Bowled Over?: As College Football Debates How Best to Determine a National Champion, More and More People Are Wondering If the BCS Is the Answer. A Playoff Plan Has Some Fearing Its Effect on the Traditional Bowls and Polls

Article excerpt

It's mid-October, time for the start of college football's what-if season. As in, what if they had a playoff to determine the true national champion?

Several teams are stepping forward as genuine contenders, yet only two will meet in Miami's Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 in what the Bowl Championship Series insists on calling its national championship game. It's interesting to start thinking about who will make it, and just as interesting to guess who won't.

As we all know, NCAA Division I football is the only major team sport that does not decide its champion with a playoff. But those holding their breath waiting for such a thing had better grab some air. It might be fun to debate the pros and cons of a playoff, but don't expect it to lead anywhere in the near and perhaps distant future.

The reasons are twofold. For one thing, the BCS format and its contract with the ABC television network is in place for another five seasons, expiring in January 2006. And for another, there seems to be no strong, organized movement in favor of a playoff. NCAA spokesman Wally Renfroe, voicing the sentiments of executive director Ced Dempsey, said, "The move for a national championship has never gained much momentum because we've never had a group of people champion the cause." The key word here is "group." Many favor a playoff, but the fingers of the glove have yet to close into a fist.

Citing the increased academic burden a playoff would create, most of the presidents of the 114 institutions that play Division I-A football - the real source of power and influence within the NCAA - oppose the idea. Nothing surprising there, although the claim smacks of a certain hypocrisy, given the extent to which college football has become a billion-dollar business.

Then there are the bowl representatives, who for a long time have had enormous clout. Although the system has changed from when back-room deals were the norm, the bowls still wield a lot of influence with college administrators. That isn't a surprise either.

What is surprising is the opposition of so many coaches, especially those who might have something to gain from a playoff. Even Florida State's Bobby Bowden, whose teams have won two national championships but potentially could have won many more via a playoff, doesn't like the idea.

"I was raised on this," he said, meaning the system of polls and bowls. "If I was an athletic director, I'd want a playoff because the money would come in, but the coaches I've talked to, fewer don't want it than do want it."

Bowden said he isn't enthralled with the idea of extending the season. College football, he said, is not like basketball, "where you can play three games a week." He believes it would be difficult for fans to travel to playoff games if they were staged at neutral sites or played as bowl games, as several scenarios have suggested. These arguments are commonly cited by others against a playoff. But mainly, Bowden said, he's a traditionalist.

"All my life it's been a vote or a selection," he said. "That's what I'm used to."

The Seminoles won the title in 1993 and again last year, but no one knows better than Bowden about the other opportunities that slipped away.

"We've been in the top four the last 13 years," he said. "A playoff would have helped us every year. But I don't see any leaning from the administration [in the direction of a playoff]. Therefore, I just accept it."

Florida State was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 last week when the Seminoles traveled to Miami and lost to the Hurricanes 27-24. The defeat threw a major kink into Florida State's national title hopes. With a playoff system, the Seminoles almost certainly would have another chance.

But all isn't lost. Bowden recalls 1993, the year Florida State won its first title. The Seminoles lost to Notre Dame in November, seemingly a death blow. …