BOSTON — IF it seems to you that nearly every Division I-A college football team that managed more wins than losses is in a bowl game this year, you're almost right. With 18 games and 36 slots to fill, the bowl committees have had to dig deep into the ranks of the mediocre.
While bowls might originally have been thought of as postseason exhibition games, today they are synonymous with determining who's No. 1.
The bowl coalition begun this year was supposed to have resolved that question by making sure the No. 1- and No. 2-rated teams in a coaches' poll met each other in a bowl game. That has happened, but the picture remains murky.
Five teams could lay a claim to at least a part of a national championship, depending on the outcomes New Year's Day. One, Auburn (11-0), is on probation and ineligible for postseason play. From there it gets trickier:
Notre Dame (10-1) must beat Texas A&M and hope undefeated Nebraska and West Virginia lose. Their victory over Florida State in the regular season would then give them the edge.
West Virginia (11-0), which supposedly played an easier schedule than the others, must beat a powerful Florida team, preferably in a convincing fashion. That should get them at least a co-championship in the Associated Press or coaches' poll. Beyond winning their own bowl game, a Florida State-Nebraska tie in the Orange Bowl would be their ultimate hope.
Florida State (10-1) must beat Nebraska for a share of the title. Losses by West Virginia and Notre Dame could give the Seminoles an outright claim to No. 1.
Nebraska (11-0) has the simplest task: Beat Florida State and win no worse than a share of the No. 1 ranking. But the Cornhuskers will be huge underdogs. They are notorious underachievers in bowl games (0-5 in recent years, including three losses to Florida State).
So keep your eyes glued to the Nebraska-Florida State showdown in the Orange Bowl; you'll probably be watching the No. 1 team. Either Nebraska's Tom Osborne or State's Bobby Bowden, two of the top coaches in college history, will finally earn his first national championship. But flip over to the Sugar Bowl once in a while to check on West Virginia. You never know.