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Long Live College Football Bowl Games

BALTIMORE SUN

Now that Miami has stopped Notre Dame’s 13-month run at the top of the college football rankings -- and what a beating that was, incidentally -- this season could have the most uproarious finish in years.

There is the possibility of sheer madness, that no team will be unbeaten and that seven will have one loss when the bowls are over. (I would pay to see the coaches argue it out in a locked room.) There also is a chance that two teams, Colorado and Alabama, will finish unbeaten, untied and understandably possessive of the national championship.

The call for a championship tournament will go up again, as it always does when opinion, not football, determines the No. 1 team. But you will not hear my voice in the chorus. The idea of a playoff is not without merit, but it is flawed and would damage the fabric of the sport. The cons outweigh the pros.

The aspect of a playoff that appeals to so many is, of course, the spotless finish, the clean lines to No. 1. There would be no debate about who played a tougher non-conference schedule or an easier bowl opponent. No complaining about regionalism or the whims of poll voters. The championship would be decided on the field.

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Admittedly, it would be interesting this year to put eight teams in a bracket and see who survived. Certainly, a Final Four of Miami, Michigan, Colorado and Notre Dame would result in terrific games. (Sorry, Alabama. You’re a first-round loser.)

But there still are better reasons not to put on a tournament. It is an emotional play, mostly. College football is professional enough already. A playoff would exact a great toll on the sport’s original, vibrant nature.

You can start with what would happen to the bowls. Even if they were incorporated into the tournament as game sites, the New Year’s Day bowls would be stripped of their importance, one-upped as a forum for determining No. 1. That would be unfortunate.

The bowls may be a sprawling, eccentric brotherhood, but they have served the sport well, providing a strong tradition, dozens of memorable games and fodder for an endless supply of speculative gossip.

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The bowls also have proved adept at determining a champion. That is the best rebuttal to any pro-playoff argument: Hey, the current system works fine. In 10 of the last 13 years, a clear No. 1 has emerged from the bowls with either a perfect record or, at least, the best record in the land.

You can look it up. Only three times since 1976 has there been debate after the last touchdown of the season. (Four times if you include the year Brigham Young beat a lousy Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl and finished No. 1, to loud hooting.)

And, anyway, is it so awful to confront a little gray area occasionally? With the pursuit of No. 1 so often grim and relentless in sports these days, college football, with its system of polls, partiality and debate, is like a funny, quirky uncle who doesn’t quite conform to the family. He is different, and, for that reason, interesting.

The point is that arguing, and differences of opinion, are part of the sport’s basic, chaotic appeal. A playoff not only would wipe out the dialogue, but it also probably affect changes reaching the very core of the game.

For instance, no longer would Big Ten players spend all fall striving to play in the Rose Bowl, as they have since World War II. Now the Rose Bowl wouldn’t be that important. The players would strive to make the tournament (the Sony College Football Championship?) and probably get sent to Orlando to play their big game. How’s that for romance?

It is even possible, if the bowls were used as playoff sites, that the Big Ten champions wouldn’t go the Rose Bowl. Few conference champions would wind up at their traditional bowls. Take the Southeastern Conference out of the Sugar Bowl? Southwest out of the Cotton? It isn’t right.

Call me sentimental, but it is wrong to wipe out the whole of a sport’s tradition in one giant, made-for-TV swoop, especially to make room for a sterile tournament that probably would send teams all over the country throughout Christmas break for a series of games at neutral sites, far away from fans and students. One such game, a bowl, is fine. But no more than that. Hasn’t the sport already been sufficiently disenfranchised from college life?

Some will say this year’s potential poll madness drives home the need for a playoff. To me, it only drives home the need to keep things as they are. The plot is as convoluted as a soap opera, almost a football whodunit, or who-won-it. Pay close attention:

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Colorado will be No. 1 if it beats Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, although if Alabama beats Auburn Saturday and also Miami in the Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide will scream about its candidacy. If Notre Dame wins the Orange Bowl and Miami wins the Sugar Bowl, Miami probably will get the most votes of the many one-loss teams, although Michigan will scream if it wins the Rose Bowl. And psst: Notre Dame could slip back in if Miami and Michigan lose.

It is all messy, loud and hysterical, and college football would be sadly diminished without it. There is an apt analogy in architecture. The championship tournament would be a chrome-and-glass skyscraper, modern, cooly efficient, huge. The current arrangement is a rambling, old mansion: big, a little imperfect, full of life. Give me the latter any day.


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