Football playoff: a back-burner issue experiences a warming trend

Is it time to institute a major college football playoff? Considering ever-more glaring drawbacks associated with post-season bowl games, some observers think so.

The question has kicked around for years, but mostly as a rhetorical exercise. Recent developments, however, have thrown a new cord of wood on the fire. Advocates are arguing more vociferously than ever for a playoff that would be more equitable and meaningful than what the current bowls are offering.

Two situations have come together to fan the flames.

At the same time people are irked that bowl commitments don't allow No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Texas to meet in post-season play, others are disturbed that sixth-ranked Southern Methodist, the winningest college team during the last three years, went uninvited by the major bowls because of what one TV executive called a lack of ''marquee appeal.''

Though the first situation has parallels most every season, the inability to bring Nos. 1 and 2 together seems more significant when they are such logical opponents. As the nation's only undefeated, untied teams, Nebraska and Texas have staked solid claims to their present rankings and deserve to play in a ''national championship'' game.

The last time perfect-record teams met in a major bowl game was in 1973, when Notre Dame beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The main thing preventing a showdown this time are conference tie-ins, which deliver the Big Eight champion (Nebraska) to the Orange Bowl in Miami and the Southwest kingpin (Texas) to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

Conference tie-ins are a comfort to bowls that feel a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. But to fans interested in seeing the best matchups, such pacts more often are a fly in the ointment.

The original conference/bowl agreement was formulated by the Tournament of Roses, which signed the Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-10) to a contract 37 years ago.

The other members of the ''big four'' bowls - Orange, Cotton, and Sugar - have followed the Rose's example, but with only one conference commitment apiece. Even so, that's been enough to eliminate the possibility of a dream game in most seasons, and leave the designation of a paper national champion up to the pollsters who vote for the final rankings. Generally, however, the wire services agree on who's No. 1, having picked the same team seven of the last eight years. Still, the idea of deciding things on the field, as the smaller colleges do, has inherent appeal.

The reasons the major schools have never adopted a post-season football playoff are numerous. Foremost among them is that the bowls, which have been good for college football, oppose any dilution of their product. Others point out that a playoff, particularly one incorporating New Year's bowls into its structure, would make for an overly long season.

Another consideration is that a playoff, by its very nature, extracts just one winner, whereas the bowls are seen as rewards for all that participate.

''As it stands now,'' says Ralph McFillen, the assistant director of championships, ''32 teams can go back to campus and say we went to a bowl. Whether they won or lost, they feel they had a successful season. An additional benefit is that both athletic and non-athletic contributions generally increase after a school appears in a bowl game.''

The point that bowl detractors are making forcefully now, however, is that financial considerations cloud the selection of bowl teams. As a result, a team like No. 18 Virginia Tech, which lacks mass appeal, goes uninvited, while an unranked 6-5 Notre Dame squad goes to the Liberty Bowl. SMU, meanwhile, accepted a berth in a lesser bowl, the Sun, when wealthy New Year's games went for lower-ranked, but more prominent participants.

A post-season playoff may not remedy all inequities, but there is growing sentiment to try the idea, with 57 percent of major college coaches favoring a post-season playoff in a recent CBS poll. No playoff proposal is in the legislative process at this point, however, which means the issue won't come up at the NCAA's January convention.

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