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How to Fix College Football's Postseason Problems

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Last night, I responded to recent postings on the national championship game over at MGoBlog. Thanks largely to a kind word over at Burnt Orange Nation, this reply garnered some attention and generated some discussion.

Meanwhile, throughout the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere, playoff proposals abound, at such locales as Carolina March, Addicted to Quack, and the Rakes of Mallow. I adamantly oppose a Division I-A college football playoff and I find the first Michigan-Ohio State game to be an effective refutation of the calls for a postseason tournament, but Sunday Morning Quarterback and I are saving that discussion for the offseason.

I would, however, like to offer a word or two about polls and bowls, in a way which will (I hope) assuage some of Brian's legitimate concerns while also offering a third alternative to the choice between the B.C.S. and a playoff.

Back . . . to the future! (It was either that or a picture of Tony Blair and a caption that used the phrase "third way.")

When reporting on this week's BlogPoll rankings, The Lawgiver offered the following clarification:

[U]nlike the other polls out there, the BlogPoll has a specific mandate to rank the teams in order of who is "best," whether you arrive at that conclusion by resume or another method. . . .

After casting some erratic BlogPoll ballots arrived at through instinct, I became a convert to the method known as "resume ranking." This approach bases the weekly rankings on each team's achievements to that point in the season.

Obviously, as the campaign progresses and each team's strengths and weaknesses are revealed in increasingly bold relief, the order in which the top 25 teams are arranged will change to reflect the additional data that have become available. Shifts in the rankings occur not because of speculation (however well informed) about what one team would do to another team (in the "I bet the Partridge Family could beat up the Brady Bunch" mold), but due to knowledge of what particular teams have done against the other teams they have played.

This is why there is a perfectly rational explanation for Florida's ascension to the No. 2 spot having nothing whatever to do with the undesirability of a rematch. It also is why the Wolverines---in the BlogPoll, if not in the coaches' poll---are not out of the national championship hunt.

"It's not right! It's not fair! It's . . . I'm sorry, we're still in the running? O.K., I'm listening. . . ."

While most of the information about the 2006 college football season is in, not all precincts have yet reported, as the bowl games, which (certainly in theory and often in fact) pair out-of-conference opponents of comparable accomplishments at neutral sites, provide us the opportunity to assess the merits of two teams relative to one another.

Let us suppose that Florida and Michigan win their respective bowl games, but that the Gators win another close one and the Wolverines beat the Trojans decisively in Pasadena. Let us also suppose that the Big Ten fares better overall in postseason play than the S.E.C., with wins by Wisconsin in the Citrus Bowl and by Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

Those developments will be factored into the equation and Michigan's resume, improved by the Maize and Blue's win over U.S.C. and by the heightened luster of the Wolverines' wins over the Badgers and the Nittany Lions, might well be sufficient to earn U.M. the top spot on my ballot. While I do not have a checklist of things that must happen in order for that to occur, I remain open to the possibility because teams' resumes change after each weekend's gridiron action, just as individuals' resumes change as they move from job to job.

This possibility dovetails nicely with my support for a return to the traditional college football bowl structure, which did not even attempt to set up the sorts of No. 1-v.-No. 2 matchups that now are all the rage and rarely work out as planned. Restore the Rose Bowl's traditional arrangement pitting the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions and tie the first-place finishers of the A.C.C., the Big 12, and the S.E.C. to the Orange, Cotton, and Sugar Bowls, respectively. Keep the Fiesta Bowl as the "catch-all" major bowl game for the Big East champion, accomplished mid-majors, or deserving runners-up if any of them did not find a place to fall elsewhere.

Rutgers alumna Kristin Davis wonders whether, under the old system, the Scarlet Knights might have had a shot at a bowl game televised on basic cable.

This year, fidelity to the history of the sport would have paired Ohio State and Southern California in the Tournament of Roses and likely produced matchups along the lines of Florida and Michigan in New Orleans, Oklahoma and Louisiana State in Dallas, Wake Forest and Notre Dame in Miami, and Louisville and Boise State in the desert.

Those are five compelling games and a New Year's Day featuring such contests would be more entertaining and intriguing than the B.C.S. bowls we actually will be getting or any first-round playoff seedings that have been proposed. It always is a pleasure to watch two storied programs square off in the Granddaddy of 'Em All, while the razor-thin distinctions separating the Gators from the Wolverines and the Sooners from the Bayou Bengals could play themselves out . . . "settled on the field," as it were.

