Monday, January 14, 2008

OSU—What happened?

This year’s BCS Championship Game marked yet another moment of mourning from a lot of people in Ohio and a lot of people outside Ohio.

On paper, Ohio State was the dominant team in college football this season. They rolled through the first 10 games of their season, lost to Rose Bowl-bound Illinois by a touchdown, then beat archrival Michigan 14-3. Take nothing away from LSU, whose two losses were in overtime by a combined eight points.

The best thing that can be said about the Buckeyes’ performance Jan. 7 is that it wasn’t as embarrassing as last year’s 41-10 loss to Florida. Still, for the second year in a row, the Buckeyes of the regular season mysteriously disappeared. College football fans in general—not just Buckeye fans—have to be asking why.

One reason may be the gap between OSU’s last regular season game and the BCS game, and the gap in preparedness that goes with it. OSU played Michigan on Nov. 17—a break of over seven weeks. LSU’s came to the BCS game off a win in the SEC Championship on Dec. 1, giving them five weeks between games. OSU and Florida had a similar inequity the year before. Also note that this year’s Rose Bowl resulted in a USC blowout of Illinois. Illinois’ regular season ended Nov. 17, USC’s on Dec. 1. There are other factors at play, but it’s clear that Big Ten teams aren’t entering bowl games on the same conditional footing as their rivals.

This problem began several years ago, when most of the major collegiate conferences began extending their seasons (and generating more revenue) by holding a year-end championship game after the regular season. The SEC has a championship game. The Big Ten does not. I don’t think a championship game would work in the Big Ten, because, in most years, it would be a reprise of OSU-Michigan (although it would have been OSU-Illinois this year), and there aren’t enough couches in Columbus to burn for that to work.

So, like many other pundits, I am going to invoke the dreaded “p” word. To paraphrase Jim Mora: Playoffs? Playoffs? I’m going to talk to you about playoffs—but not for the reason that most people mention.

In addition to all the talk about determining a college football champion in a “fair” manner (whatever that means), a playoff would be desirable because it would remove the gap between the last regular season game and the BCS championship. If the first playoff game were played during, say, the third weekend in December, the seven-week hiatus would be a thing of the past. Each team would have played the same number games in a reasonable time span.

Let there be a playoff among the top eight or 16 teams in the BCS rankings, with the top bowls affixing their names to a given game in whatever way they can agree upon. There would still be plenty of room on ESPN’s schedule for all the Who Cares Bowls that pit the fourth-place team in the WAC against the third-place team from Conference USA.

When the NCAA rejects a Division I-A playoff, it usually does so by making some ridiculous statement about education (as if Divisions I-AA, II and III, which have playoffs, don’t care about education?). The pre-bowl conditioning gap between conferences should give some schools, such as those in the Big Ten, cause to reconsider.

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