Let's have an argument!

It's good to have a real sport that's messy and silly and dumb, and Division I football's method of crowning a champion is all of that.

By King Kaufman
Published November 24, 2002 6:13AM (UTC)
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Is it just me who thinks that Iowa would crush Ohio State like a bug?

The Buckeyes, who have been struggling mightily to beat so-so teams like Purdue and Illinois the past few weeks, are certainly not one of the top two teams in the country right now, but if they can beat Michigan on Saturday -- a big, big if -- they'll go to the Bowl Championship Series game, which this year is the Fiesta Bowl. That's because they've managed to keep winning, going 11-0. Everybody else except Miami, which still has two games to play, has lost at least once.

So Iowa, which is in the same conference as Ohio State, and which like the Buckeyes didn't lose a Big Ten conference game, and which spent the latter half of its season beating the snot out of bad teams (Northwestern, by a score of 62-10) and good ones (Michigan, 34-9), won't get to play for the championship because it lost a non-conference game early in the year to Iowa State.

This is a terrific thing.

I don't mean it's a terrific thing that Ohio State, which I think would get crushed like a bug by Iowa, gets to play for the championship while Iowa, which I think would crush Ohio State like a bug, doesn't. I mean it's a terrific thing that the BCS, which was designed to be a rational way of crowning a Division I college football champion, is complete nonsense, as everyone with two synaptic knobs to rub together knew it would be when it was invented four years ago. It was supposed to put an end to all that arguing that used to meet the end-of-season polls (which, as Allen Barra points out, were invented to foster arguing). Now, arguing over who should be national champion is a growth industry. So, yeah, the BCS is working beautifully!

Because here's the thing: Who needs a consensus national champion? Division I college football is the only sport we have where people argue over who the real champion is. Well, there's boxing, but it has such a ridiculous number of champions in such a ridiculous number of weight classes that it's removed itself from consideration as a legitimate sport. I once sneezed at an auction and was named junior welterweight champ. But why can't we have one real sport where there isn't a clear-cut winner, where my lame pick -- Iowa! (OK, not really, but hey, Iowa!) -- is just as valid as your lame pick? There's enough boring certainty in our world, plenty of sharp boundaries and final answers. Why can't we have one place that's messy and silly and dumb?

We can, and we do, and we're going to get to keep it, because even though the NCAA bureaucrats tinker and fiddle with the BCS formula every year, they're not going to get it fixed anytime soon, because the only legitimate way to come up with a champion in a sport with so many teams and such a short season is to hold a tournament, the way they do in all other sports and in the lower divisions of NCAA football. And Division I isn't close to having a tournament because the New Year's bowls get in the way.

The way Division I works now, the regular season ends around Thanksgiving, then some conferences play a championship game, and then there's a lull for a week or two before the bowl season begins. This year there are 28 bowls, meaning that 56 teams, about half of Division I, will play in what are, aside from the Fiesta Bowl, meaningless exhibitions. Among the games you're likely to ignore next month are the New Orleans Bowl, the GMAC Bowl (they don't even bother with bowl names after the sponsor names anymore), the Motor City Bowl, the Insight Bowl, the Seattle Bowl and the Silicon Valley Classic, in which the score will be artificially inflated in the first quarter, then crash in the third.

All of this culminates with a flurry of bowls on or within a day or two of Jan. 1, including the four BCS bowls, the Fiesta, Rose, Sugar and Orange. (I ignore the sponsor part of the bowls' names, but I'd be willing to include them on payment to me of $50 per mention from the sponsors, or from anybody else now that I think of it.) The Fiesta Bowl, in Tempe, Ariz., has replaced the Cotton Bowl, in Dallas, as one of the "big four" traditional New Year's games in recent years. Those old four are part of long-running New Year's festivals that include parades and queens and courts and old men in funny blazers and all that.

A playoff system can't be laid over the existing bowl system because even if you moved one of what I'll call the big five up a week, you'd still only be up to the quarterfinals by New Year's. The season would have to be extended at least two more weeks, right into the teeth of the NFL playoffs. That would be bad for business, or, as it's expressed on the TV by NCAA bureaucrats: "We don't want to add games and possibly jeopardize the health of the student athletes." They say things like this with a straight face, bless their little festering hearts. Then they add a game to the next year's schedule.

So what has to happen to keep the championship game around New Year's Day is that the quarterfinals would have to be moved up to mid-December and the semifinals to around Christmas. The "big five" bowls could rotate as the championship game, the semifinals and two of the quarterfinals, with two other bowls filling the other quarterfinal spots.

The New Year's bowls and their attendant festivals are a great American tradition dating all the way back to the 20th century, and the NCAA bureaucrats don't want to mess with them. Not because they care about great American traditions. If that were true, the great American football Saturday would not routinely be moved to Thursday night, or even Wednesday or Tuesday night, to fill TV programming slots. But there'd be some bad public relations fallout, and the sight of old men in funny blazers picketing them is no doubt one the bureaucrats don't relish.

The Rose Bowl, for example, isn't about to put up with being moved to Dec. 18 or Christmas Day in the years when it doesn't host the title game. And that's not to mention that all those smaller bowls, most of which take place in the week between Christmas and New Year's, aren't going to be too happy about being overshadowed by a championship tournament.

So at least for the time being, we're stuck with the current imperfect, dumb, fun, let's argue about who should be in the title game system. The NCAA will tinker and fiddle with the BCS formula every year, downplaying the margin of victory one year, emphasizing the strength of schedule another, adding and dropping polls to the roster of those considered. Notre Dame will propose a "What Team Would Jesus Send to the National Championship Game?" system.

And none of it will make a difference. There will always be a team left out of the championship game that can make a legitimate claim that it's better than one of the teams that did make it. There's no avoiding it. This year, if undeserving Ohio State loses, you know who moves into the title game? Washington State (assuming the Cougars beat Washington on Saturday, another big if), whose only loss this year was to ... Ohio State.

Eventually, I think the NCAA will decide that a Division I championship tournament would be more lucrative than the current bowl system, and the big bowls will have to go along with it or cease to exist.

In the meantime, wouldn't it be nice if conferences required all of their teams to play each other during the season? That way, Iowa and Ohio State would have played each other, rather than one of their four meaningless (unless they lose one) non-conference games. What do you think, could Ohio State have afforded to drop Kent State from its schedule in favor of Iowa this year? Could Iowa have squeezed Ohio State in rather than that big game against Akron?

If Iowa and Ohio State had played, Iowa would have beaten the snot out of them, and the Hawkeyes would be in the Fiesta Bowl already. Or they'd lose, paving the way for ... Georgia! Not really, but hey, Georgia!

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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