A postseason shootout between the Cardinals and the Broncos would be bigger and better in a major bowl setting today than it was in the Liberty Bowl a couple of years ago and anyone who doubts that a clash between the Demon Deacons and the Fighting Irish would be competitive needs to reconsider those teams' respective games against Georgia Tech.

Even the most ardent defender of the Bowl Championship Series would acknowledge that the system has compiled a troubling track record in its brief existence. Playoff advocates, on the other hand, routinely combine the worst attributes of postmodern literary critics and Democratic political activists; like the ivory tower academics who share the conviction that the works of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare but differ vehemently over the identity of the actual author, playoff partisans are sure that there is a better way but can never agree on what that way might be, and their pie-in-the-sky dream scenarios, while constituting perfectly lovely fantasies, would lose as much in translation to reality as Wesley Clark's presidential candidacy.

While he was busy not writing the complete works of William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare came up with an eight-team Division I-A college football playoff format featuring home field advantage for the top seeds during the first round, a championship game rotating between the four historic major bowl games, and a requirement that the named sponsor of the title game write its advertising copy in iambic pentameter.

I, on the other hand, champion the one postseason college football format that we know will work . . . because it worked throughout the best periods in the history of the sport. In 1983, before the advent of our obsessive mania for matching the top two teams in the land (whichever ones those might happen to be), we saw the undefeated Big Eight champion Nebraska Cornhuskers go to the Orange Bowl to take on once-beaten Miami, the undefeated Southwest Conference champion Texas Longhorns go to the Cotton Bowl to take on once-beaten Georgia, and the once-beaten Southeastern Conference champion Auburn Tigers go to the Sugar Bowl to take on a solid Michigan squad.

The final scores of those three games were 31-30, 10-9, and 9-7, respectively. There wasn't one national championship game, there were three . . . and they were decided by a combined margin of just four points.

Playoff advocates would point to the fact that some of the highly-ranked teams didn't play some of the other highly-ranked teams . . . but many of them did. 11-1 Miami played 8-3 East Carolina, 9-2-1 Florida, 12-1 Nebraska, and 9-3 West Virginia, beating three of them. 11-1 Texas played 11-1 Auburn and 10-1-1 Georgia, beating one of them. 11-1 Auburn played 9-2-1 Florida, 10-1-1 Georgia, 9-3 Michigan, and 11-1 Texas, beating three of them. 10-1-1 Georgia played 11-1 Auburn, 9-1-1 Clemson, 9-2-1 Florida, and 11-1 Texas, beating or tying three of them. 12-1 Nebraska played 11-1 Miami, 8-4 Oklahoma State, 8-4-1 Penn State, and 7-4-1 U.C.L.A., beating three of them. Is anyone actually complaining that those teams didn't compete in a playoff that would have reduced the significance of those stellar contests?

With typically unerring accuracy and admirably characteristic concision, Sunday Morning Quarterback once wrote of me, "Kyle strikes SMQ as a conservative guy, so his defense of the bowl system is not a surprise." I am a traditionalist, but my traditionalism is not of the that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it-so-we-cannot-consider-doing-it-any-other-way variety, but rather of the in-retrospect-the-Founding-Fathers'-arguments-against-the-direct-election-of-senators-are-more-persuasive-than-the-Progressive-Era-arguments-for-it sort. That is why I am perfectly willing to propose reforms, just those of a restorative rather than revisionist kind.

Those were the days. (Photograph from Huskerpedia.)

The abandonment of our newfound, divisive, and unhealthy fixation on matching No. 1 and No. 2 in what might as well be called "The Super Bowl of College Football" and a return to the sport's historical bowl arrangement, complete with ironclad conference tie-ins for the league champions, would be a marked improvement over the present B.C.S. system or any suggested playoff scenario.

The results of such a prudent reclaiming of what have been proven by experience to be workable traditions would be better matchups in more exciting bowl games, accompanied by a heightening of the integrity of our greatest sport and a solution to the otherwise intractable problem that has inflicted so much angst upon Brian of late.

Let college football be college football. Turn away from the failed path on which we find ourselves and from the even worse one we are contemplating taking and, instead, go back to where we lost our way and pick up the right road anew. Forget about the B.C.S. and the playoffs. Go back to playing bowl games the way they were meant to be played.

Go 'Dawgs!