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Perfecting a playoff

Gary Caruso | Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sometimes the simplest solution is difficult to embrace or understand, especially when crowning a college football national champion. For more than half a century, an elite group of college football coaches and journalists “selected” the champions through the AP, UPI or Coaches polls. Yet frequently they could not agree at season’s end. Rarely did the top two ranked teams play each other on New Year’s Day. The system was replete with regional prejudices, closed-minded traditions and excuses.

Most egregiously though, deserving teams were willfully slighted. Such were the 1968, 1969 and 1973 undefeated Penn State teams. Only after years and enough sports writers lavishing imperviousness onto Penn State, did undefeated Joe Paterno teams finally translate into championships. Ironically, in December 1973, the top six ranked teams were unbeaten although half of them had a tie on their records. Sports writers then, like their counterparts today, incessantly explained away their prejudices with the subjective excuse – lower ranked teams like undefeated Penn State played a weaker schedule.

Notre Dame has fallen on both sides of those media excuses. In strict adherence to tradition in 1966, the Irish won the championship over an equally talented Michigan State whom they played to a tie in head-to-head competition. More than two decades later, Notre Dame suffered twice on the inconsistent application of the same standard. In 1989, voters used the head-to-head loss to Miami to logically name the Hurricanes national champions. Yet, under the Bowl Competition system in 1993, both major polls listed a one-loss Notre Dame team behind a team they had beaten, a one-loss Florida State team. Voters wanted to give Coach Bobby Bowden his first national championship using ridiculous excuses like “FSU only lost by a touchdown and on Notre Dame’s field.”

Eventually that outdated and closed thinking gave way to more equitable efforts within the current Bowl Championship Series. A new selection process could only be better if fewer voters and more computations selected the king of football. It kept the bowl system in tact, but still does not always determine the champion through play on the field. Now is the time for the BCS to morph into the BCP – Bowl Championship Playoff.

Some propose continuing the bowl series but adding a “plus one” final game. Others suggest a straight playoff system like with the 24-team Division II system, won this year by the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. The plus one approach alone is a lacking solution while the Division II schedule is overbearing. The solution is a playoff hybrid that elevates three bowls on a rotating basis and pits the top four teams against each other with the plus one championship game played a week after New Year’s Day.

This year, imagine the Rose and Sugar Bowls host a semifinal round that produces two teams vying for the championship a week later in the Orange Bowl. Bowl participation would be upgraded and expanded. Four teams would now play head-to-head to determine a champion. This season, half of the top eight ranked teams with one or less losses could participate. The goal to employ is to expand participation before championship play in the least disruptive manner. The BCP accomplishes that objective.

The new BCP could also correct current deficiencies. First, undefeated teams like Boise State or Utah with a so-called “lesser” schedules might play the fourth ranked team in December to determine the fourth place seed in the playoff. No undefeated team should suffer the indignity of being perceived as less than worthy, especially when they win every game of their season.

Secondly, the BCP should require that a conference present only one eligible team for the top four rankings at season’s end. That way, four separate conferences and/or independent teams could participate in the two-week playoff. Who can contradict the assertion that given this year’s bowl results, the PAC 10 may have had the strongest conference and best team with USC by New Year’s Day? Imagine the excitement and caliber of a Florida-USC spectacle.

Nothing in this new BCP proposal lessens the existing system except that two fewer teams would play in a bowl since the final two slots would be determined in other bowls a week before the championship game. It is more likely that a team such as Notre Dame with a 6-6 record this year would not be invited to a bowl unless another bowl was established. That is hardly a consideration when determining who plays in a championship playoff.

Now, the university presidents and bowl sponsors need to weigh the benefits of a BCP. Sending the top four teams into a playoff is fair and lucrative with more bowls participating in the championship, more teams vying to play for the championship and a more definitive way of crowning the champion. The BCP is so simple, even an academic can understand its benefits.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.