Who's college football champ? It's hard to tell.

Who's no. 1?

That's the question on the mind of every college football fan this time of year. Many watch the bowl games. Some scan the polls. But when the last second of the season's final deciding game ticks off the clock Jan. 4, fans may still be in the dark.

In sharp contrast to other college sports, crowning a football champion can be frustratingly complex. Last year, the University of Southern California walked away with a share of the national championship even though it didn't play in the title game. This year, it's undefeated Auburn that's being squeezed out of the championship.

Welcome to the ongoing controversy known as the Bowl Championship Series. Long criticized for its rankings, the BCS seems to be under increasing scrutiny this year. Just this week, the Associated Press demanded that its own poll be removed from the BCS formula to preserve the AP's "reputation for honesty and integrity."

But the BCS's woes may simply reflect deeper challenges of college football, where six major conferences preserve the bowl system and the profits it produces despite repeated calls for a true national playoff.

"This is not a playoff structure," BCS Coordinator Kevin Weiberg told reporters recently. "Obviously, if you have multiple unbeaten teams, there [are] going to be questions about whether or not the system had the right two teams in the game. But I still think this system is an improvement from where we have been."

Using polls conducted by coaches and the AP as well as weighted computer rankings, the BCS determined that undefeated USC and undefeated Oklahoma would battle for the national crown at the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl while 12-0 Auburn had to settle for the Sugar Bowl. Two other teams, Utah and Boise State, went undefeated this season as well. But because they play in lesser-known leagues, they aren't widely considered as legitimate championship contenders.

The BCS also ran into criticism this year for selecting the University of Texas for the Rose Bowl over the University of California, even though both finished 10-1. Texas had publicly lobbied for, and succeeded in gaining, voter points in the two polls used to determine bowl spots. The BCS picks who plays in the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, and Rose bowls, with rotating rights to host the title game.

"College football is more fragmented than the Democratic National Committee," says Tim Brando, who hosts CBS's college football studio show. "The BCS will remain in crisis until the Neanderthals that govern college football do something about their pathetic post-season."

Now in its seventh year, the BCS is a system created by the six major conferences - the Big East, Big 12, Pac-10, Big 10, Southeastern, and Atlantic Coast - and independent power Notre Dame to ensure a bowl game pitting the two top-ranked teams against each other. After a 1984 antitrust ruling against the NCAA, which governs all other collegiate championships, the association ceded control of TV and championship rights for college football to the power conferences, a system often dubbed a cartel during the two decades since then.

From their inception, the coalitions and bowl alliances have been exposed for a number of flaws, from sorting out candidates to doling out automatic bids to postseason (and highly lucrative) games to undeserving squads.

A prime example this season is Big East winner Pittsburgh, a team nowhere near the top 10 in rankings through much of the season, but, by virtue of an automatic conference tiebreaker, winners of a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

At the opposite spectrum are the smaller Division I-A conferences which, until a deal brokered this year through congressional jawboning and intense pressure from school presidents, had no say in the BCS format. The University of Utah has been invited to the Fiesta Bowl next month, marking the first time in the seven years of the BCS that a team from a league beyond the six founding conferences has played in one of the big four bowls. During that time, the founding conferences and Notre Dame retained 95 percent of the nearly $600 million in payouts from the bowl games.

"Under the new system, the access rules will be more accessible [for all conferences] and the revenue distribution will be more equitable," says Scott Cowen, an ardent critic of the BCS and the president of Tulane University. "But it's still going to be a problem because there's not going to be a playoff. If one of the intents of the BCS was to crown a legitimate national champion, this system has not worked."

But some longtime observers defend the existing system, saying it prevents the extension of the season with new playoff games and preserves the every-game-matters regular season.

"No matter what system you have, you'll have someone who won't be happy," says Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "Even if you had four [playoff] games, the ninth and 10th teams would be unhappy. That's the way it is."

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