Commentary: Pigskin Playoffs: A Collegiate No Brainer

For decades, major college football has been trapped in a financial netherworld, confined by its own contradictions. Part big business, part benefactor, the sport generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year in ticket sales, broadcasting rights fees, postseason bowl appearance guarantees, and product licensing. But an increasing percentage of that money is consumed by various nonrevenue sports--especially the federally mandated programs for women.

Still, college ball refuses to switch to a big-money tournament structure to crown a national champion. For more than a half-century, numero uno has been chosen by postseason polls of coaches and journalists, a system that invariably launches more arguments than it resolves. In 1991, the vagaries of the polling system were mitigated somewhat when the major conferences formed a partnership with the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Nokia Sugar Bowl, and the FedEx Orange Bowl to rotate a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup billed as the national championship game.

CLEAR-CUT? But the flaws in that system were exposed in 1996, when Penn State finished unbeaten and uncRowned without having a shot at the title. As a result, the Big Ten and Pacific-10 conferences joined the coalition of major leagues, along with the Rose Bowl, to produce the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The two highest-rated teams will meet this year at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4. "This is what the American public has been clamoring for," says John Litner, senior vice-president for programming at ABC Sports, which owns the rights to the game.

Well, not quite. Unlike the popularity contests of the past, the BCS rating system combines team records, two major polls, computer rankings, and opponents' records to determine the top teams. "Our goal was to create a system that goes beyond the subjective nature of the polls in order to produce a clear-cut national championship game," says Southeastern Conference Commissioner Roy Kramer, coordinator of the BCS.

Even though the BCS is a positive step toward a playoff system, it could quickly become mired in controversy after this season if Tennessee, UCLA, and Kansas State all finish unbeaten. One of these teams would be left out of the so-called national championship game. And who's to say Florida STate, with just one loss, couldn't beat an undefeated UCLA team? Why is an undefeated team necessarily the national champion?

The problem with using any sort of ranking to anoint two teams is that it takes the decision off the playing field, where anything can and often does happen. The solution is a 16-team tournament modeled on the National Football LeAgue playoffs that uses the existing bowl structure. That would turn all those meaningless December bowls into elimination rounds worthy of a national obsession, like the March Madness preliminaries to college basketball's Final Four.

POT OF GOLD. One large stumbling block is the opposition of the vast majority of college presidents and coaches. Among other things, they believe a playoff system lengthening the season would increase pressure on student-athletes and lead the sport further down the path to commercialization. Well, hello. College football is already there.

A full-blown tournament could, according to various estimates, generate $250 million to $400 million per year for the schools involved. With that pot of gold sitting in the end zone, it's only a matter of time before cash-strapped major colleges go for the playoff idea. So why wait?