If the No. 1 team can't win, it must be college football

The USC Trojans play Thursday in the Rose Bowl, while lower-ranked teams compete in the national championship.

After more than 100 years of tinkering, the complicated calculus of the college football bowl calendar has come to this: Officially, the No. 1-ranked team has absolutely no chance of winning the national championship.

Thursday, the University of Southern California Trojans, ranked No. 1 in major polls, will take to the field in the Rose Bowl. Three days later, Oklahoma will play Louisiana State in the title game.

How the game got into such a predicament is no secret: Top-flight football is the only college sport that does not have a playoff system to determine its champion, instead using a controversial formula to determine the two best teams. Why college football has contorted itself into this mathematical morass, however, is a story understood only by dusting off the accumulated layers of history.

It is a tale of tradition and tests, marching bands, and no small amount of money. Taken together, they are factors far more persuasive to university presidents than any public pressure, observers say, and make it unlikely that college football will significantly change its ways any time in the near future.

"It's as good as you can hope for now," says Matt Hayes, a senior writer for The Sporting News.

Evidently, most college football fans are still hoping for something better. Three-quarters of respondents in the New Media Strategies poll say they want to abandon the current system, called the Bowl Championship Series. Established six years ago, the BCS was intended as a compromise between the traditional bowls - where the two best teams usually play in different games - and a playoff format.

In the new system, the two best teams - chosen by a mind-numbing matrix of data - play in the same game, while the best remaining teams continue historic rivalries in three other major bowls.

More often than not, though, the result has been a muddle, and never more so than this year, when USC was ranked No. 3 by the BCS despite its No. 1 ranking in both the Associated Press and coaches' polls.

For his part, Mr. Hayes is no BCS apologist; rather he sees himself as a realist. Like many fans, he dreams of an eight-team playoff culminating in a championship game second only to the Super Bowl in American cultural significance. But he doesn't see that happening for one reason: money.

The 63 schools in the six main football conferences of Division I-A created the BCS. Now, more than 90 percent of the money from the four BCS bowls goes to these conferences. If a national playoff started, they would likely have to share the revenues equally among all 117 Division I-A teams - as is the case with the NCAA basketball tournament. "This has never been about determining a true national champion," says Hayes.

Officials involved in college athletics insist this is not the case. University presidents, who make the ultimate decision on the issue, are under pressure from faculty to stem the professionalization of college sports, and have drawn the line here.

"Playoffs just aren't going to happen for academic reasons," says Thomas Hansen, commissioner of the Pacific 10, a BCS conference.

To some proponents of the bowl system, though, the question of professionalization goes much deeper than academics. It goes to the heart of the sport itself. From the day of the first bowl, when Pasadena's Tournament of Roses in 1902 invited Michigan to play Stanford in a post-parade game, college football's bowl season has been a unique American creation, endearing in its oddity.

For generations, students and alumni have trekked cross-country for week-long festivals that culminate in their team's bowl. With a national playoff, they wouldn't be able to follow their team to each game, and the collegiate atmosphere that has defined college football could be lost.

"There is a tradition and a pageantry of these bowls has become such a part of the fabric of the country," says Rick Walls of the National Football Foundation, which administers the BCS.

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