I'll Take the Bowls
by Jim Alderson, 12/31/04

The countdown to the Sugar Bowl and the rest of the games affiliated with the BCS is on. Tech and the other seven teams participating in the BCS are dutifully preparing for their games while fans from Virginia to Los Angeles make preparations to attend bowls from Miami to Pasadena. Teams whose records range from something other than that necessary to winning their conferences to just over .500 are in the process of extending their seasons, as bowls come at us from all directions by the day, culminating in the New Yearís celebration of college football. I consider this the most special of times, especially as I begin packing for a few days to be spent sampling the delights of the French Quarter, occasionally taking time to observe some of the other games. Itís a great occasion.

As usual, however, there are those taking a dim view of the unique method in which the highest classification of college football conducts its postseason. Hardly a day or column goes by without somebody whining about the BCS, most specifically, bellyaching relating to Techís Sugar Bowl opponent, Auburn, and how they got jobbed out of the chance to compete for the championship to be decided by Southern Cal and Oklahoma. My response is to yawn, cluck sympathetically and click on the next news item. Thatís the way it goes, Tigers.

The braying about the BCS is concentrated on the inability by the BCS to fit three teams into two Orange Bowl slots. It is understandable, as it would likely have proven most difficult to have three teams in the game, perhaps alternating each possession with first Oklahomaís offense versus USCís defense, then Auburnís offense up against Oklahomaís defense, the Southern Cal offense lining up against the Auburn defense, and so on. Keeping track of the score would have been a bear. Or maybe they could have played two on one- maybe eight defensive backs could slow down Reggie Bush. In any event, having three teams play the game proved too great a logistical challenge for the BCS poobahs, so they decided to stick with the traditional football format of having two teams play the game. That meant one of the three undefeated contenders had to be left out, and BCS calculations determined that it would be Auburn. The Sugar Bowl ainít a bad consolation prize, Tigers. While it may seem like a consolation prize to you, I would point out that Tech has played in two since the last time you visited Bourbon Street in 1987. You also might not be aware of it, since this is your first foray into major bowl territory in a while, but Tech has played in three since you last turned the trick and would be happy to tell you that any BCS bowl is a good one. Look on the bright side: at least itís not Boise.

The griping and moaning about the participants in the BCS two-team playoff is the first time controversy has clouded the championship game since the last time it happened last year, when USC were the ones doing the griping. Before that, you have to go all of the way back to 2001 when Oregon was doing the howling, and before that flip through the history book to the year before, 2000, when Miami was the odd ibis out. In 1998 Florida State managed to sneak into the MNC game after UCLA lost their way out, the Noles awarded the right to lose to Tennessee over the howling protests of somebody, Iím sure. Only twice in the seven-year tenure of the BCS has the membership of the BCS conferences been so obliging as to produce two undefeated teams to square off in the championship, 1999 when Tech played FSU and 2002 when Miami lost to Ohio State. The rest of the years have produced loud complaining. So what? The republic and college football have survived. It will continue to, as well, as FOX has laid down big bucks to wrest the telecast of BCS bowls from ABC for at least the remainder of this decade. The BCS will continue to muddle along.

Those moaning that this is no way to determine a champion continue to point to a playoff as the best means to determine a champion, using the logic that everybody else does it. That certainly seems impeccable. It would also seem to bring a marked devaluing of that most special of regular seasons, the college football one, where every game has a profound effect on the overall scheme of things. This is a much greater situation than NFL teams using the meat of their schedule to merely jockey for playoff position, the college basketball one in which an increasing number of teams use it simply as an exhibition to prepare for the NCAA Tournament or the NBA one, which I assume, aside from contrived Christmas Day media events, still plays one. That sure sounds like fun.

Along with the uniqueness of the college football regular season, this sport is the only one that produces that most special of all postseason events, the bowl trip. I rather enjoy them. New Orleans, Miami, San Francisco, Nashville, even Jacksonville over and over have all been great trips that I consider a terrific reward for the effort expended during the regular season. Itís not too bad for the players, either. No matter how a playoff format would be determined, bowl trips would quickly lose their luster. That can be determined simply by taking a look at how Tech would fit into the various playoff proposals.

Under the simplest one, the top eight ranked teams would play a tournament with the first two rounds held on home fields. . The BCS rankings would have produced these contenders:

1] USC
2] Oklahoma
3] Auburn
4] Texas
6] Utah
7] Georgia
8] Virginia Tech

And these first-round matchups:

8] Virginia Tech- 1]USC
5] California- 4] Texas
7] Georgia- 2] Oklahoma
6] Utah- 3] Auburn

While I am sure the Tech coaches and players would not mind another shot at USC, and I would very much like Techís chances against the Trojans, especially with some actual running backs and wide receivers with a yearís experience, Tech would head to Los Angeles to play. A win would send Tech again on the road to play the winner of the Cal-Texas game. Assuming Tech won both games, and they would be underdogs throughout, only then would a bowl trip be in the offing. The scramble among Tech fans for tickets, accommodations and travel arrangements would have to then be done on, at best, two weeks notice. Iíll take New Orleans.

