Magazine article USA TODAY

We're No. 1-We Think. (Sports Scene)

Magazine article USA TODAY

We're No. 1-We Think. (Sports Scene)

Article excerpt

EVERYBODY LOVES A WINNER, or so the saying goes. In college football, though, not everyone is sure who the winner really is. This is despite the Bowl Championship Series' promises to replace the "mythical" national champion (that too often was determined on paper) with the genuine article (to be determined--hopefully!--on the field).

Mission accomplished--for the most part. The trio of national champions crowned by the BCS (the University of Tennessee, Florida State University, and the University of Oklahoma) all entered the title showdown undefeated and emerged the same way after toppling the No. 2 teams in the country. No. 1 vs. No. 2 for the whole ball of wax--what could be better? Nothing, actually, except that the BCS--in replacing the Bowl Alliance (which replaced the Bowl Coalition, which had replaced the traditional coaches and writers polls)--although tidying up many of the loopholes of the earlier systems, created a unique mess of its own because, in sports, as in life, "Be careful what you wish for." Now that there finally is a "genuine" national championship game to crown college football's best, the other major bowls have been rendered virtually meaningless, and the fans have responded to these contests with a large, protracted yawn.

The BCS title game rotates among four major bowls: Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, and Rose. These bowl games, along with the Cotton, traditionally were played on New Year's Day, making for a wonderful festival of football, a glorious gridiron cornucopia, with fans planted in front of their TV sets, switching from game to game (and back again) all day (and night) long. Ah, Nirvana. Adding to the excitement was, ironically, what everyone had been complaining about for years: There may not be a clear-cut national champion, or worse, a split championship. The latter scenario occurred in 1997, the season before the emergence of the BCS. The top-ranked University of Michigan managed a lackluster Rose Bowl triumph over Washington State University, while the second-ranked University of Nebraska was annihilating No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. The writers poll kept Michigan at No. 1, but the coaches poll put Nebraska in the top slot--the dreaded split championship. Moreover, had Tennessee unexpectedly crushed Nebraska and Washington State somehow upset Michigan, the Vols, as unlikely as it seems, might have vaulted from No. 3 to No. 1, at least on paper. These are the type of "gray area" scenarios that made for compelling viewing and spirited debate.

At present, the big bowls' "who cares?" dilemma is compounded by the fact that most of the major bowl battles--including the BCS title clash--no longer are played on New Year's Day. Instead, they've been moved to weekday prime time, creating the spectre of fans trying to watch a string of less-than-meaningful games, on successive nights, into the wee hours of the morning. For the East Coast faithful even the ones who don't have to rise with the roosters, it's a no-win (and no can do) proposition.

Then there's the loss of tradition--tradition that once really mattered. Let's not be naive or sappy here. Fans can live with the realities of big-time money in big-time sports. They fully realize, for instance, that the Fiesta Bowl was an afterthought among the elite post-season games until it came up with the millions in prize money it takes to attain "major" status. They also know that both schools capturing a BCS title invite go home with about $10,000,000. …

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