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Dispatches: Burnt Orange Nation, Part Two

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Dispatching from the lavish confines of Gene Chizik's farewell party in Austin, proprietor Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation initiated a week of deep, thoughtful e-mail exchange of important ideas he promised would include at least one appropriate photo of chap-clad Texas cheerleaders As if there were ever an inappropriate time for chap-clad cheerleaders.

In his opening salvo, Peter questioned the sudden rise and fall of "Rematch Fever," and how, exactly, to meaningfully distinguish from one another this pack of deeply flawed contenders for the mythical championship game. SMQ's deranged response virtually ignored this question in favor of semantics. Unfazed, Peter plays devil's advocate while breaking open the playoff "can of worms," which he should know is always of the prank, mutant-worms-in-the-face variety. All of the preceding should be metaphorically consumed before proceeding.

I'm not sure I want to get too deeply into the playoff debate here, since I challenged Kyle to a postseason "bowls vs. playoff" debate way back in August (though I see no reason any bowl should go anywhere because of a playoff), and it's never wise to back out of a date with the mayor.

Playoffs?! You wanna talk about playoffs?!

On your specific challenge, though, Peter, I'll say this on a very fundamental level: a multi-round playoff of at least three games carries more legitimacy in my mind because each team is on the same footing - winning can't be undermined by anyone's opinion of Boise State's strength of schedule or doubts about Notre Dame's defense. Every team has exactly the same criteria for becoming a champion: win. As Boise State (or Auburn, or Utah, or, relative to some of the teams that have played for the mythical title, Ohio State, Miami, Oregon or Southern Cal) can attest, that's not always the case in the current system. As it exists, the problem is the "champion" is still awarded by opinion polls, and even who plays for the championship is still very heavily influenced by opinion polls. A playoff would probably necessarily include a BCS-like system to pick its participants - this isn't the pros, where differences in schedules are microscopic enough to make strict win-loss a reliable eliminator - but the winner from that point is strictly on the field, not based on anyone's opinion. This is good and right. Now, the winner of the current mythical championship can still be voted out of a poll championship, as LSU was by the AP in 2003 after winning the Sugar Bowl, but the polls carry no legitimacy into a playoff, where every team lives and dies by the same on-field standard and opinions are worthless.

So the problem with the OSU-Michigan rematch under the dominion of a poll-driven championship - aside from the sketchy legitimacy of judging any competition by opinion, even when everyone's opinion is the same (as with Texas last year) - is really only with the label of "championship," which as it exists is really only another game to sway opinion rather than a be-all, end-all a playoff championship is by definition. The idea of invalidation exists only within the context of the polls. Strip away the opinion aspect, though, and put teams together on the even footing of a playoff (which is inherently objective once teams are selected because the only standard is to win), and the winner under those circumstances couldn't really be second-guessed. This is why conference champions are legitimate: every team plays essentially the same schedule, and so the standard is objective - a team, not voters, is in control of whether or not it will be a champion. One of your commenters mentioned last year's Pittsburgh Steelers, which is a perfect analogy, among any number of basketball champions - Florida, for example, was a four-seed (albeit a dubious, snubbed four-seed) when it won the national championship last year. Nobody cared, because the standard for becoming a champion was objectively the same for every team in the tournament, and Florida was the only team that met it. What is the objective standard for playing in football's championship game?

At least as important as the theoretical business is the matter of sanctioning, which should be handled, as in every other sport, by the NCAA. Legally, I understand the matter has been settled, and the Association doesn't have the power to throw the merchants from the, um, temple (that analogy's not exactly meant to stand up to scrutiny, eager commenters). But why, in this single area, Division I-A college football, is the championship process effectively outsourced to the machinations of private companies? Being all for the free machinations of private companies, I still think the NCAA, as the overseer and the auspice under which the sport is organized, should be in control of fairly crowning its own champion. It's not that I think the bowls are corrupt (they're much less so now than in the past, I'm sure, and that's not relative to the NCAA's own integrity issues), and in fact I favor maintaining the bowl system and incorporating some of its elements into a playoff, if that would make for a smoother transition. I like the tradition. But college football is a product of the NCAA and the business of crowning a champion should fall under its watch. In the form of a playoff. In my opinion.

You bring up the topic of actively rooting for computer-crashing BCS meltdown, at least in public opinion, by some virtue of some disastrous turn on the order of a Michigan-OSU rematch, however unlikely that appears at the moment. I think another of your commenters is right about this point: if the BCS could survive 1998 (Florida State over Ohio State), 2000 (Florida State over a Miami team favored by both human polls and a head-to-head result), 2001 (Nebraska over Oregon or actual Big XII champion Colorado, which beat the Huskers by 634 points in Nebraska's most recent game), 2003 (the three-headed USC-Oklahoma-LSU beast) and 2004 (unbeaten Auburn left in the cold), there's not much point in rooting for chaos as a catalyst for significant change. The norm is chaos. And the general response has actually been to make the system worse, chiefly by removing margin of victory from the computer ratings after the Miami-FSU debate in 2000. I think it helped in each of those cases - with the exception of `03 and possibly '04, depending on your perspective - that an undisputed, undefeated champion emerged from the controversy. But if 2003 didn't send the walls a-crumblin', it's probably not worth hoping any other feasible scenario could. The change will have to come more gradually. Not that more consistent chaos wouldn't help, I suppose.

This idea of a playoff watering down the regular season, though, or especially that the regular season is a playoff, give me a break. For eight spots among 119 teams? There are only a dozen games per school, the huge majority of which have no direct bearing on the mythical championship now. The BCS is already roped off; at the end of every season, there is a drawn out debate over which teams are worthy of an at-large selection in the all-important money contests (with the expansion to five games, this seems far less of an issue this year). Just transfer that debate to one over inclusion in a playoff. And probably intensify it - you better believe a team like Wisconsin this year would not take its relegation to the Citrus Capital One Bowl in such stride.

So here what was intended to be a one-paragraph response has turned into another marathon; you're diabolical, Bean. The playoff can is one that can never be closed until those springy worm things are forced back inside with great effort. What would we talk about if we had our way?
Let's shift gears a little, and focus on our old friends, the bowls: do you think there are too many? How can the "tie-in" system be best used to create the best postseason matchups, or should it be scrapped altogether? I've been checking out some very oficial bowl  projections the past few weeks, and compelling match-ups - even in the  BCS and traditional New Year's games - are almost nonexistant. Again, I love bowl games and have no problem with anyone who can pay for one hosting - the BCS, after all, has done more damage to the prestige of the Cotton and other traditionally very respectable games than the glut of mid-major-laden events named for mediocre cities - but the games sure seemed to offer a lot more to look forward to ten  years ago than they do now. Maybe I'm just older, more discerning of the staginess for staginess' sake, more cynical. Do you get the same sense?

In conclusion, consider this: mankind has developed no worse concept since the atom bomb than "Plus One."