Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Henderson fixes the BCS

Thanks to the CBS/SEC hookup, I saw LSU play a bunch this year, and for my money, they were the nation's best college football team. The Tigers improved as the season went along and played their best in the big games. OTOH, AP columnist Jim Litke claims that "Southern Cal could beat [LSU and Oklahoma] -- back-to-back -- and still make it to the beach in time to catch the sunset."

Who's right? We'll never know, thanks to those wacky folks who devised the BCS. Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who was in charge of this year's circus, admits the current system is flawed, but until the college presidents agree to some sort of playoff, any system could fail to determine a "true" national champion. But changes will be proposed. Among them: An additional game pitting the two top-ranked winning teams of BCS games; elimination of computer rankings; and keeping the current system in place but with the guarantee that only teams that win their conference championships could participate in the BCS title game.

It's possible nothing will happen, though of these alternatives, I like the final one best. With that in place this year, LSU would have met USC and we would have crowned a "true" champion. Besides, requiring teams to win their conferences to qualify for a national championship is nothing new. That's how college basketball operated until the mid-1970s (you couldn't get invited to the Big Dance unless you won your conference), which made the postseason tourneys so interesting. And I support the notion of using measures like strength of schedule to determine bowl rankings. It serves as a disincentive for second-tier teams in BCS conferences (yes, I'm specifically thinking of K-State, N.C. State and Clemson) to load up their nonconference schedules with cupcakes, thus inflating their total wins.

Still, few were fully satisfied with what happened this past weekend, so here's MY SOLUTION. It's a modified playoff that adds no games to the bowl schedule but requires one additional week. And it lets the current BCS games continue to hog the glory.

Here's how it would work: At the end of the season, the top four teams (as determined by some variation of the current BCS formula) would participate in a two-week tournament. In the first week, #1 would play #4, and #2 would meet #3. The winners would play for the championship the following week. The four BCS games would host the tourney. But since only three games will be needed each season, the games will rotate year-by-year. So, for example, the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl would host the semifinals (to be played the Saturday closest to Christmas) and the Sugar Bowl (played the Monday closest to New Year's) would host the championship game. The Orange Bowl would host a match between #5 and #6. The tournament sites would rotate each year, so that each bowl would host the championship every four years (and would also not be involved in the tourney at all every fourth year).

The potential downside? None that I can envision, but I'll address possible objections anyway.

Minor bowls: The conferences would still be free to affiliate with bowls for their non-BCS teams.

Longer season: The tournament would extend two teams' seasons for an additional game, but that appears to not be a problem for schools in Division I-AA, Division II and Division III, where "student-athlete" is not an oxymoron. Those schools participate in true, three-round playoffs, and you don't hear those presidents complaining about a negative impact on academics.

Disrupting the "bowl season's flow" (whatever that is). This season, we had minor bowl games after the BCS began, and I have no doubt the teams involved and their fans were just as focused on winning as partcipants in those games had been in years past.

Eliminating marginal, bowl-eligible schools. The tournament would reduce by two the number of slots for bowl-eligible teams ... but that most likely means that two more BCS schools with 6-6 records would be expected to stay home (unless, of course, some other city decides to create a new bowl game on its own).

To be sure, my concept could be expanded to an 8-team tourney with three rounds, or more. But this is a modest approach ... and it could work without getting too many people's shorts in a bunch.

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