just before Christmas, there would be four games, all bowl games. You know, the Gator, Liberty, Peach, Sugar, and Continental Tire bowls. The four winners would meet around New Year's in, say, the Rose and Orange Bowls. Then the final two would play in a real national college championship game the first weekend in January at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.

The tournament would be seeded. If it were in place this year, Miami would play Oklahoma or Washington State in the first round, an easier game for the Canes than facing Ohio State right off the bat. They'd get credit for having won 34 games in a row. And by not facing Miami in round one, Ohio State would benefit from having finished unbeaten in the incredibly tough Big Ten.

The playoffs solve the obvious problem of winding up with more than one unbeaten team. This was a worry late this season when there were a half-dozen undefeated teams in Division. All but two fell, leaving Miami and Ohio State with unblemished record. But it wouldn't have been a concern in the first place if a playoff system were in place.

Now, there's a final problem. Wouldn't a playoff series detract from all the other bowl games, even doom them because only a smattering of spectators would show up? Not at all. There are good reasons why official bowl games have proliferated (28 in all this season). Teams desperately want to play in bowl games if they qualify. And all that's required is six wins against Division-I foes. Their fans, too, are eager to come. And college athletic officials relish the payouts. The Virginia and West Virginia athletic programs will get roughly $1 million apiece from the Continental Tire Bowl, which will help pay for non-profitmaking sports such as women's field hockey and men's wrestling. Miami and Ohio State will receive $13.5 million each.

The case for playoffs is overwhelming. There's no reason to wait to install such a system. It should be done for the 2003 season. My prediction for the two finalists? Virginia, my alma mater and THE rising power in college football, versus Notre Dame.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.