Bowl uproar makes for a fantastic football finale

OK, now college football is getting interesting.

The rankings have turned over more than a rotisserie chicken. Momentum has taken pendulum swings between the nation's midsection and the state of Florida. And something called the BCS, which no one seems to understand, is expected to crown the national champion.

Only one thing is sure: It's been a gripping season on the gridiron.

Think about it. With one big game remaining before the bowl season - Tennessee vs. Louisiana State - everything is still up in the air. We still don't know who will play against Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. We have no idea who will win the Heisman Trophy.

And the mysterious Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rating, which determines who plays where on New Year's Day and thereafter, is only adding fuel to the fire.

Isn't suspense one of the reasons we love sports in the first place?

"It's been a lot of fun, and it's been interesting," says Rick Wells, the National Football Foundation official who calculates the BCS rankings. "Everyone's talking about college football."

The BCS, now in its fourth year, was designed to produce a definitive national champion - without upsetting the century-old bowl-game tradition, which is a cash cow for the major conferences.

The BCS rankings weigh Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN polls, eight different computer-based rankings, the strength of each team's schedule, its number of losses, and the quality of its wins. The top two teams then meet in the championship, which rotates between the Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta bowls.

Simple, right?

Here's the problem: There is only one team that stands out from the pack, and is undefeated (although beatable): Miami.

After that, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Oregon, each with one loss, have a claim to be the second-best team in the country. Further clouding the picture, untested Brigham Young could finish undefeated with a win this weekend over Hawaii, while Colorado, despite two early losses, is probably playing the best football in the country at the moment.

This is where things get complicated. Tennessee can determine its own fate if it beats LSU (for a second time this season) Saturday night in Atlanta. If Tennessee loses, however, Nebraska, which was humiliated 62-36 two weeks ago by Colorado, will jump back into the picture and play Miami in the Rose Bowl.

"If Tennessee loses and Nebraska ends up in the Rose Bowl, we have a real problem on our hands," says Jerry Palm, a polling guru who covers college basketball and football. "That wouldn't be fair for Oregon or Colorado."

Oregon, with only one loss, is fifth in the BCS poll. It has been hurt by a relatively weak schedule and a narrow margin of victory in several key games. No. 4 Colorado knocked off Nebraska and Texas down the stretch, but simply cannot overcome its two early-season losses.

It follows that, in the most-confusing-case scenario, Nebraska - should it make it to the Rose Bowl - could actually beat Miami and claim a national championship without finishing first in either of the major polls. In fact, the Cornhuskers didn't even make it to their conference championship, and the AP has them rated fifth.

The reason Nebraska ranks high in the BCS (despite its late-season loss to Colorado) is that the BCS poll weighs each game equally - unlike the human surveys (such as the AP), which tend to devalue early-season losses.

"The BCS poll is not designed to base a national championship game on one game, or three games, or five games, but to base it on what a team has accomplished throughout the course of a season," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said in a statement. "Certainly, our team has accomplished a great deal."

If the Nebraska scenario were to play out, it would certainly renew calls for a college playoff to determine the champion. Any playoff would probably include the top 16 teams, comprised mostly of the winners of the 11 major conferences.

The problem is, there's no incentive for the major conferences and teams to abandon the BCS system. The cash is simply too good, with each school receiving $13 million for playing in one of the four BCS games. Not to mention length-of-schedule issues that would arise from a four-week playoff format in the middle of the holiday season.

"I think what's best for the game right now is the BCS," says Wells of the National Football Foundation. "Football is already becoming a year-round sport, and it would be hard to stretch the season out any more. You have to be careful. You have to remember that these are student athletes."

What might be best for the BCS right now - and help quiet the calls for a playoff - would be a Tennessee victory over LSU. Then, the two highest-ranked teams in the country would meet in the Rose Bowl and a definitive champion could be crowned.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.