Who's the champ? Bowl game may not tell

Nebraska Cornhuskers' appearance at the Rose Bowl shows kinks remain in college football's championship series.

'Tis the season to be jolly, but Charles Lavoie sits in his overstuffed recliner grinding his molars like a crazed Doberman.

"It's silly. It's stupid. It's crazy. I still can't believe it," says Mr. Lavoie, a rabid college football fan who works as a carpenter, but lives to scan the satellite channels on his big-screen TV for the very best Saturday gridiron.

This bowl season, Lavoie and thousands like him are more agitated than a Maytag stuck on wash cycle over college football's end-of-season Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Created in 1998 to crown an undisputed national champion, the system could anoint a team many feel has no place in this year's finale: Nebraska.

The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers did not even win their conference title and were thoroughly trounced (62-36) earlier in the season. But they ended up in the national championship game by way of a controversial computer program that uses a constellation of factors, from opponent's weaknesses to relative league strengths.

"There is no way Nebraska deserves to be in this game," says Lavoie. "If they win, it will be totally unfair."

Such complaints highlight the weaknesses of a championship series that wasdesigned to end the decades-long practice of writers' and coaches' polls picking the national champion.

But observers say the new system has done little to reduce the machinations and money-making motivations of big universities, sponsors, and host cities, which have long used the post-season bowl games as a way to attract tourists during the holidays.

Money-making

"This really is a national scandal," says Roger Abrams, dean of Northeastern University School of Law, a leading authority on sports law. "The problem is there are a host of people making money off these athletes and their fans, but yet they can't bow to their wishes of figuring out who is the best in the same way as every other college sport - by a simple elimination tournament."

In other NCAA college sports from swimming to lacrosse - and even in other divisions of NCAA football - champions are winnowed out by elimination tournaments.

A designated number of the conference's best teams, gauged by who has compiled the best season records, face off against one another until only one team is left undefeated.

Advocates say the tournament system is fairest because it creates a final champion from teams that actually play each other on the field.

The ability to anoint a single "champion" has long eluded Division One college football. Until 1998, such a designation was open to the results of different polls - some by coaches, others by sports writers, and others a combination of the two.

Those who are against an elimination tournament outwardly say such a tournament would take too long, expose NFL-bound athletes to more injury, and is untenable because top-level football takes more recuperative time between games.

But quietly, they acknowledge it's about logistics and cost versus income to teams, and income for tournament sponsors.

"A fair playoff ignores the economic reality of TV," says Chris Cameron, a specialist in sports law at the Southwestern University School of Law (SWL) in Los Angeles. "The more teams you have in a tournament, the more you have to share the TV contract money with. It's as simple as that."

Individual schools' interest in television got higher in 1986 when the US Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA - the governing body of college sports - could not restrict the rights of schools to negotiate the best contracts they could with TV networks that wanted to broadcast their games.

With the NCAA gun shy about exerting its authority, it has been left to individual schools and conferences to make decisions on whether and what kind of bowl games and elimination tournaments to have.

Now, enter the BCS, a so-called Bowl Championship Series agreed to in 1998 by the top four bowl sponsors (Orange, Rose, Sugar, and Fiesta).

Organizers say they are trying to pit the nation's top two teams in the same bowl, and rotate which of those four bowls gets to host the championship.

The idea tries to both establish a true national champion from teams that actually play each other and continue the 100-year history of bowl games that began with the first Rose Bowl (Michigan vs. Stanford) in 1902.

The tradition expanded to the Orange and Sugar Bowls in 1935 and now includes a list of 26 bowls.

With bowl sponsors looking for the best ways to fill stands and captivate TV audiences around the country, each bowl developed its own approach and traditions.

Some matched conference champion against conference champion, while others simply tried to create the most compelling matchups.

"There is a sanctity for many fans of leaving the bowl traditions the way they were," says Bob Malekoff, athletic director of The College of Wooster in Ohio. "What we have for the moment is a system that has reconfigured the bowls but not solved the problem of bringing a legitimate champion."

Suspicious fans

All of this leaves fans like Lavoie suspicious that the reason Nebraska has been picked to play in the national championship (which falls this year to the Rose Bowl) was because it is a team proven to bring ratings to TV and fans to Pasadena.

Other schools have been overlooked for the Rose Bowl, as well as other bowls, because they don't have the fan base or national reputation to generate interest.

"The BCS has tried to come up with a system of picking the top two teams in America by objective criteria fed into a computer," says Butler Shaffer, a specialist in sports law at SWL. "But the criteria are still subjective. Ultimately, it's like trying to figure out who has the best-looking kids."

The Nebraska Cornhuskers (11-1) will play the first-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes (11-0) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3.

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