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Dodging college football playoffs
Sure Texas Christian University may soon get a shot, but a definite champ isn't coming.
December 9, 2005: 12:19 PM EST
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer
Just because USC gets to play another undefeated team for the championship in this year's Rose Bowl doesn't mean the BCS system isn't broken.
Just because USC gets to play another undefeated team for the championship in this year's Rose Bowl doesn't mean the BCS system isn't broken.
SportsBiz SportsBiz Column archive Sports Illustrated email Chris Isidore

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Imagine Congress holding hearings to examine what to do about cheap gasoline prices or a U.S. trade surplus, or even more unbelievably, an efficient government program.

That's the equivalent of what we saw this week when a congressional subcommittee considered whether a playoff system is needed in college football, in what is one of the least controversial year for the bowls in recent memory.

This year the Bowl Championship Series' championship game will feature the University of Southern California and the University of Texas, which are not only the only two major undefeated teams left, but have been the consensus picks as the nation's strongest teams since before the season's first kickoff.

It's a far cry from the last two years, which saw three major undefeated teams at season's end, leaving one of them -- Auburn University -- out of the title game. The previous season USC was No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN polls, but finished No. 3 in the BCS rankings and was left out of the big game.

But the calls for a playoff have been so quiet recently that there were no playoff advocates among the witnesses called to testify Wednesday.

Those who did testify representing the BCS, the current bowl system, the university presidents and the major conferences, repeated their well-worn reasons a playoff wouldn't work: It would lessen the importance of the college football regular season ... it would spell doom for the other bowls and deny the all-important bowl experience to the hundreds of players who now get to go ... and it would interfere with studies of the student-athletes who would have an extra game to prepare for. To their considerable credit, they actually managed to keep a straight face when making the last point.

Several of the congressmen expressed the view they think a playoff system would be fairer, not a surprise given that the overwhelming majority of sports fans polled said they would like to see a college football playoff. But most of the congressmen just seemed eager to get a sound bite supporting their home district's favorite team. Even those behind the hearing, including Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, don't intend to introduce legislation to force a playoff.

So this week's hearing seems oddly timed, and of questionable concern for a Congress that obviously has one or two other more pressing topics on its plate. (If they're going to bother hold hearings on college sports, why not look at athletes' graduation rates.)

In fact all the questions and comments about a playoff seemed to shift attention away from the solution that is just staring colllege football in the face, and which deflate most of the argments given against a football playoff -- the so-called "plus one" system. Under that proposal, the four current BCS bowls would be played, then a week later the two highest-ranked winners would meet in a championship game.

The BCS is taking a half-step in that direction with it's so-called "double hosting" format at the end of next season, when it adds a fifth BCS bowl game about a week after the other four BCS bowls. The new game would be played at the site of one of those four bowls on a rotating basis.

The new, still unnamed (and yet to be sold to a sponsor) fifth game will be the championship game. But since the two teams meeting in that game won't be playing in any of earlier BCS games, it still won't be a playoff. Instead 10 teams rather than eight will be invited to the big-dollar payday that a BCS bowl bid gives to their conference.

The extra game is supposed to increase the opportunity of the lesser conferences to share in the BCS paydays by creating more opportunity for their teams, rather than having the five major conferences with guaranteed spots in the BCS monopolize all the spots.

In fact, if the new system had been in effect this year, No 14 Texas Christian University would have been in the game, and the Mountain West Conference would have had a chance to split the millions that go with the bid between its nine schools.

If it works out that the lesser conferences do get to start cashing those checks due to the two extra BCS bowl spots, the chance of the BCS moving back to only inviting eight teams in order to get a championship playoff would probably disappear.

Kevin Weiberg, the Big XII commissioner who is in charge of the BCS this year, said that the idea of a "plus one" system is something worth considering, and something that the new double hosting system could serve as a transition to that kind of playoff.

But Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner and Weiberg's predecessor as the head of the BCS coalition, spoke out strongly against the "plus one" idea, saying that the Big Ten would rather blow up the whole BCS system and go back to old bowl system than have something that approximated a playoff.

If that had been the case this year, undefeated USC would be playing Penn State, which would have been the Big 10 champ, while undefeated Texas would have been in a different bowl, with the prospect of a split champion looming once again.

Delany spoke about how "plus one" would be a slipperly slope to a NFL-style playoff system and the death of the current bowl system. But he also went on about how wrong it would be to deny the Big 10 its guaranteed spot in the Rose Bowl in the years that's not the championship game.

What Delany and the other major conferences are worried about from a "plus one" proposal is that the four early BCS bowls would turn into the first round of a playoff in future years, reserved for the nation's eight best teams, without any spots saved for the major conference champs.

There might conceivably be years when the schools in one of the major conferences would be shut out of the major dollars. That would have happened to the 11 schools in Delany's misnamed Big 10 in 2004-05 if only the best eight teams had filled the BCS spots.

So even with support from fans and publicity-happy congressmen for a playoff, don't expect any big changes in the current system, even if it's more luck than design that has the BCS picking a champion so efficiently this year.

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For a look at college football's unlevel playing field, click here.

For a look at college sports' dependence on beer ad dollars, click here.

For more on the business of sports, click here.  Top of page

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