Originally created 08/16/98

Colleges take a giant step



You've got your BYUs, FSUs and LSUs. Your OSUs, TCUs and UCLAs. In college football, though, there is now only one set of letters that matters -- BCS.

As in Bowl Championship Series. As in a new and improved version of the bowl alliance that moves the sport closer to crowning a clear-cut champion without a playoff system.

"I think it's a move forward," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "I hope it proves it can give us a meaningful championship game every year. And I think it's got a good chance to do it."

It just might.

The Rose Bowl is aboard for the first time. So are the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences. And don't forget the complicated new plan devised to guarantee for the first time a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the final bowl game of the season.

Basically, all 112 Division I-A teams now have a chance, however slight, to end up in the BCS' title game.

The Rose joins the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls in the BCS lineup, while the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences join the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences.

Florida coach Steve Spurrier still wants a playoff but says the new system is better than before.

"Why they don't get 16 teams and start playing at the end of the season amazes me. We keep doing it the old way," Spurrier said. "This is sort of a fancy way of doing it the old way, but at least it's better than what we had in the past. At least everyone is eligible in one way or another to get to that game."

The BCS will determine which teams play in its championship game -- this season it's the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4 -- with a complex point system based on polls, computer rankings, strength-of-schedule and won-loss records. The BCS will then designate six other teams for its three remaining bowls.

In all, eight teams qualify for the series: The six conference champions receive automatic bids, along with two at-large teams.

"I think it's the best we're going to get for the next seven years," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, referring to the $525 million, seven-year deal the BCS signed with ABC, which will televise the four-bowl series.

Even with all the changes, the big question still remains: Will the Bowl Championship Series be able to eliminate the almost annual Who's No. 1 controversy? Or is it just the next baby step on the road to a playoff system?

"It's not a perfect system and we'll continue to evaluate ways to improve it," said Roy Kramer, BCS coordinator and commissioner of the SEC. "We've made significant improvements. We've taken all the basic elements people use to evaluate teams and folded them in to put the best possible system together. It gives us the best opportunity to put the best two teams on the field, without a playoff."

Kramer, who began working on the new plan two years ago when the Rose Bowl first agreed to join the alliance, says while there are still critics calling for a playoff, the BCS addresses many of the previous problems.

"We couldn't match up Penn State and Nebraska a few years ago or Michigan and Nebraska last year because of Rose Bowl commitments," he said. "And then there would be a case of, What if there were four undefeated teams, or one undefeated and a bunch of once-beatens?

"We've attempted to address a way to evaluate teams with equal records at the end of the season other than just a subjective poll. That's why we're looking at the strength-of-schedule, and if a team argues about not getting in, sooner or later they will have to admit they were hurt by the schedule. Teams should be given credit for playing a solid schedule."

Previously, The Associated Press' media poll and the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll were the major factors in determining bowl matchups. Under the new system, the polls count for only 25 percent.

But there's still a chance for split national champions again. That's happened three times in the '90s, including last season when Michigan was No. 1 in the AP poll and Nebraska topped the coaches' poll.

The coaches' poll, where the ballots are secret, will crown the winner of the BCS' title game as its national champion, no matter what happens in the other bowl games. Voters in the AP writers' poll, where the ballots are made public, can consider other teams for No. 1 just as they have in the past.

Say, for example, three teams were undefeated at the end of the season, and the title game is a ho-hum affair, while the third unbeaten team wins convincingly. In the AP media poll, that third team can still win the national title, while only the winner of the BCS' top game can win the coaches' poll.

The biggest winners are the Pac-10 and Big Ten, whose teams can now aim for a national title instead of just making it to the Rose Bowl. Until Michigan won the AP title last year, the last team from those conferences to win a national championship was Southern California in 1978.

"We want to compete for the national championship," UCLA coach Bob Toledo said. "I'm not sitting here beating my chest saying we're going to win the national championship. I think it's a realistic goal and it's good to have a chance."