No, Virginia, There Is No National Championship Game

First, disabuse yourself of the notion that the Rose Bowl game between Southern Cal and Texas will reveal who the best college football team in the country is for 2005. It will determine nothing more than whether the Big 12 champion is better than the PAC-10 champion.

The truth is, as it has been since the beginning of time, there will be no true national champion in Division 1 football.

There is a reason the team voted No. 1 in one poll or another has traditionally been referred to as the "mythical" national champion. The reason is that a national championship by opinion is not real. It is a myth-no more real than Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Achilles, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the entry to the underworld.

Why do I make such a statement? Don't we have only two undefeated teams in Division I this season? Have they not proven, by the zero in the loss column, that they are the two best teams in all the land? And aren't they meeting on the same field at the same team, after which only one will remain undefeated? Hasn't the BCS worked for once?

In a word: No.

What the two teams in the Rose Bowl have proven-decisively--is that they are the best teams in the Big 12 and the PAC 10.

That is all they have proven.

Has either proven that it is better than the champion of the Big 11, the ACC, or the SEC? How can we possibly know, considering that neither USC or Texas have played any of those leagues' champions?

Is there any reason to believe that either USC or Texas would be undefeated today if they had been required to run the SEC gauntlet, with road games at rabid locales like LSU, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee-even the other USC? And follow that up by beating a strong team, perhaps a second time, on a neutral field-as opposed to playing Colorado, a 5-3 conference team that had just lost 30-7 to a 4-4 team? Or, in USC's case, as opposed to playing no conference championship game at all?

Of course, it is possible that either USC or Texas could survive such a challenge. It is far from a certainty, however. The probability is that if either team switched schedules with one of the stronger SEC teams, they would be trading themselves into a 1 or 2 in the Loss Column. And the SEC team would likely romp through this year's mediocrity that is the Big 12-or have a good shot at running the table in the PAC-10, notwithstanding a couple of challenges from UCLA and Oregon.

Yes, Texas has one good win-at Ohio St-but that's it. They played a one game season and survived that game when the Buckeye receiver dropped a wide-open touchdown pass that would have effectively ended the Longhorns' quest for a national championship before it began.

USC played a four game schedule: downing UCLA and Oregon in conference play, miraculously squeezing by Notre Dame in South Bend, and eking out a victory against Fresno St in the Coliseum. While these are solid credentials, the question remains: what have they done that suggests they are better than the best team in the Big 11, the SEC, and the ACC?

In a word: Nothing.

They have merely won all their games against different opponents.

By the logic that places Texas and USC in a one game "championship," the NFL should forego its playoffs and simply match Indianapolis against Seattle in the Super Bowl. The NBA should cut its never-ending playoffs by 6-8 weeks by simply pairing Detroit and San Antonio if both end the regular season with the best records.

Or the NCAA could follow its own lead in basketball and blow off the other 63 teams it normally allows to compete for the national championship by matching Duke and UConn in one game for the national championship.

Why not? These are the teams with the best overall regular season records in their respective sports.

This is why not: as long as teams in certain conferences are placed at a disadvantage in competing for a berth in a one game championship, the playing field is not level.

How to level the playing field?

Simple. You give the top teams from across the country the same task: Win a series of games against top competition. Don't leave one team out because it has four or five difficult opponents on its schedule and loses to one of them, while including a team that plays one strong opponent in September and then doesn't have to show up again until January.

"But the obstacles," you say. "How can we overcome them? How can we possibly give everyone a fair chance? It would take forever. The logistics would be daunting. And the poor players-how could they possibly survive physically and academically?"

More myths.

Let's take a look at a system that will work. Then examine how EVERY objection to a playoff system that would crown a true champion is bogus.

THE PLAN

1. The Teams

Eight teams.

Start with the champions of the five top conferences: the ACC, Big 11, Big 12, PAC-10, and SEC. These conferences can decide their champion-their automatic qualifier-- by whatever means they choose.

This places a premium where it belongs: on conference championships. Not on overall records, which give an unfair advantage to teams with weak conference schedules and a string of non-conference foes chosen simply for their inability to provide competition.

Add three at large teams selected by a qualified committee to allow participation by champions of other conferences (e.g. Utah last year), worthy second teams from a conference (e.g., if Iowa and Ohio St. were to both go undefeated in the Big 11 because they don't play each other), and-yes-Notre Dame, if they earn it.

