Playoff would be an alliance worth joining

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- Playoff? Who needs a playoff?

Coach Steve Spurrier wants to award rings to all those who helped make Florida's first national championship possible.

Texas coach John Mackovic, Ohio State coach John Cooper, come on down!

"We've got plenty of money -- what's the bowl payout, $8.7

[million]?" Spurrier said. "Send 'em something. They deserve something.

"Especially Coach Cooper at Ohio State. That last drive, his kids hung in there. They showed a lot of guts and character to beat Arizona State."

Spurrier forgot to mention Michigan's Lloyd Carr, the coach responsible for ruining Ohio State's unbeaten season.

But you get the idea.

"Divine intervention," Spurrier called it, "God smiling on the Gators" -- as if the Good Lord can't stand those heathen Buckeyes and Seminoles.

Actually, Spurrier had something else working in his favor -- that wacky Bowl Alliance.

He still favors a playoff, as should everyone else who cares about college football.

Even Spurrier knows Florida is No. 1 only because Texas beat Nebraska in the Big 12 championship and Ohio State beat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl.

Indeed, two of the Gators' biggest celebrations this season took place in the team hotel before they even took the field.

They beat Alabama for the Southeastern Conference title hours after learning that Nebraska had lost, clearing the way for their Sugar Bowl rematch with Florida State.

And they beat FSU in the Sugar Bowl the day after watching Arizona State lose in the Rose, clearing the way for their shot at the national championship.

Florida spent the night before the Sugar in Gonzales, La., about 45 miles from New Orleans.

"When we checked in, there were five minutes left in the game," Spurrier said. "I told 'em to check in, we would have dinner after.

"Everyone went back to their rooms. It was very quiet, just like in the hotel in Atlanta [before the SEC championship]."

Ohio State, of course, fell behind 17-14 with 1: 40 left before rallying to score the winning touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.

"We were just pulling for a field goal, saying, 'Gosh, do something,' " Florida linebacker James Bates said. "They go down and score, and the hotel just exploded.

"I would have hated to be a regular guest staying at the hotel. I'm sure they all hit the deck. Everyone ran into the courtyard. I thought a few guys were going to jump in the pool."

Instead, the Gators gathered for a team meeting. One by one, LTC the players shook hands with the coaches, almost like a receiving line.

"We knew what we had to do," safety Lawrence Wright said.

And they did it in spectacular fashion, beating the only remaining unbeaten team -- the team that had given them their only loss -- by 32 points.

A controversy would have erupted if ASU had gone undefeated -- Florida could have argued that it played a more difficult schedule, with the SEC going 5-0 in bowl games.

Then again, the Gators might not have had the same incentive without the chance to win the national championship.

The point is, there's a better way to determine No. 1.

"I'm not going to change my thinking on a playoff system," Spurrier said. "It would be fairest for all concerned."

Spurrier said he favors a 16-team playoff starting the week after the regular season ends. But an eight-team playoff would be more realistic.

College basketball offers March Madness.

College football can offer December Delirium.

Is this really so difficult? Divisions I-AA, II and III determine their champions in a playoff. Division I-A is contractually obligated to the alliance through 2002, and it's a shame.

Granted, No. 1 will face No. 2 every year once the Rose Bowl completes the alliance in 1998. But that won't necessarily settle the debate. And the status of the other bowls will be diminished.

In fact, it's already happening.

Thus, last year's Sugar Bowl drew its smallest crowd in 20 years. This year's Orange drew its smallest in 50. And how well will the Rose draw once it loses its ties to the Pac-10 and Big Ten?

Each alliance bowl will get the national championship game every four years, and scramble to fill seats the other three. With an eight-team playoff, four bowls could host the quarterfinals, two the semis and one the final.

Presto!

Renewed interest.

Traditionalists love the weeklong buildup to each bowl, with fans gathering in each city. But making travel plans is no easier now than it would be under a playoff system -- fans have no idea which team is going where.

Oh, you'd have to push back the awarding of the Heisman Trophy and other awards until the end of the season -- a good idea, anyway. And you'd also have to justify asking these devoted student-athletes to play one or two games.

The hypocrites at the NCAA could handle it -- they're the ones who allowed a $1 million halftime passing contest at the Sugar Bowl, with the public-address announcer imploring the crowd to chant, "Show me the money!"

No system is perfect -- a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown would have brought together Florida State and Arizona State, the two teams that lost in the most significant bowls.

But at least with a playoff, a coach wouldn't need to thank half his fraternity for eliminating the other contenders. And at least with a playoff, the players wouldn't need to celebrate in their hotels.

Just imagine.

A truly undisputed national champion.

Pub Date: 1/04/97

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