Time Again To Debate College Football Playoff System

It's a big weekend in college football, with the two top-ranked teams facing off against each other for a spot in the national title game. There are no playoffs in college football. Every year when it's time for the bowl games, the debate resumes over whether the Bowl Championship Series should be changed.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A couple of years ago, a Gallup poll found that 85 percent of college football fans - 85 percent - preferred a playoff system to determine the national champions. Now, when you run that 85 percent through the complicated computerized formula used by the Bowl Championship Series, it goes down to 0 percent. We still have the BCS.

NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca joins us to answer the question here first: What really is the BCS? How's it work?

MIKE PESCA: Well, we know it stands for the Bowl Championship Series, and it is a number of bowls that happen in 2010. But everyone looks at the national championship game. And what the BCS does is it make a unified national champion. It takes the first-ranked team, pits them against the second-ranked team, and everyone can agree, well, yes. The winner of this game we shall call the national champion.

INSKEEP: How do they decide who gets to play in that national title game?

PESCA: It's complicated. They poll coaches. They have six different computers using six different formulas, crunching numbers. And then they have something called the Harris Interactive Poll, which has a slate of electors, and getting on there is more complex than the rules of succession to the Spanish throne.

But what this shows is that complexity doesn't equal consensus. Because even though you have all these numbers flying around and these supposedly learned people voting, there's still a lot of question, why is this team number one and why is this team number two, when an equally undefeated team, perhaps, can't crack the top three? Doesn't seem fair to a lot of people.

INSKEEP: And that's especially painful this year, when there are so many undefeated teams late in the season.

PESCA: Yeah, a lot of years, there are undefeated teams who are seen as weak sisters. You know, a few years ago Tulane, I think, went 11-0. But this year, Cincinnati, the University of Cincinnati - which plays in the Big East, which is supposedly a power conference, they are undefeated. We know that Texas Christian University is undefeated.

And Boise State is undefeated, and perhaps we could write off Boise State, but the first game of the season, they did defeat Oregon. And Oregon plays in the Pac-10. And they went on to beat Oregon, then a lot of teams who everyone else knows are good. And this is what the BCS forces you to do. It forces you to extrapolate. And you have to say, well, they beat a team who beat another team, so maybe Boise State's pretty good.

And you ask the six computers and the Harris interactive poll, and the third guy in line for the Spanish throne, then we're going to know who's in the national championship game.

INSKEEP: Mike Pesca, why not just take the top four or eight teams and have a few rounds of playoffs?

PESCA: Well, the real reason is money. The bowls make a lot of money for the teams that play in them, the people who own the bowls, networks, etc., etc. The only problem is in every other sport in America, we do use a playoff system. So, we have decided that playoffs are the best way to determine champions everywhere else, except in this one, hugely followed enterprise called Division 1A college football.

INSKEEP: So, granting that people will be dissatisfied with the results of the BCS once again this year, will at least some people be satisfied?

PESCA: If the following scenario happens, which is what the football poobahs and the people who decide and are invested in the BCS want to happen, which is they want the winner of the undefeated Florida and Alabama game to get one slot in the championship game. They really want the other slot to go to Texas, 'cause they're also an undefeated team.

However, if Texas loses to Nebraska, there's a possibility that they will bypass an undefeated team and let a one-loss team play in the playoff game because the computer and the voters and the coaches and so-forth will tell them what to do. So, that would be a sort of chaos scenario.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Pesca remains very high in the computerized rankings of sports correspondents. Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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