Among other things, these final three slots will encourage teams that hope to be in the Field of Eight to schedule more strong non-conference opponents. A loss to a strong team will not be fatal to their national championship hopes, and a win will strengthen its resume more than a victory over the seventh place team from the WAC or the MAC or any Division II opponent.

2. The Format

Simpler still. Take the Field of Eight and place them in the four current BCS Bowls: i.e., the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange.

No other Bowl game is affected. The current non-BCS bowls will all continue to be played as exhibitions, as rewards for successful seasons, as parties for the fans of the schools involved, as PR and tourist events for the host cities, as preludes to the games that decide the nation's champion.

The Field of Eight can be seeded, as in March Madness, or not seeded to allow the current BCS Bowls to maintain their traditional conference tie-ins. For example, the Rose Bowl could revert to hosting the Big 11 and PAC-10 champions every year-even if those teams were rated 1 and 2 in all the polls and by all the computers. In that case, we might also have Georgia vs. West Virginia or Oregon in the Sugar Bowl, Florida St vs. Ohio St in the Orange Bowl, and Texas vs. Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

A seeded system might result in USC vs. Florida St (Rose), Texas vs. Oregon or West Virginia (Fiesta), Penn St vs. Georgia (Sugar), and Notre Dame vs. Ohio St (Orange).

Either way eight deserving teams would be playing each other with one common task: Win three consecutive games against strong opponents. Sneaking into a "one game playoff"-a la Ohio St in 2002 or Texas this year, and somehow winning that single game, would not suffice. Nor should it. A true champion should be required, and should be able, to meet a multi-game challenge, rather than awarded the ultimate prize in its sport for playing one game when everything "clicks" (or, as in Ohio St's case, the refs give you a little help).

These games will all be played on or around New Year's Day-again, keeping with tradition. And all four will be meaningful-not merely one or, occasionally, two.

The four winners will play each other the following week. And the winners of those games will then play for the REAL (not mythical) championship.

Bottom line: Three additional games after the traditional New Year's Day games. Two teams play one additional game. The two finalists play two.

That's even less than the playoffs already in effect at every other level of football: professional, small college, and high school.

More importantly, we will have a champion that has proven itself on the field, rather than merely in the minds of voters, with all their human frailties, or in cyberspace.

THE BOGUS ARGUMENTS FOR THE STATUS QUO

Myth No. 1: Academics

Let's see: We have two teams play one extra week and two teams play two. In January. What's the problem?

Why is it that academics is thrown out as a consideration in Division 1 football, but not in Division II or lower? Or in basketball, volleyball, soccer, golf, and all other sports that have multiple weeks of championship competition? Is it that Division 1 football players are not as smart as these other athletes?

If anything, Division 1 football players are better suited for coping academically with post-season games than their counterparts at other levels or in other sports. Unlike basketball, and virtually all other sports, the football playoff would be played when school is out. What Division 1 schools are even in session January 1-20? If there are any, it is a marked exception, not the rule.

Myth No. 2: Too Many Games

This argument is not only bogus, it is hypocritical.

This benevolent claim, about the wear and tear on the athlete, was proclaimed as a reason for not extending the season with a playoff when there was a nine game regular season. That didn't stop the powers that be from adding a tenth game. Then an eleventh. And now a twelfth.

With exemptions for "charity" games prior to the normal start of the season, exemptions for games in Hawaii, conference championship games, and bowl games, there have already been teams that have played 14 games. In fact, in 2002, Nebraska went 7-7, including the Independence Bowl, and would have played a fifteenth game had the Huskers won the Big 12 North and qualified for the conference championship.

Further, if there is a concern about the number of football games, why does it apply only to Division 1?

So don't try to tell me you are concerned with the length of the season. If the money were right, we would see a 52 game season.

Myth No. 3:It would diminish the importance of the regular season

This theory is that EVERY regular season game now is big, because one loss can, and often will, cost a team any chance of playing for the national championship. EVERY game, the theory goes, is a playoff game.

