Finally, after two weeks of wheeling, dealing and wheedling, the annual joke known as bowl selection all but ended over the weekend -- looking for losers to the last.

The last to fill an open spot, the Fiesta Bowl, is still hoping Alabama will lose to Auburn this week and be forced to play in Tempe against Pittsburgh instead of in the Sugar Bowl.

On condition the Crimson Tide is now jumped -- by an Auburn team ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA probation -- the Fiesta selectors obtained Arizona, on the "strength" of a 6-4-1 record, to meet the Panthers.

Consider this: the worst team in the National Football League ranks 28th in the league. There are 30 college football teams attending postseason "classics" this season.

There was a time years ago when a bowl bid had meaning, when it was a reward for excellence, when only the best teams in the country could even talk about bowl invitations.

But in this era of greed, the NCAA has managed to create a situation that almost defies belief.

To start with, there should be four- or eight-team playoffs for the national championship.

But that isn't going to happen. The bowls, bolstered by television, pay big dollars to NCAA member colleges each year. They have held their breath, threatened to turn blue and turn off the money supply every time a national playoff is discussed. The NCAA isn't about to do anything to upset the folks who open their wallets wide each winter.

The bowls contend that if there was a championship playoff their images would be tarnished, their significance diminished.

That's malarkey. To begin with, the NCAA already has taken the luster off the word "bowl" by sanctioning a game in any city with a few dollars and six smiling members of the chamber of commerce willing to grovel.

Even the four major bowls cannot find eight teams that belong in a championship-caliber game. Already this year, the Cotton Bowl has been reduced to taking the Oklahoma-Nebraska loser and the Sugar Bowl will have to take the loser of the Southwest Conference race among Arkansas, Texas and Houston.

Bowl games are supposed to be for winners, not losers. Branding a team with a 10-1 record like Nebraska a loser is certainly harsh, but the fact is that the Cornhuskers had a chance to win their conference title and did not. The should pack their bags, go home and try again next year.

Nebraska is the mildest example of all. The Huskers are a legitimate Top 10 team. If there were an eight-team playoff they could probably lay legitimate claim to a berth even with the 17-14 loss to Oklahoma Saturday.

But look at some of the other teams being rewarded for their seasons with postseason berths: Louisiana State took a 5-4 record into its game with Mississippi State, won and had three bowls on bended knee asking it to come play.

Tennessee accepted a Bluebonnet Bowl berth with a 5-4 record. In other words the Vols were rewarded for a good season while the possibility of a losing record still existed. California, Missouri, Syracuse and LSU are all going to bowls with 6-5 records.Kentucky took a 5-5 record into its game with Tennessee and would have received a bowl bid if it had won.

Almost any team with a .500 record and fans foolish enough to buy tickets to those minor bowls can get a bid. LSU was wanted because it sells tickets, not because it can play football.

The ticket-selling situation adds to the farce. The bowls do not invite the best teams, they invite the teams that can sell the most tickets. Maryland Coach Jerry Calaiborne is right when he says his team deserves a bowl bid more than any of the 6-5 teams going, but the Terrapins don't sell tickets.

Of course if the bowl situation were same, no team -- like Maryland -- that loses four games in a row could even talk bowl, must less go to one.

Things are so out of hand that the Garden State Bowl couldn't even find a team willing to play in its game for several days. Who wants to go to East Rutherford, N.J., in December? That's a reward for a good season? Punishment for mediocrity, perhaps, but not a reward.

The NCAA has created this mess and the NCAA should end it.

First, no bowl should be allowed to invite any school until after the entire regular season. Making the date in Mid-November means negotiations start halfway through the season, which is ridiculous. Wait until the season is over, then take the best teams. The way things are, bowls are lining up to take next week's losers.

Second, conference tieups with bowls should be eliminated. The best teams should not be in contention for the Sugar Bowl with a 6-5 record. But it is, and that should be changed.

Finally, the NCAA must find a way to eliminate some of the bowl games. This is not easy once a bowl has been given sanction, but clearly it would be better than having 5-5 teams playing for postseason spots.

If the NCAA won't sit down and figure out an equitable way to decide the national championship, it should at least attempt to put some meaning back into the word bowl.