Major college football never has had an official national championship game. Come Monday night in Tempe, Ariz., it will when the two best teams play, No. 1 and undefeated Tennessee against No. 2 and once- beaten Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Alas, we once again may be falling victim to sizzle sans steak. It is possible, of course, that Tennessee and Florida State truly are the two best teams. But the charade that produced this alleged championship game will prevent us from knowing with any certainty.
That's because the Machiavellian National Collegiate Athletic Association is treating us like mushrooms, throwing manure on us and keeping us in the dark. The hopes are we won't notice this whole deal stinks and that we won't demand the cleansing light of day, a.k.a. a legitimate playoff system, be shined on this mess.
Five ratings systems were combined to determine No. 1 and No. 2, inexplicably including one by the Seattle Times. A convoluted ranking by self-styled guru Jeff Sagarin is included; he has Kansas State first, while nobody else has the Wildcats higher than fourth. Then there is The New York Times computer, which over the years has established itself as certifiably batty. Nobody this year ranks Syracuse higher than 16th except the Times computer, which has the Orangemen seventh.
All of this reels any logical mind.
For openers, there is broad feeling among close observers that Ohio State, 10-1, is in fact the nation's best team, most likely by far. Ignore The Seattle Times, which ranks the Buckeyes seventh. Other than the unimaginable loss to Michigan State, no other opponent could stay close to OSU. But the Bucks lost late in the season while Florida State lost early to North Carolina State. For some unfathomable reason, losing late is considered fatal while losing early is considered forgivable.
Five other teams have just one loss: Kansas State, Arizona, UCLA, Wisconsin, and Air Force. And Tulane, like Tennessee, is undefeated. Why aren't these teams playing for the championship, other than the fact that nine teams on the field at the same time admittedly would make for chaos?
Critics say Kansas State had a weak schedule, beating up on little guys like Indiana State. True. But Tennessee played the University of Alabama-Birmingham, not to be confused with the real Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
There are 15 teams with two or fewer losses. If ever a season screamed out for a playoff system, this is it. Even Philip Fulmer, Tennessee's coach, says, "I would prefer that college football had a playoff." He likes the idea of 16 teams. Fine. Using the Associated Press poll, the best ranking system, the opening round would have No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 16 Air Force. That would be fun, with no guarantees that the Vols would win. No. 15 Michigan plays No. 2 Florida State. Excellent. No. 3 Ohio State plays No. 14 Nebraska. Oh, yes.
You cannot get a bad game when the bracket has all good teams. Rather than letting man and machine create a synthetic title game, let it be determined on the field. Sports are about definitive competition.
But the people who run the bowl games don't want playoffs, for fear their bowl will get left out. Their resources and ability to lobby are unlimited. It's true, some bowls would be terminated. Can you say Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho? Yet, this is far overridden by the fun, the money that would be made, and - above all - the legitimacy of championship playoffs.
So we are left to pretend this is a legit title game. The teams are about even offensively. Tennessee runs better, Florida State passes better. Both had big quarterback concerns and solved them. At UT, Tee Martin had to follow legend Peyton Manning, and he has taken the Vols to places Manning never tread, including a win over Florida. At FSU, starter Chris Weinke was hurt in early November. But backup Marcus Outzen has proved to be far better than adequate. FSU's defense is better.
Above all, FSU's Bobby Bowden has a coaching advantage: He's 15-4-1 in bowls, the best in the history of college bowls.
Regardless, it remains intriguing to consider that in an honorable playoff, lightly regarded and highly suspect Tulane would play Florida and get trounced. Or would it?
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