December 29, 2008

How to make New Year's Day matter again

MORE: Bowl schedule

Here we are getting closer and closer to New Year's Day, and the anticipation about the Jan. 1 bowls is well, it's basically non-existent.

Sure, there's intrigue surrounding the Penn State-USC matchup in the Rose Bowl. And there's intrigue in the other "big bowls," as well.

THE OTHER ONES
Since the Bowl Coalition the precursor to the BCS system, which started in 1998 came about in 1992, only three times have teams ranked first and second not met in a national title game. The three instances:
1994 season
No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 3 Miami in the Orange
No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 12 Oregon in the Rose
1996 season
No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 3 Florida in the Sugar
No. 2 Arizona State vs. No. 4 Ohio State in the Rose
1997 season
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 8 Washington State in the Rose
No. 2 Nebraska vs. No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange
Truthfully, though, unless you're a fan of a team involved in the Orange or Fiesta or Rose or Cotton or Holiday or Capital One or Chick-fil-A or you get the idea you can skip the game and not care about the outcome. The reason, of course, is that none of those games will have any bearing whatsoever on who wins the national title.

That's the unintended consequence of the BCS honchos and their zeal to make the national championship game the be-all, end-all. In other words, the folks who are telling you that every single game matters in the regular season are essentially rendering meaningless any postseason game other than the title game.

Contrast that to almost any postseason before the Bowl Coalition the precursor to the BCS was born in 1992. That season, No. 2 Alabama beat No. 1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl with the national title on the line. Only three times since then in 1994, '96 and '97 has there been a postseason where No. 1 didn't meet No. 2 in a sort of national title game (see accompanying chart).

If you're old enough, think back to the 1970s (you know, back when the Cotton Bowl was a big deal) when it seemed that every season, at least two New Year's Day games had a bearing on the national title. It was much the same in the 1980s. Now, though, the only postseason game that doesn't elicit a shrug of the shoulders is the title game.

Don't take this as a pro-playoff screed. Instead, take this as a plea to go back to the "old days" of the bowl system, then add a plus-one game. Go back to the way it worked in the 1970s and '80s, when you sat down on New Year's Day and tried to watch as much of the Cotton, Orange, Sugar, Rose and Fiesta bowls as you could because chances are what happened in the Sugar (or Rose or Cotton) had a bearing on what happened in the Orange (or Fiesta).

This also is a plea to cut back on the number of bowl games in order to make each one more important. That's right: I see no need for the Papajohns.com or St. Petersburg or Humanitarian or New Mexico bowls. The proliferation of bowls has led to non-worthy teams playing in the postseason, which cheapens the whole process.

There are 34 bowls this season, which is nine too many. Twenty-five bowls is a good number. And while we're at it, let's set some new minimum requirements to get into the postseason.

Here's our modest proposal to make bowl games matter and to make Jan. 1 important again.

The 25 bowls, in four tiers:

Eligibility
There will be 50 teams in the 25 bowls (our math is shaky, but even we can figure that out). To get the "Big Six" conferences to agree to something this radical, each would be guaranteed that half their members would get bowl slots assuming they meet the requirements (more on that in a minute). The Big Ten is the only "Big Six" league without an even number of teams; the league would be guaranteed five slots. That gives the "Big Six" leagues 32 of the 50 slots. Notre Dame would be guaranteed a bid if it's eligible. The other leagues would be divided thusly: C-USA and the Mountain West would get three each, the MAC and WAC two each and the Sun Belt one; that's 11, meaning there are six or seven (depending on Notre Dame) wild-card slots among all the leagues.

Here's the kicker: To be eligible for a bowl, a team must have a winning record (i.e., no more 6-6 teams) overall and at least a .500 conference record. Our rule: If a team can't win half its conference games, it's not going to the postseason. In addition, victories over FCS (i.e., Division I-AA) schools count every other season. In other words, if a school wants to try to fatten up on an FCS member every season, it can do so but it also does so knowing that there will be some seasons when that win will not count toward bowl eligibility.

The top tier
Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar: The Cotton Bowl will be moving to the Dallas Cowboys' new palace, err, stadium next season. With the move comes the potential for a ton more money. Money makes the college football world go 'round, so the Cotton gets back into the top tier. In a nod to tradition and the realization that to keep the Rose Bowl folks interested in the plan, it has to be this way the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs still head to Pasadena. The SEC champ goes to the Sugar and the Big 12 champ to the Cotton. The ACC and Big East champs are wild cards, and the Fiesta and Orange have no set tie-ins. In addition, the champs from the non-"Big Six" leagues are fair game, as well.

The second tier
Alamo, Capital One, Chick-fil-A, Gator and Holiday: The Cap One is guaranteed a Big Ten-SEC matchup, while the Alamo gets a Big 12 team, the Chick-fil-A an ACC team, the Gator a Big East team and the Holiday a Pac-10 team. The other slots are wide open, in an attempt to get the best matchup possible.

The third tier
Las Vegas, Liberty, Motor City, New Orleans and Poinsettia: The tie-ins are as follows a Mountain West team to the Vegas, a C-USA team to the Liberty, a MAC team to the Motor City, a Sun Belt team to the New Orleans and a WAC team to the Poinsettia. The non-"Big Six" conference champs easily could end up in a higher-tier bowl; this is to make sure those champs don't fall beyond this tier.

The fourth tier
Champs Sports, GMAC, Hawaii, Independence, Insight, Meineke Car Care, Music City, Outback, Sun and Texas: These bowls are in the mix because of geography (and, in some cases, history). There are no set conference tie-ins with these bowls, though geography likely would play a role in who ends up in the game.

The five tier-one bowls would be played Jan. 1. There might be a tier two bowl that feels it wants to try to play with the big boys on New Year's Day. Fine let the marketplace determine that. But the only bowl that will be played after Jan. 1 is the "plus-one" game.

The participants in that game would be determined by a mixture of some kind of power rankings and a selection committee like how the NCAA tournament participants are selected. In this scenario, at least two or three and maybe even four or all five tier one bowls would matter.

And how a conference fared in the other postseason games would have an impact, too. In other words, how Big 12 teams performed in the Alamo and Sun bowls, for instance, could help or hurt a Big 12 team hoping to be selected for the plus-one game.

I know there are folks out there saying, "Enough, already. Just add a playoff." Hey, it's not that simple.

For all its faults, college football does have a regular season that is vitally important. A playoff would cheapen the regular season as it does in every other sport.

Plus, who gets in a playoff? Eight schools? Sixteen? Some proposals have all the conference champs earning automatic bids. Yeah, right. In that scenario, New Mexico State (which is in the nine-team WAC) or Arkansas State (which is in the nine-team Sun Belt) would have a better mathematical chance of making the playoffs than USC, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Penn State essentially, any team in any of the "Big Six" leagues outside the Big East.

And with a playoff, what happens to the schools (and coaches) that don't make the postseason? I have seen models where the bowls still exist for the teams that don't make a playoff. If you think the bowls are worthless now, they'd be as valuable as a penny in a Lexus dealer then. Plus, if you think college football is cut-throat now, wait and see what happens when 80 percent of the teams wouldn't make the postseason at all.

Is adding a plus-one game going to solve all the ills? Of course not. But that would be better than the current system, and progress is going to have to be measured incrementally.

MORE: Bowl schedule

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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