By Ross Atkin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
WHO'S No. 1? That topic has perplexed American football fans ever since Rutgers and Princeton scrimmaged in the first college game in 1869.
Again the arguments begin: Is unbeaten Nebraska this year's best? Undefeated Ohio State? High-flying Florida? Mighty Tennessee? Amazing Northwestern?
Sportswriter Frank Dascenzo of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun reflects the nation's frustration over such questions. Even though Mr. Dascenzo votes in the Associated Press's Top 25 poll, he yearns for a championship playoff.
"It's so sad," he laments. "Everybody sits around and talks about, 'Well, this is a better team.' 'No, this is a better team.' Imagine if we had to do that in basketball! It's terrible."
Lacking a playoff, football relies on the bowls - Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta - to find a champ. Yet sometimes bowl games only add to the confusion.
The polls help - sometimes. This year, polls by AP and USA Today/CNN both put Florida State at the top for weeks - until the Seminoles lost to Virginia. The New York Times computer-generated top 25, however, never rated Florida State so highly.
Currently, all three ratings put Nebraska in first place, but there's a fight for No. 2. The Times puts Florida at No. 2, AP and USA/CNN pick Ohio State. (See ratings box below.)
The United States has put a man on the moon, Dascenzo complains: Can't it create a playoff to settle such arguments?
Some folks are trying. Several major bowls and football conferences have gotten together this year in a Bowl Alliance (they previously shared a coalition) to maximize the potential for holding an unofficial championship.
The alliance, which creates a partnership among the Big Eight, Big East, Southwest, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern conferences (plus Notre Dame) and the Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar bowls, has bestowed this season's favored-bowl status upon the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. That status rotates to the Sugar and Orange bowls in future years.
The Jan. 2 bowl will pay the participating teams $8.5 million apiece and the alliance $9 million.
The alliance's formula calls for the Fiesta to choose the alliance's best available teams on Dec. 3, the day after the regular season ends. The Orange gets the third and fifth picks, the Sugar the fourth and sixth.
The catch is, the Big Ten and Pacific-10 conferences have stuck by their 50-year commitment to play in the Rose Bowl. If a team from those conferences is ranked No. 1 or 2 when the bowl matchups are set (a good possibility for Ohio State), the Fiesta will not be a championship clash.
"The Fiesta will still be the last bowl played," says CBS spokeswoman Leslie Anne Wade, who indicates that "national championship" promos will air until and unless it's clear that the Fiesta won't fill the bill. …