The above playoff scenario omits two BCS conferences, the Big 10 and the Liíl E. Guaranteeing them the same spots in a playoff that they are guaranteed in the current BCS would add Michigan and Pitt, knocking out Cal and Georgia. The seedings would then look like:

1] USC
2] Oklahoma
3] Auburn
4] Texas
6] Virginia Tech
7] Michigan
8] Pitt

Tech would again be on the road, this time at Auburn, with the prospect in the event of a win either a road game at Oklahoma or a home one against Michigan. A Lane Stadium game in late December would certainly be a wonderful ambience for postseason football. Give me the Superdome.

A number of people, including a lot of sportswriters, insist that any playoff could incorporate the bowls. That basically demonstrates why they are sportswriters instead of economists. For any school, rounding up sufficient numbers of fans willing and able to travel week after week would be a chore. The likelihood is that sparse crowds at the early-round and even semi-final games would very quickly cause the bowls to become disinclined to continue to host them.

There is a modified playoff scenario I very much like. It is the ĎPlus One,í a seeding of the top four teams at the bowl of the higher-ranked conference on or about January 1 with the winners tangling a couple of weeks later for what would no longer be the 'M'NC. The top four ranked teams in the BCS standings are:

1] USC
2] Oklahoma
3] Auburn
4] Texas

USCís PAC 10 bowl is the Rose, so they would play Texas, while Oklahoma would play Auburn in the Big XIIís Fiesta. The winners would advance to a second Orange Bowl somewhere around January 15. Under this proposal, Tech would have played in the first, consolation Orange around New Yearís day, probably against Pitt. There would probably be quite a few Hokies traveling to this game, but letís face it, a large part of the excitement of winning the ACC and playing Auburn in the Sugar Bowl would be replaced by marked disappointment at missing the playoff cut.

If I were in charge of college football, and I continue to be perplexed that nobody has yet offered me the job, I would require that a team actually win its conference to participate in the four-team playoff. That would lop off Texas, which would be replaced in my scenario by the highest-ranked of the remaining BCS conference champions, Virginia Tech. Sorry, Utah. That would send Tech to the Rose Bowl for the USC re-match, a game I would have been very much interested in attending, along, with, I suspect, quite a few thousand other Hokies. We would worry about attending the Orange Bowl later.

The ĎPlus Oneí made sense to me and other people, most notably ABC. The unwillingness of the BCS conferences, more specifically, we are told, the presidents of those schools comprising the BCS conferences to embrace it, has much to do with the BCS moving to FOX in a couple of years. The old argument of extending the season for the scholar athletes who would play the game was trotted out. Somehow I suspect the American system of higher education would not be jeopardized by an additional Division I-A college football game.

While high-minded devotion to academics is the reason given for no I-A playoff, it looks a lot like the real reason there is no playoff is money. Under the current system, the BCS conferences are wallowing in it. Each of the six, or five and one-half, considering the Liíl E, receive between $11-14 extra-large each and every year simply for participating. Two conferences get a second share, or at least they did until the interloper Utah crashed the party. This is considerably more than the $100k each conference gets from every team in each round of the NCAA Menís Basketball Tournament. The basketball tournament is a bonanza for the NCAA, which grabs the lionís share of the CBS loot and hands it out to most everybody except the leagues actually participating, spending it on everything from overhead to financing all of those D-III championships in Salem. The BCS money, however, goes to the leagues that participate. In most revenue-sharing conferences, BCS monies will kick in close to one million dollars to each memberís athletic budget. These schools are not going to reduce their budgets so the NCAA can pay its investigators a higher salary or lavish a few more perks on those attending the national field hockey championship. Not without a serious fight. That is the main reason there is no playoff.

That said, there might be a playoff somewhere down the road in a decade or so, perhaps beginning with the ĎPlus Oneí concept described above. Before that happens, however, we will witness what continues to be whispered about by the BCS membership, a separate football division of the five current BCS leagues, or six, assuming the Liíl E gets its act back together. Utah cracking the BCS and shifting a BCS share to the Mountain West from an existing BCS conference has probably hastened that eventuality. It will happen, and when it does in such a way as to ensure that monies from a football playoff remain in the hands and budgets of those leagues generating the funds, we will quite likely see a playoff. But that is several years and a FOX BCS contract away.

In the meantime, Tech and tens of thousands of its fans head to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. It is a just and terrific reward for what turned out to be a great season. To those from Auburn continuing to gripe about not playing for the MNC, I say: So what? All things considered, I prefer it this way. Enjoy the trip and the game.

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