Bowls, polls have No. 1's number

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The bad news came across the wire yesterday: Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne are taking the high road on this No. 1 thing.

"I haven't heard Joe lobbying and I don't think you'll hear anything like that out of me, either," Osborne said.

Civility. What a shame.

The argument about the nation's best college football team is always better when pitched into the sporting gutter and marked by the whining, insipid politicking and broad-based insults that are among the hallmarks of college football.

Last year, for instance, fans of the West Virginia Mountaineers were convinced that their team couldn't finish No. 1 because voters thought they wore overalls in the shower and called a swimming pool a "ce-ment pond." Whether or not that was true, the real reason the Mountaineers couldn't finish No. 1 was because Florida beat them by 106 points in the Sugar Bowl.

Then there was the year that Michael Irvin of the outlaw Miami Hurricanes campaigned for the national title with this catchy slogan: "Miami, No. 1 UPI, No. 1 FBI."

Ah, those were the days.

Several times in recent years, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz has played down his team's ability throughout the season ("We couldn't block my mother") and then complained bitterly about unfair treatment after finishing second or third in the final polls. To which the only appropriate response was: But you said you weren't any good, Lou.

(Holtz and the Irish are out of it this year, although there are Notre Dame fans who will insist that the three-loss Irish deserve the national title if they win the rest of their games and beat Utah in the Kitty Litter Bowl. You watch.)

Anyway, it appears that this year's debate between Paterno's Penn State and Osborne's Nebraska is going to be a sporting, gentlemanly affair, which is all well and good but certainly no fun and totally against the whole point of having the polls and bowls decide the No. 1 team in the first place.

The system is arbitrary, unscientific, sloppy and inherently unfair, and is designed to spawn chaos, anarchy, vitriol and silly hats with gator snouts on top. In other words, it is the last bastion of old-fashioned goofy fun in a sports world gone cold, corporate and unsmilingly avaricious.

Of course, it is easy to see why the Nebraska and Penn State folks are having trouble ripping each other. They're too alike. They certainly can't make fun of anyone for living in a small town in the middle of nowhere. And they can't complain that the other is playing a cream-puff schedule, because they both are: Of the 16 wins between the teams, only three have come against opponents ranked in this week's Top 25. And neither Penn State nor Nebraska has another ranked opponent on its schedule.

Cheese city.

(Auburn, the best li'l unbeaten team on probation, also thinks it deserves to be No. 1, a legitimate proposition considering that the team hasn't lost since 1992. But someone please tell the Tigers that they haven't exactly taken on all comers this year, either. Of their eight wins, one is against a ranked opponent.)

Of course, the fact that it is almost a certainty that Nebraska and Penn State will finish the season unbeaten means there won't be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game to decide the championship. Nebraska, as a member of the Bowl Coalition, probably would play once-beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl, a brutally tough game. Penn State would play in the Rose Bowl against the champion of the Pac-10, a league in which each team already has at least two losses.

If Nebraska were to beat Miami and Penn State were to beat Oregon or Washington State or whomever in the Rose Bowl, the Cornhuskers almost definitely would finish No. 1 because they played in a much tougher bowl than Penn State.

In fact, Penn State's bowl opponent might be so weak that Miami could jump past the Nittany Lions and finish No. 1 if it were to beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. And that would almost make sense. (Miami would have beaten four ranked teams, Penn State two.)

You just can't win the national title beating a team called the Ducks in your bowl game.

Inevitably, the narrow-eyed lobby calling for a national playoff will point to the lack of a clear-cut finish as the latest evidence for instituting a playoff. But these people don't understand that college football's essence is regional rivalries, or that a playoff would render the regular season as meaningless as college basketball's, which is basically one long preseason leading up to March Madness.

The polls and bowls are more fun. It's just too bad everyone is being so nice this year. Maybe something will happen and that will change. And maybe we'll get Bill Walsh's Stanford in the hunt next year. That's what we need. Walsh, in a recent book, is quoted as calling Holtz "a spoiled little brat" and laughing that USC's alums are "50-year-old women with miniskirts." Now you're talking.

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