If college football's Bowl Alliance were a Christmas present, you would take it back to the store.
"This thing is brand-new," you would tell the clerk, "and it doesn't work."
The Alliance was supposed to render obsolete the annual argument over who is No. 1, but the situation is messier than ever this year.
Top-ranked Florida State has to play its bowl game against a team it already has beaten.
Florida State and second-ranked Arizona State, both undefeated, aren't playing each other.
And four teams -- four! -- will stake legitimate claims to the national title if Florida beats Florida State in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State beats Arizona State in the Rose Bowl.
Let's hope that last scenario unfolds, just so we can watch the fans of the four wannabes get angry and swell up to the size of the Michelin Man for one of the last times.
The championship debate is one of the last bastions of anarchy in sports, one of the last devilish traditions that hasn't been sanitized for the sake of TV gold, and it's about to end, too.
Adding the Rose Bowl to the Alliance beginning in 1998 pretty much guarantees that the top two teams will play each other in a bowl.
The only reason the Alliance didn't work this year was that the Rose Bowl didn't participate and Arizona State went undefeated as the Pacific-10 champion. Since the Pac-10 is bound to the Rose Bowl, the No. 2 team isn't in an Alliance bowl.
If this were 1998, Arizona State and Florida State would play somewhere warm in front of a bunch of fans with fruit on their heads, and the winner would finish No. 1, no questions asked.
But this isn't next year. And a lot of people are, well, less than thrilled with the alliance.
First, some history. The big wheels in the game have tried for years to clear up the No. 1 debate without having to kill the bowls and go to a sterile championship tournament. The Alliance was a pretty good solution. All the top bowls, except for the Rose, agreed to pick from a pool of top teams, with No. 1 and No. 2 automatically paired.
But with No. 2 out of the Alliance this year, Florida State has to play No. 3, and -- double oops -- that's Florida, which Florida State beat 10 days ago in that week's Game of the Century.
Asking Florida State to beat Florida twice is hardly fair. This isn't the pros. You don't do home-and-home. If you beat someone once in college ball, you don't have to do it again.
Florida State does now, thanks to the Alliance. And look for Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden to bark about it so hard that his head almost comes right off.
The Seminoles were going to play Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, but then the Cornhuskers were beaten by Texas in the inaugural Big 12 championship game Saturday, in what had to be the upset of the year. Texas had four losses this season, Nebraska one in three years.
In case you missed it, Texas quarterback James Brown called the shot, just as Joe Namath did before Super Bowl III. He said the Longhorns would win by three touchdowns as three-touchdown underdogs, then passed for 353 yards. Give that man a standing ovation.
Predictably, some top teams left out of the six-team Alliance pool -- it's picked by conference commissioners and other pooh-bahs -- are ready to implode. BYU is particularly upset about getting left out after winning 13 of 14 games and the Western Athletic Conference championship.
Funny, but BYU and its fans weren't quite as upset when poll voters gave the Cougars a national championship in 1984 even though their toughest opponent was a terrible Michigan team in the minor-league Holiday Bowl.
The commissioner of the WAC earlier had threatened to sue if BYU wasn't included in the Alliance. To which there is only one appropriate response: Ease up, pal. This isn't a real sport, it's college football, a beauty pageant. No one said it was objective or fair. Army beat Navy on Saturday, and now Army is going to Shreveport, La., for a bowl and Navy is going to Hawaii. If anyone should sue, it's Army.
Anyway, here's hoping that Florida and Ohio State win the big bowl games, and not because they are any more appealing or deserving. It would just be fun to see those two teams, Florida State, Arizona State, Virginia Tech, BYU and Army all with one defeat after the bowls were over.
Only the first four would have a real claim to the title, and Florida probably would get it.
Me, I'd give it to Army.
Dec. 31, 7 p.m., Miami
No. 6 Nebraska (10-2) vs.
No. 10 Virginia Tech (10-1)
TV/line: Ch. 13/Nebraska by 15 1/2
Jan. 1, 8 p.m., Tempe, Ariz.
No. 7 Penn State (10-2) vs.
No. 20 Texas (8-4)
TV/line: Ch. 13/Texas by 1
Jan. 2, 8 p.m., New Orleans
No. 1 Florida State (11-0) vs.
No. 3 Florida (11-1)
TV/line: Ch. 2/Florida by 3
Pub Date: 12/10/96