Bowl game bust
After years of tweaking, the playoff system still isn’t right
By Marc Katz
I hate being the old guy in the room, but it has been more than a week since a conference table full of “Bowl People” has chosen its four teams to play in the football playoffs—and 22 years since the attempt to have a national championship game began.
I’m still unsatisfied.
Most of the 20 years I covered Ohio State football, the Buckeyes were locked into the Rose Bowl if they won the Big Ten, or some other down-the-line bowl if they didn’t. (If that down-the-line bowl was in Arizona, it was a great down-the-line to be. I was there twice for bowl games, and if you want to know what it was like, look for pictures of the sun in magazines and don’t worry about global warming.)
Anyway, here’s the way it was in 1980, when OSU’s Earle Bruce took his first Buckeyes team to Pasadena. Ohio State’s 1979 record was spotless at 11-0, and that imperfect polling at the time had 10-0-1 USC as its opponent, ranked No. 3. The blotch on USC’s record was a 21-21 tie with Stanford after the Trojans blew a 21-0 lead.
When USC scored near the end of the game to win 17-16, OSU fell from No. 1 to No. 3, while No. 2 Alabama (winner over No. 6 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl) went to No. 1 and USC moved to No. 2.
These were the days when people began yammering before the bowls, “Hey, why can’t OSU play Alabama, 1 vs. 2?” There were 14 bowl games then, and as far as I can figure, 14 happy winners and 14 unhappy losers.
Now, let’s jump to 1996, the second season of the Bowl Alliance, which sounds like an insurance company that might extort your money.
I’m watching what I think is the best team in the nation that year until Michigan…oh, my gosh, I can’t live through this again…well, beats the Buckeyes in Columbus.
Two days later—on a Monday—No. 1 Florida State nips rival Florida, and the Bowl Alliance is clamoring for a Florida State-Arizona State confab between two undefeated teams.
The only problem is the whiney Rose Bowl is hanging on by its toenails to a traditional Pac-10/Big Ten matchup and was not part of the alliance that year.
So going into the bowl season, Florida State was No. 1, followed by Arizona State, Florida, and Ohio State.
Arizona State was not allowed to play FSU, and the Bowl Alliance was willing to give Florida another chance against FSU. It was 1 vs. 3 in the Sugar Bowl, 2 vs. 4 in the Rose Bowl.
You know what happened. Ohio State beat the last big-time undefeated team in the nation and Florida, given a second chance in just over a month against a big rival, smashed FSU.
Bowl Alliance rules mandated whoever won the Sugar Bowl would win the National Championship, but I was a voter in the Associated Press poll and made OSU No. 1.
Whatever. The point is, what makes the system we have this year any better than that? What happens if Washington beats Alabama in one semifinal game on Dec. 31, and Ohio State beats Clemson? Then your National Championship game is No. 3 vs. No. 4.
I know. At least this year, No. 1 has a chance to play No. 2 in the final game.
I didn’t know what was going to happen when we started tinkering with the old bowl system, but it became immediately apparent when big-time teams began dumbing down their schedules, like Washington this year playing Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State (a combined 13-22, which includes Idaho’s 8-4) just to pile up victories and be around at the end.
I know Ohio State gets credit for playing a tough non-conference schedule, mainly because Oklahoma was on it, but so was Bowling Green.
And the four teams we have left have enough holes for complaints by Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma, USC, and probably six to eight other teams I’m deliberately leaving out because I don’t have room to include them.
In Michigan’s case, I’m bitterly disappointed, by the way. (I mean, seriously, six of Clemson’s victories were by a touchdown or less, and the Tigers also lost a game.)
A bunch of tweaking over the years, and now we’ve got four teams in a playoff that might produce No. 1 vs. No. 2, which was a game played almost every year anyway, whether in a bowl game or regular-season game.
You’re going to be surprised by this (I was), but there were 31 games played between the AP No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams from 1943-96 during the regular season or during bowl games, so it’s not like No. 1 vs. No. 2 is rare and the fans are seeing something really special.
Now, Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State or Washington will be national champion on Jan. 9. I’m OK with that. I think I would be OK with the Penn State-USC Rose Bowl winner being national champion as well.