Very few things in sports are more bewildering than the college football bowl games selection system.
Known as the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the organization’s title game is determined by a formula so convoluted that most coaches wouldn’t attempt to take a wild stab at how it works.
Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden once summed it perfectly: “All I know is you need to win every game you play and by as many points as you can score, and then hope the voters and computers and the Ouija Board and whatever else is in that dang thing spits you out as one of the top two,” he said.
This season, there was little doubt about the No. 1 team. LSU went 13-0, won the Southeastern Conference championship over Georgia and rarely had to endure a close game.
The No. 2 team, Alabama, gets a national a championship mulligan against the Tigers even though the Tide lost to LSU 9-6 (overtime) in Tuscaloosa.
Jilted a step or two from the altar were any number of hopefuls — Oklahoma State (11-1), Stanford and likely Heisman Trophy winner Andrew Luck (11-1), Boise State (11-1) and others.
There are 35 bowl games this season, beginning with the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17 (Wyoming vs. Temple) and running virtually nonstop through the LSU-Alabama BCS Championship in New Orleans on Jan. 9.
To run the numbers another way, more of the NCAA’s top-level football schools will play in bowls than won’t, which is why almost all of the games will be of marginal importance at best.
Fourteen bowl-bound teams won only six regular-season games, and UCLA of the Pac-12 Conference earned a spot in San Francisco’s Fight Hunger Bowl (Dec. 31) even though the Bruins have the indignity of a 6-7 overall record after losing the league title game to Oregon.
Once cherished rewards for an exceptional regular season, bowl bids have become as commonplace as extra-point kicks.
Coaches like the system because they usually earn a pay bonus for reaching the post-season, plus bowl teams get 20 practice sessions that those coaches can use as pre-spring workouts.
Players like the bowls because a post-season trip — even if it’s to Boise, Id. for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — is about the only reward those players get for a season that starts with grueling practice routines in early August and regularly includes at least one or two injuries.
Presidents and chancellors like the bowl system because it’s a guaranteed revenue stream.
Fans generally like the bowls because the games, even the most meaningless, are the last hurrah of each football season.
Television networks, primarily ESPN, like the bowls because they provide a reasonably priced programming commodity during a time of the year when lots of viewers are socked by cold weather and short daylight hours.
An NCAA playoff format similar to college basketball’s March Madness obviously makes more common sense. But as famed TV analyst John Madden once said, “When has common sense ever had anything to do with football?”
Among the 35 bowls, here are five of the most appealing:
1. BCS Championship, Jan. 9, New Orleans: Neither Alabama (11-1) nor LSU (13-0) has a great quarterback, which is a rarity for games of this magnitude. But unlike the two teams’ regular-season game on Nov. 5, there will be touchdowns scored. The difference probably will be the Tiger’s prolific special teams. LSU 24, Bama 20.
2. Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 2, Glendale, Ariz.: Stanford (11-1) of the Pac-12 Conference and Oklahoma State (11-1) of the Big 12 essentially will decide the No. 3 BCS spot in this game. Up to 100 NFL scouts should be on hand to watch Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck’s final college game. It should be a shootout, too. Stanford, 38-35.
3. TicketCity Bowl, Dallas, Jan. 2: Here’s a rare opportunity for a Conference USA team, Houston (12-1), to knock off one of the sport’s big-timers. The Penn State (9-3) players have been through an unprecedented ordeal as a result of the Jerry Sandusky events. Incentive, and offensive talent, favor the Cougars, 27-21.
4. Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 2: Quarterback Russell Wilson of Big Ten champ Wisconsin (11-2) wraps up a sensational career that began at N.C. State. Pac-12 champ Oregon (11-2), which began the season with a 40-27 loss to LSU, has the nation’s most dangerous rushing attack. Ducks, 49-42.
5. Outback Bowl, Tampa, Jan. 2: Georgia (10-3) lost the SEC title game to LSU and Michigan State (10-3) lost the Big Ten championship game to Wisconsin. But both of these teams have several young stars, including Spartans rushing star Le’Veon Bell, a possible Heisman contender in 2012. Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray, a sophomore, has thrown 33 touchdown passes.