Who Will Be the No. 1 College Football Team?
Forget the playoff system. Arguing for your favorite squad is half the fun.

Presumably operating on the premise that a president needs to weigh in on every national issue including college football, Barack Obama recently told CBS's "60 Minutes" that "If you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear, decisive winner. We should be creating a playoff system."

Easy for him to say. He's undefeated and just won the presidential playoffs. Still, you can't turn on the television or open a newspaper these days without someone calling for the current complex polling system to be replaced with a NFL-like playoff system to determine who is No. 1 in college football. Today the champion is determined in a game between the teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in a poll run by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The BCS folks use a computer to average various polls to determine the rankings and who will play for the "national championship."

Yes, Mr. President-elect, the current system is far from perfect. But a playoff system would destroy college football as we know it. The ranking system is supposed to be controversial, and arguing about who's No. 1 is half the fun.

Before BCS, we had many competing polls with no single poll to determine the No. 1. team. The old decentralized system worked better, was more fun, and was better for college football fans. Who cared if the championship wasn't "official"? Were the rings the players earned any less substantial? Knute Rockne, Bud Wilkinson and Bear Bryant didn't complain that the so-called opinion polls never resolved the controversy over who was supposed to be No. 1.

Somewhere along the line people forgot that the polls were set up not to resolve controversy but to cause it. In 1985, Alan J. Gould, father of the AP college football poll, explained at a press conference, "It was a case of thinking up ideas to develop interest and controversy between football Saturdays. . . . That's all I had in mind, something to keep the pot boiling."

So there you have it. And when the AP sportswriters poll and, later, the UPI coaches poll began waiting until after the bowl games were played to make their final picks, they merely put another log on the fire.

It was always understood, at least until relatively recently, that the bowl games, with their regional associations and conference tie-ins, weren't created to accommodate a college national championship game. They were intended to be postseason awards for teams that deserved a prize for regular-season play. In other words, the bowls were supposed to be anticlimactic.

The desire to have an "official" champion -- via a playoff or BCS game or whatever -- didn't come from college football. It came mostly from television, which has airtime to fill and ads to sell. It used to be that you could count on sitting down New Year's Day to watch as many as three major bowl games with some bearing on the national title. After the 1965 season, Alabama had to wait until the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl were resolved before going out to win the national title in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska. In 1978, Notre Dame ended the 1977 regular season ranked No. 5 and ended up No. 1 by beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

Both the BCS and playoff people want to wrap up the whole thing with one big game where, you can bet your pom-poms, the students and alumni won't even be able to get a ticket -- like the Super Bowl, nearly all the seats will go to corporate sponsors. Not only does this erode decades of college football tradition, it renders the other big bowl games relatively meaningless.

I've got family who remember the 1966 season, the year Alabama finished 11-0 and didn't win the national championship, better than any of the years in which they did win. College football fans would rather argue such things than watch the Super Bowl.

Several seasons have ended with more than one team claiming to be the champion. After Penn State finished the 1973 season unbeaten, Joe Paterno had championship rings made for his team even though both polls ranked the Nittany Lions No. 5. "What poll did you win?" asked a brave sportswriter. "The Paterno Poll!" Papa Lion replied. No one's ever tried to take those rings away.