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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Showdown at the BCS Corral?

The president of an allegedly jilted college football team, Michael Adams of the University of Georgia, has proposed a playoff system for NCAA Division I-A football teams.

This, of course, makes a whole lot of sense, and any three year-old who's grown up so far watching Elmo on Sesame Street could tell you that. What's interesting, of course, is the author and the timing. Georgia, you see, has been discussed as one of the top four teams in college football, yes, better than Ohio State, and, naturally, there are people in Athens who are royally ticked that their beloved Bulldogs didn't get a shot at the title.

To be clear, we're talking about Georgia in the U.S. and not the birthplace of that feared offensive coordinator Joe Stalin, and we're talking about Athens in Georgia and not the birthplace of many of the world's greatest ideas (with no offense to those in Athens, Georgia, where I'm sure many good ideas have abounded, including the recruitment of Herschel Walker, this proposal and the firing of Harrick senior and junior).

Had the author been the president of Duke, Temple, Kansas State or Stanford he'd/she'd have more credibility. Had the Georgia president authored the letter before his team rose to such status, he'd have a bit more credibility too. Why? Because there are choruses in Big 10 country who are shouting "sour grapes." In fact, in Columbus President Gordon Gee seems to be doing so, albeit intellectually dishonestly. Before you cry "sour grapes" too loudly, President Gee, let's see how you fare in the national rankings in the future a) given your school has a problem with the SEC the way Lloyd Carr had with you and b) when the Rich Rodriguez spread offense and recruiting machine hits its stride in Ann Arbor. Or, put differently and more kindly, when you have a few down years.

But what these public outcries thus far belie is the boiling frustrations that the NCAA and BCS have for one another. Let's face it, suppose NCAA President Myles Brand adopts Michael Adams' position and calls for a playoff, or even tries to mandate one. Do you think that the BCS will listen to him any better than Bob Knight did when Brand was president at Indiana? The big difference here, though, is that Brand can't fire the BCS schools. So, if things get ugly, the NCAA as we know it could suffer a major secession. Say six to eight conferences bolt to grab all the money and form their own association, leaving the NCAA with the conferences that make life interesting on occasion but are odds-on favorites not to win the title. Moreover, if those conferences bolted, what would happen to the beloved NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments? Would the BCS create bowl games for the major teams too? And would the NCAA really believe that fans would buy a Valparaiso-UC Santa Barbara game for the national championship (because Duke, Memphis, Georgetown, etc. would be elsewhere)?

What a mess this could become, especially if the NCAA and the BCS end up at loggerheads. It's all about the money, of course, and not about sportsmanship, fair play and what it should be.

Should there be a national playoff? Of course. It would be absolutely riveting TV with a huge market share and ad revenues that would come close to those of the Super Bowl's. People would watch the playoff games with great interest, starting, yes, with a Round of 16. Imagine the national coverage, imagine the drama, and imagine the wonderful competition.

Let's face it, there's too much stuff to watch on TV and too much competition for it. People don't want to watch bad stuff, and they also have pay-per-view channels to watch. So they don't want to watch bad re-runs, silly "reality" shows, or get oversaturated with bad sporting events that don't mean anything. Who really will watch those games? And, remember, on New Year's Day today (as opposed to say 30-40 years ago), restaurants and stores are open (and last I checked, shopping is one of America's favorite pastimes).

Did you really want to watch USC-Illinois on New Year's Day if you didn't go to one of those schools or aren't related to a player (Emeril did look dapper at the coin toss, although he looks much better in a chef's whites than a suit)? Or would you rather play New England versus Dallas on Madden or box your older brother on the Wii? How about any of the above -- except watch a meaningless game.

The problem, naturally, is politics. The BCS group is hardly transparent, and the NCAA hasn't proven to be effective. Unless there's a groundswell of support from the major (read: BCS) conferences for a meaningful playoff system (and I'd take a four-team one at this point -- perhaps you take the winners of the "major" bowl games and put them in the playoffs), you won't get a playoff.

Call it greed, call it loyalty to the bowls who have supported them for years, provide paydays for 7-5 teams, call it what you want, but it just won't happen. And you'll be left with endless bowl games, including, perhaps, the Potato Bowl, for the two teams who got mashed the most during a season. Can you go 0-12 and go bowling? Why not? Someone might even sponsor it. The Russian oligarchs have made their mark on English soccer. Can their involvement in bowls be far behind?

Sorry, Georgia, but this year you got the wrong end of the draw. Next year, it will be someone else.

The truth is that sports (with the exception of "judged" sports) are the ultimate meritocracy, where the best players make the team and the best of those get the playing team, and the best teams win on the field. That truth makes sports compelling and differentiates them from places where sons- and brothers-in-law get ahead because of which families they married into. Yet, the BCS process takes away the meritocracy and stinks of back-room dealing and an aversion -- for the sake of money -- to finding the true champion.

The Super Bowl anoints a champion.

What does the BCS Bowl really do?


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