For the BCS, a Splitting Headache
Others Will Stake Claim To the Crown Worn By Oklahoma or Florida

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tonight's Game Determines This Year's BCS Champion but Settles Little Else

Designed to determine a definitive national champion for college football's highest level, tonight's Bowl Championship Series title game instead will crown a victor many college football observers consider dissatisfying, regardless of whether Oklahoma (12-1) or Florida (12-1) comes out on top.

Over the past week, the results of other BCS bowls have brought to the forefront a number of questions for those who operate college football's grandest stage, including how effectively the current system determines its champion and how fairly berths in the most lucrative postseason games are awarded. All of the concerns can be summed up thusly: Has it gotten so bad that something's actually going to change?

The BCS has been nearly synonymous with controversy since its inception in the fall of 1998, with critics saying it puts too much power and money in the hands of major conferences and bowl commissioners. But this season's confounding circumstances have for the first time led influential outside voices -- including a state attorney general threatening a lawsuit and President-elect Barack Obama suggesting the future use of some political muscle -- to speak out about changing the system.

Four teams will be able to make legitimate claims to being No. 1 in the country after tonight's contest in Miami has concluded. Texas (12-1 and No. 3 in the BCS ratings) merely managed to escape its BCS bowl date with a last-minute win over Ohio State, but Southern California (12-1; No. 5) and Utah (13-0; No. 6) tallied emphatic victories in their respective BCS bowls, which only increased the murkiness surrounding who should be No. 1.

In the end, there might be more than one answer. The BCS determines the two teams that will compete for its championship through a formula that equally weights the coaches' poll; the Harris Interactive poll of former players, former coaches, administrators and others; and an average of six computer ratings. The Associated Press poll, which consists of 65 writers and broadcasters from across the country, is free to crown its own champion.

"Whoever I put number one, I'm not going to be able to do it with total conviction and say that this team is absolutely the best team," said Jeff White of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who is serving as an AP voter this season for the third time. "You'll be able to make a case for several teams, including Utah and Southern Cal. Nobody's going to be totally satisfied with this."

Pressure From Outside

The current outcry aside, no one is certain how quickly anything can be done. In April, BCS officials decided against switching to a playoff model, which is how all other levels of college football determine their champion, and in November signed a contract giving ESPN the right to broadcast the games using the current format from 2011 through 2014.

Under that system, the champions of six conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-10 and Southeastern Conference -- receive automatic bids to one of the five BCS bowls, leaving four at-large spots in the games. This aspect has been criticized for dividing division I-A football into haves and have-nots -- the 65 schools that compete in automatic-bid leagues and the 54 that do not. Schools from the have-not leagues can earn at-large bids by finishing the regular season ranked among the top 12 in the BCS ratings or by finishing ranked in the top 16 and ahead of a champion from one of the BCS conferences, but doing so affords such schools zero margin for error during the regular season.

Utah, which plays in the Mountain West Conference, provided the have-nots with their latest round of ammunition by thrashing Alabama of the SEC in the Sugar Bowl on Friday. The Utes finished the season as division I-A's only unbeaten team, and their victory also meant that of the four occasions in which the have-nots have gained entry into BCS games, they've won three.

At the same time, this year's Orange Bowl, featuring automatic qualifiers Virginia Tech from the ACC and Cincinnati from the Big East, was the first BCS game in which neither participant was ranked among the nation's top 10.

Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said Utah's performance -- as well as those of Texas Christian, Brigham Young and Boise State, which each finished the regular season No. 16 or higher in the BCS ratings -- has done wonders for the reputation of conferences that don't receive an automatic BCS bid. Thompson said he envisions a day when it doesn't require an undefeated season for a Mountain West team to garner a BCS bid, even if that day remains a ways off.

"Certainly, probably, the impetus for change is not going to come through the collegiate ranks," Thompson said. "It's going to come through intervention and other people outside of college football that are going to pressure those that make the decisions."

In mid-November, Obama told CBS's "60 Minutes" he favored an eight-team playoff in college football. "I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit," Obama said. "I think it's the right thing to do."

Mark Shurtleff, attorney general for the state of Utah, opened an investigation Tuesday into whether the BCS has violated federal antitrust laws by keeping an undefeated Utes squad out of the national championship game for the second time in five seasons.

Many AP voters contacted for this story said they were overly impressed with Utah's Sugar Bowl performance, though several admitted that was largely because their expectations of the Utes were low entering the game. Still, several AP voters said they would consider ranking Utah No. 1 on their final ballot.

"The truth is, I might vote Utah number one anyway because this year I just don't care whether the team is from my state or not," said Mike Strain, sports editor of the Tulsa World and a second-year AP voter. "I have Florida number one right now, and it was much to the consternation of some of our readers. I just thought Florida was better. If I think Utah is better, I'm going to vote Utah ahead of them. I'm just not sure Utah is better. It's hard; I just don't see the right answer."

Should enough AP voters place Utah atop their list, a split national champion would occur for the first time since the 2003-04 season, when Louisiana State claimed the BCS crown, while the AP voted USC No. 1.

No 'Clear, Right Answer'

Utah isn't the only team that thinks it has a claim on being No. 1. USC, which held eight of its final 10 opponents to 10 points or less, and Texas, which beat Oklahoma at a neutral venue, also are clamoring for consideration. But neither received a huge bump from their postseason victories, because they came over opponents from the Big Ten, whose members finished 1-6 in bowl games.

Those games opened the BCS to criticism over not just its championship game but also over the pairing and the timing of all five of its matchups, just two of which were played on New Year's Day, once the highest holy day of the college football calendar. The Rose Bowl, in which USC beat Penn State, is obligated to match the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big Ten unless either qualifies for the championship game. The other BCS bowls have similar conference tie-ins -- the Orange Bowl with the ACC, the Sugar Bowl with the SEC and the Fiesta Bowl with the Big 12 -- inhibiting the flexibility needed to produce the best matchups.

"I think the real shame is the BCS is set up just to find number one versus number two, not to find number three versus number four," said Joe Giglio, an AP voter who works for the Raleigh News & Observer. "The other matchups we got were specifically designed to keep the AP from splitting the national championship."

Despite all the current clamoring, Giglio believes real change will not come until more major programs, such as Texas, feel they've been unfairly denied a chance to play for a national title.

"As long as those power conferences keep getting a piece of the pie, it's impossible to think that a couple of upset Utah fans are going to change the whole system," Giglio said.

Tonight, either Oklahoma or Florida will be celebrating the validation supposedly afforded to the BCS champion. In reality, ownership of the right to claim national supremacy might end up being shared. A split title would serve as another knock against a controversial system that likely won't undergo serious change anytime soon.

"The problem is, at least for a guy like me, is I'd love to have just a right or wrong answer, and the problem this creates is I don't really see the clear, right answer," Strain said. "It's difficult when you don't see a right answer."

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