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December Madness

No, it may not have quite the same ring to it, but a playoff system by any name would add thrills and drama to the bloated bowl season

Technically, the Bowl Championship Series worked just fine this year. When USC and Texas hashed things out in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday night (page 36), they were the only two teams who could legitimately say they deserved to be playing for the national championship, the first time a college football season had reached such a satisfying resolution in three years. There were no powerhouses griping that they'd been snubbed (see the Trojans two seasons ago and undefeated Auburn last year), no mid-major upstarts crying foul over the BCS's prejudice against small conferences. And the postseason matchups were, for the most part, entertaining. Boise State's fourth-quarter comeback against Boston College on the blue turf in the MPC Computers Bowl was good stuff. UCLA and Northwestern were expected to hang up a bunch of points, and the Bruins' 50-38 victory in the Sun Bowl didn't disappoint. Penn State's 26-23 win over Florida State in the nearly five-hour Orange Bowl shank-o-rama was unattractive, but it was an emotional clash between two coaching titans.

But of course the BCS bar has been lowered so far that even when the system works, it doesn't. For all their great moments, most of the bowl games were short trips to nowhere, a lot of sound and fury signifying how much better December would be if college football had a March Madness--style playoff. As things stand now, the BCS's title match hogs so much of the attention that it renders insignificant all the other bowl games. (Except, of course, in years when there are more than two unbeaten teams, and then it underscores the meaningless of all that year's bowls.) The non-BCS games? They are something less than insignificant--and the teams playing in them often show that they know it. Oregon didn't lose to Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl because the Sooners were the better team; the 10-2 Ducks lost because they were left out of the BCS and treated the Holiday Bowl like leftovers.

The bowl season, once a clutch of holiday presents nestled between Christmas and New Year's Day, is now a numbingly relentless 28-game assault that begins shortly after the Heisman Trophy is awarded and ends in the middle of the first week of January. Tradition, the soul of college football, has been abandoned, and Jan. 1 (or Jan. 2, if the former happens to fall on an NFL Sunday) is no longer sacrosanct. The rhythms of the new bowl season don't match the rhythms of fans' lives. The national championship game unfolds each year in midweek after New Year's Day, a prime-time TV show that ends long after most kids (and adults) have gone to bed--and long after the Christmas tree has been left outside in a snowbank.

The BCS endures--and the idea of a playoff languishes--because of another tradition: greed. The basketball bracketfest has a $565 million per year TV contract, but that money is split among more than 300 schools across the country. The BCS, meanwhile, is ruled by the lords of the six major conferences, plus Notre Dame (SI, Nov. 29, 2004). Sure, there are the occasional bones tossed to the Mountain Wests and MACs of the world, but the commissioners of the Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big East (and the Fighting Irish) control the sport and the $96 million the BCS is expected to generate this year. They're not likely to agree to a playoff that opens the party to every team in the country.

The commishes are backed by the college presidents, who lamely argue that a playoff would distract players from their studies and erode the academic integrity of the sport. That argument, which they manage to present with a straight face, doesn't seem to apply to hoops players who take most of March off from school--but they've drawn a line in the gridiron.

That's too bad, because a playoff would make the postseason more like the regular season, when almost every game feels like Armageddon. The top teams' seasons are on the line every weekend from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. One loss dents any team's long-term hopes; two losses can be crippling. That thrilling sense of urgency is what separates college football from every other major sport.

It's also what is largely missing from the bowl season. If college football is going to depart from tradition, let it be for something better. Imagine if Ohio State's victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl had earned the Buckeyes something more than a trophy. Like, say, a rematch with Texas or a shot at USC? Imagine Penn State's speedy defense lining up to stop Pat White and the West Virginia spread offense, with a trip to the national semifinals on the line. Imagine a postseason in which the games matter to those who don't work in conference accounting offices. It may be an impossible dream, but it's a worthy one.

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"The Colts won't wallow in sorrow, even if their future doesn't look as rosy as it did." --GOING FORWARD, PAGE 25