The primary problems with this myth are:

1. The regular season "playoff" games are not against each other. An SEC team, for example, defeats Florida, Auburn, and Georgia, and is then kicked out of the national championship picture because they have a letdown against Ole Miss? Meanwhile, a team in the Big 12 rolls merrily along toward the NC game while playing Iowa St, Baylor, Oklahoma St, and Missouri? Why should these teams be determining the national championship game participants? Why should Texas and Southern Cal benefit by an extra play Michigan is awarded against Penn St? What argument is there for not having best teams playing each other, with equal motivation, and an identical task?

2. It has created an atmosphere of timid scheduling that robs us of truly compelling intersectional games from September through November. It is responsible for uncompetitive games between powerhouse programs and second, third, or even fourth level programs like Louisiana-Lafayette, Rice, Maine, Central Michigan, Middle Tennessee St, Appalachian St, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Indiana St, Sam Houston St, etc.

Who in his right mind would not prefer a fall afternoon or evening watching games like Alabama/Texas, Michigan/Florida, Nebraska/Ohio St--even Michigan St/Texas Tech or Virginia Tech/Cal?

No, a playoff system that places an emphasis on winning your conference and playing a strong non-conference schedule would create more important regular season games, within and without the conference schedule-and better games..

Myth No. 4: It would diminish the importance of the other bowl games

This is the most laughable argument of all. How do you diminish something that does not exist? Currently, there is one, and occasionally two-bowls that matter, and 26-27 that do not. With the playoff system proposed here, there will be more games that matter (seven) and only 24 that do not. Those 24 will still be as "important" and relevant as they are under the present system-i.e., the football equivalent of the NIT.

Myth No. 5: A playoff would leave only one team with a successful season

This argument is that, with a playoff, rather than having 28 teams conclude their season with a win, there would be only one. Every other team would look back on their season with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Obviously, this assertion is bogus.

First, under the system proposed here, 25 teams (not one) would end their seasons with victories: the national champion and the 24 other bowl winners.

Second, even the additional three losers would not likely be despondent over their final game loss. Just making it to that point will be a badge of honor-as is making the Final Four in basketball. In fact, it would more likely be celebrated with new banners hanging in the stadium and contract extensions for the coaches.

Myth No. 6: It would be too difficult to put together

Yeah, right! We can run a 64 game neutral court tournament, with 14 sites, in basketball, but can't figure out how to play three extra football games in two weeks.

My guess is that all the brains at all of the NCAA colleges, plus the television networks, with virtually unlimited resources, could figure it out.

Or I'll do it. Play the extra three games at one of the four major bowl sites and rotate the honor. Or play the semi-final games at one site and the final game at another-and rotate these sites.

Oh, the detractors say, but the fans! How could they possibly afford the time and expense required to make all these games?

Maybe they could-as many now do for three consecutive weekends of basketball in March and April, or maybe the couldn't. If they can't make it, they can watch it on T.V. I would take my chances on filling the stands with locals and a goodly showing by the participating schools. Especially if you make the tickets affordable-and why shouldn't they be with all the TV money this spectacle would garner.

Myth No. 7: But the No. 9 team. . .

This argument is one I have never followed. If the controversy moves from whether an undefeated Auburn team is left out of a one game playoff to whether Oregon or West Virginia is left out of an eight game field, that's a good thing.

The first team out in a two team field can make a strong argument that it was the best team in all the land and was unfairly prevented from proving it.

The argument for the No. 9 team is much less compelling.

In other words, a controversy at the top of the food chain is important. The further down the food chain this controversy is moved the better. If 116 teams were allowed in, there would still be a controversy between the last team chosen and the 117th team. But who would care-other than the 117th team?

If you are left out of a two team playoff, it might be the system's fault. If you are left out of an eight team playoff, with five automatic qualifiers, it is probably your own fault.

In conclusion, as long as only two teams are chosen to participate in one game to be declared the national champions, that title continues to be mythical. It is, in reality, nothing more than a game between two conference champions. Even less if one of the participants is Notre Dame.

The game this Wednesday night between Texas and Southern Cal might turn out to be an interesting and memorable game. But it is not for the National Championship. It is for the championship of the Big 12/PAC-10.

If Penn St, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio St, Florida St, and West Virginia or Oregon were invited to the party, the winner could be said to be both REAL (as opposed to a myth) and to have gained its title the old-fashioned way-by earrrrrrrning it.

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