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SPORTS: Ah, what a college football season it's been

December 10, 2007

And so it has come to this, the college football season that will give us the "accidental" champion. The nation's pundits, purporting to represent the nation's public, are apoplectic over the prospect.

Imagine, The Ohio State University, the allegedly inferior winner of a purportedly inferior league-a year removed from being exposed and embarrassed by the University of Florida in the national championship game-walking off the Superdome carpet with the trophy in hand on the evening of Jan. 7.

Or imagine Louisiana State University, a two-time triple-overtime loser to two teams-the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas-with a combined nine defeats, sticking its fingers in the air as the No. 1 team in the land when, it could be argued, it's barely the best team in its own conference.

This, its many critics complain, is the mess that is the BCS, the Bowl Championship Series that relies on opinions and polls and computers to bring some semblance of order to the chaos. This, they say, is the perfect storm that has been brewing for years, spawned by the refusal of the NCAA Division I-A presidents to cave into pressure, chuck the bowl system and install a playoff.

It is said there are too many bowl games, but how many is too many when sponsors keep writing the checks, fans keep laying out serious sums of money to follow their teams and, once again, the various television networks are more than eager to purchase the rights?

Yes, there's a common theme running through that previous sentence, and it is money. Major college football is about the cash. Well, duh. But what would a playoff be about? More money.

I've long been a proponent of the status quo. I like that major college football is unique from virtually all other American sports. I enjoy the tradition of the bowl season. And I have yet to be convinced that a playoff could be fit into the same tidy package that is, for example, March Madness.

The BCS has been an attempt to bridge both worlds: Maintain the bowls while still putting a system into place that can deliver-ideally-two teams that clearly rise above the rest to play in the national championship game.

Sometimes it has hit. Sometimes it has missed. College football is an imperfect realm, the BCS an imperfect solution.

But what is better? Let's say we have a four-team playoff this year: Ohio State, LSU, Virginia Tech and the University of Oklahoma. That means the University of Georgia and the University of Southern California, perhaps the two hottest teams at the end of the season, get left behind. All right, let's expand to eight and add the Bulldogs, Trojans, The University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. But then what about unbeaten University of Hawaii, or Florida, or West Virginia University or even Arizona State University?

It seems that every year, the NCAA invites 65 teams to its basketball tournament, and all you hear is howls of protests from Nos. 66-75.

You also have to take into account the length of the season. Camps begin around the first of August. Twelve games follow, 13 for the teams that reach conference championships. Do you add another three games for an eight-game playoff? Do you extend the season deep into January and compete with the NFL playoffs? How much is too much? Yes, it is a naïve thought, but these are, remember, students, as well as athletes. Those insisting on a playoff are probably the same folks taking schools to task for subpar graduation rates and academic performance.

There is also the cost to fans. Take it from someone who just shelled out well in excess of $1,000 so my bride and I can follow IU to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.

But my bottom line is this: No sport has a regular season as meaningful as college football's. If you're the University of Michigan, you can't lose to Appalachian State University in August. If you're USC, you can't lose to Stanford in October. If you're the University of Oklahoma, you can't lose to Texas Tech University in November. If you're West Virginia, you can't lose to the University of Pittsburgh in December.

Fact is, every contender that played itself out of the championship game had a chance to play itself into it. Just win, baby. It's that simple.

In any case, whatever happens on Jan. 7 can't diminish the best college football season in memory. Sometimes we get so focused on the destination, we forget the journey.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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