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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Let’s Fill a Few Bowls With Meaning

The Fairly Detached Observers

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Economic recovery, health-care reform, national security—you’d think Congress has enough to keep it busy. But House and Senate committees recently found time to tackle the issue of whether big-time college football needs a playoff system. The hearings came to nothing, and the Observers think Congress should stick to its usual non-sports blathering. But to misquote from the Founding Fathers, “We hold this need for a football playoff to be self-evident.”

Frank: College football fans can enter the 2009 season knowing that they’ll have the BCS to kick around for another six months.

Artie: The Bogus Championship System, ain’a?

Frank: Yup. The top level of college football is the only NCAA team sport that doesn’t determine its champion through playoff games. And why?

Artie: I wonder if it has anything to do with money.

Frank: Must be, because it can’t involve fairness or logic or consistency. In basketball, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball— hell, even in the three lower divisions of college football—the NCAA champion emerges through a progression of playoff games.

Artie: But at the top of the football ladder, there’s just one game, and the teams that play it are determined by a formula that almost always leaves tons of fans howling.

Frank: There are polls and rankings in almost every NCAA sport, and there will always be disputes about who deserves to be at the top. But except for what we used to call Division I-A football—now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision...

Artie: What, all the teams live in some fancy-ass neighborhood behind electrified gates?

Frank: Except for that subdivision, the top-ranked teams need to prove themselves in more than one postseason round. But in the former Division I-A, the teams that are 1 and 2 after the regular season through a combination of polls and computer rankings get to play the title game. All other contenders trot off to bowl games that, thanks to the BCS, are pretty darn meaningless.

Artie: When the BCS began, at least the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls alternated as the championship game. But now there’s a separate title game, which undercuts the actual bowl games even more.

Frank: Please employ the proper names. It’s the FedEx Orange Bowl, Allstate Sugar Bowl, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl presented by Citi.

Artie: Four gleaming jewels of capitalism! To say nothing of the now-demoted Cotton Bowl...

Frank: That’s AT&T Cotton Bowl.

Artie: And the never-quite-top-flight Gator Bowl...

Frank: That’s Konica Minolta Gator Bowl.

Artie: And the, what, six dozen other bowls that let the fans of 6-6 teams take a warm-weather vacation in December.

Frank: The official Web site of the BCS says it was “created by the conferences and schools before the 1998 season to assure a matchup between the top two teams—correcting a major flaw in the bowl system.”

Artie: Sure, if there are only two undefeated teams at the end of the regular season, we can be reasonably sure the BCS is producing a legitimate championship game. But what if there are three undefeated teams, or none?

Frank: Or, like last year, what if the only undefeated major team isn’t from the right conference?

Artie: Oh yeah, there are conferences and then there are conferences.

Frank: Six of the 10 spots in the BCS-affiliated January games go to the champions of the Big Ten, Pacific 10, Big 12, Big East, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences. The rest of the spots go to “at large” teams as determined by the rankings.

Artie: So last year, Utah of the Mountain West Conference was 12-0 but went to the Sugar Bowl because it was No. 6 on the BCS list, behind five teams with one loss each.

Frank: When the BCS says it was “created by the conferences,” it means the top six conferences. And the six automatic bids to BCS games are worth $18 million apiece.

Artie: Don’t the other D-I conferences get any money from the BCS?

Frank: According to an article at bcsfootball.org, the five other conferences— Mountain West, Mid-American, Sun Belt, Western Athletic and Conference USA—get $9.5 million for participating in the BCS rankings and $9.5 million if one of their teams qualifies for a BCS game.

Artie: So Utah got a pretty good payout from the Sugar Bowl—and earned it by stomping Alabama.

Frank: Which left the Utes at 13-0, but still only No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll behind 13-1 Florida, which beat Oklahoma in the title game. And Utah was only No. 4 in the final USA Today coaches’ poll, behind USC and Texas, both 12-1.

Artie: I hate to say this, but let’s be fair. The Utes didn’t face the kind of competition that Florida or Oklahoma did.

Frank: Absolutely true, which played a part in the computer rankings the BCS uses. But the point is this: Shouldn’t an undefeated team at least have a chance for the national title?

Artie: Absolutely! And the way to do that is a playoff system.

Frank: Which could easily be incorporated into the current setup. Take the top eight teams in the final BCS rankings and match ’em up in three rounds.

Artie: A total of seven games. We already have the four top bowls and the national title game. Let’s add the Gator and Cotton as quarterfinals and rotate among the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta for the other quarterfinals and the semis. That makes those bowls important again. Then the title game, and bingo! It’s a playoff system.

Frank: The rest of the bowl games could continue—they’d be no less trivial than they are now. Of course, you’d have to dole out the playoff money in equal amounts, regardless of conference.

Artie: I wonder if that would be a drawback for the six fat cats.

Frank: You’d also have to extend the playoffs over at least three weeks. The NCAA might blather about harming the educational pursuits of the players, or some such pompous phrasing.

Artie: The NCAA doesn’t worry much about the academic effects of basketball— preseason, conference and national tour naments, constant travel. It doesn’t worry about teams having to play whenever ESPN wants. And it doesn’t worry about all the practicing that bowl teams do in December.

Frank: You could compensate for the playoffs by dropping that 12th regular-season game the NCAA authorized in 2006.

Artie: Hold it, bucko. That would keep the big schools from playing a fourth nonconference cupcake to get bowl-eligible and rake in extra dough.

Frank: Anyway, it’s all still moot. The BCS is alive and well, despite the congressional hand-wringing. A few days after the hearings, the Mountain West swallowed its indignation and recommitted to the BCS television deal.

Artie: As long as there’s a pie on the table, might as well grab a hunk.

Frank: The hearings supposedly were looking into “possible antitrust violations” by the BCS.

Artie: For me, “antitrust” in big-time sports means that I don’t trust them to do anything except try to make as much money as possible.

Exemplary, My Dear Watson

Frank: So somehow a guy our age almost won the British Open.

Artie: It would have been so great to see Tom Watson do it. He was in the catbird seat, as we senior citizens like to say, but at the end he reverted to being the kind of 59-year-old golfer you’d see hacking it up at Grant Park.

Frank: He had the putt on 18 that would have won it, but when he missed that, you had to figure he was just deflated.

Artie: He had nothing left in the four-hole playoff against Stewart Cink. He was just worn out.

Frank: Something we can certainly relate to.

Artie: Things just went the way they go so often for guys our age, in so many contexts. It just doesn’t happen.

Filling a Top Priority

Frank: Now the Brewers have the leadoff hitter they’ve been looking for since Rickie Weeks got injured.

Artie: And a second baseman to boot—Felipe Lopez from Arizona in exchange for a couple of prospects. It’s a very good move; they were struggling with Jason Kendall and Craig Counsell as the leadoff guys.

Frank: Lopez did have good numbers with the Diamondbacks. Now it’s up to him to provide some spark and get on base ahead of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

Artie: And the Brewers can wait till next year to worry about what happens when Weeks returns. The time to win is now!

Photo caption:Mr. Chairman, we are not, nor have we ever been, members of the BCS party