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Playoff, Please
December 11, 2006
Even before UCLA stunned USC, heightening the championship matchup debate, the BCS was as problematic as ever. SI offers an eight-team tournament with rebuttals to arguments against it
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December 11, 2006

Playoff, Please

Even before UCLA stunned USC, heightening the championship matchup debate, the BCS was as problematic as ever. SI offers an eight-team tournament with rebuttals to arguments against it

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The Rose Bowl turf was soft and wet where UCLA players had doused coach Karl Dorrell with a cooler of water last Saturday night, and the Bruins had just made the ever-changing national championship picture even muddier than the ground beneath his feet. But at the same time UCLA's 13--9 upset of No. 2 USC, which denied the Trojans a berth in the BCS Championship Game, made one truth clearer than ever--that strange, unexpected things can happen when teams meet face-to-face rather than in a computer's circuitry or a voter's imagination.

For instance, a clever defensive coordinator just might devise a scheme that enables his seemingly overmatched unit to shut down a prolific offense, as the Bruins' DeWayne Walker did, blitzing USC quarterback John David Booty from every angle in ending the Trojans' NCAA-record streak of 63 consecutive games with at least 20 points. "They did a great job of changing up their looks," said USC wideout Dwayne Jarrett. "Their pressure affected our timing in the passing game." Or an unheralded quarterback just might make enough big plays to win, as UCLA's Patrick Cowan did by, among other things, scrambling three times for 54 yards to keep a touchdown drive alive. Or a superior team just might get caught underestimating an opponent, which seemed to be the case with the Trojans, who before stumbling against the Bruins had beaten three Top 25 teams in succession ( Oregon, California and Notre Dame).

Keep all of that in mind on Jan. 8, when top-ranked Ohio State and new No. 2 Florida play for the BCS title. (The Gators made the most of USC's slipup by holding off Arkansas 38--28 later on Saturday in the SEC championship game.) Even if we accept that 12--0 Ohio State has proved itself worthy of its berth, would Florida have reached the championship game if it had needed to beat Michigan, Wisconsin or Louisville--all one-loss teams like the Gators--to get there? If 6--5 UCLA can derail 10--1 USC, could 12--0 Boise State, ninth-ranked and the only other unbeaten team in Division I-A, have drawn up a game plan to beat any of those schools given the chance?

There are no formulas, BCS or otherwise, that can answer those questions. The answers lie in postseason games that, sadly, will never be played. The Bowl Championship Series doesn't require the best teams to prove themselves against each other on the field, it simply chooses a pair of applicants from a set of similar r�sum�s. That's fine when there are two clear-cut choices, as was the case last year when undefeateds USC and Texas met, but that doesn't happen often enough to justify the process.

It didn't happen in 2001, when the BCS system determined that Nebraska should play Miami for the national championship even though the Cornhuskers didn't reach the Big 12 title game and Oregon and Colorado were arguably more deserving of the berth. It didn't happen in 2003, when Oklahoma was crushed in the Big 12 title game by Kansas State yet advanced, instead of Southern Cal, to the BCS championship match, in which LSU beat the Sooners. ( USC, ranked first in both major polls at the end of the regular season, won the Rose Bowl and was voted No. 1 in the final AP poll for a share of the title.) It didn't happen in 2004, when Oklahoma and USC, both undefeated, played for the national championship while unbeaten Auburn was left out of the mix. We can add 2006 to the list of years when the BCS formula left us uncertain that the two most deserving teams were playing for the championship.

There is only one way to clean up the mess that the current system creates, and everyone from the locker room to the chancellor's office knows what it is, even if not all of them will acknowledge it. It is time to end the BCS guesswork and allow the best teams to prove themselves against each other, as they do at every other level of college football. The lower divisions of the NCAA have made a playoff system work for years without nearly the resources of Division I-A, and there's no reason such a setup couldn't be even more successful on the major college level. "From a competitive standpoint, you can't make a good argument against it," says Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "Let's just go to a playoff and be done with it."

If only it were that easy. Despite the obvious flaws in the system, the university presidents, the only group with the power to replace the current system with a playoff, are unlikely to be moved by another season in which there wasn't a consensus on the top two teams. "There really is no interest exhibited by our presidents or chancellors or many others in having a playoff," says Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, the BCS coordinator. "The bowl system has been very good for college football." Instead of "good," Slive might just as easily have said "lucrative." According to the Football Bowl Association, over the past six years Division I-A schools have shared more than $900 million from bowl payouts, and they will divide more than $210 million this year and $2.2 billion over the next decade. The college presidents are understandably hesitant to revamp a system that has been such a cash cow, and they point to more high-minded concerns, such as the physical demands on the players from adding more games to the season and the academic harm that could be done by reducing the players' classroom time during the playoffs. Some administrators are also reluctant to replace the bowl system, in which dozens of teams get the satisfaction of ending their season on a high note, with a playoff system in which there is only one winner.

Down on the field there's a different sentiment. Even Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose team had the BCS chips fall perfectly for it on Saturday, calls a playoff system the "only justifiable thing," although he's not sure of the best format. "Don't ask me how to do it," Meyer said last week, "because I'm too busy." Perhaps Meyer and, more important, the college presidents can find the time to consider SI's suggestion for a playoff system.

?Eight teams advance to the playoff, with automatic berths going to the champions of the six BCS conferences and two at-large berths reserved for the teams with the highest BCS ranking among the rest of the field (box, page 79). No more than two teams from a conference can be included in the field. The four highest seeds would play host to first-round games in mid-December.

?The losers of the four first-round games would be slotted into BCS bowls, and the four winners would play the national semifinals in two other BCS bowls--for instance the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl this year, the Fiesta and the Orange next year, and so on.

?The two winners would then play each other the following week in the national championship game.

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