Some time later this year, officials with college football's Bowl Championship Series are expected to announce a four-team playoff system to determine the national championship. It may be instituted as early as 2014. This is good news, but only in so far as it is a step in the right direction.
Normally, we do not concern ourselves with college football. The BCS system, however, has been considered a big enough public-policy issue that Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has investigated it for possible anti-trust violations and Sen. Orrin Hatch has asked the Justice Department for a similar review. Two universities along the Wasatch Front have major football programs that regularly are considered in the upper echelons of the sport. One, the University of Utah, is likely to have a chance at the new playoff because of its membership in a BCS conference. The other, BYU, is a major independent outside the system. Both programs contribute positively to life in their communities and their schools, and both would stand to gain from a system that give their players a fair shot at winning a championship.
From the start, college football has been an anomaly in the world of college athletics. Other sports have tournaments to which the best teams qualify and compete for a national title. When it comes to football, however, from the start polls selected the champion, while the best teams played in bowl games that were more or less related to that process. For many years, those polls were based purely on the opinions of sportswriters or coaches. The BCS came along and added a computer program to the mix, turning one bowl game into an alleged championship contest.
At least with the old opinion-poll system, each team in the nation had somewhat of a chance at the crown. The BCS narrowed the field to a few select conferences and, while it agreed to allow an occasional outsider to play in a BCS bowl game, such a team is effectively excluded from the championship. There is something inherently wrong with telling a large percentage of college football players who suit up for their first practice in the summer that they never can win a national title, no matter how hard they work or how well they play.
Many questions remain to be answered. Among them: How will the four teams be chosen for the playoff? Will a team other than a member of a BCS conference have a chance to be chosen? Where will these games be played?
A four-team playoff is far too small to be effective or fair. But once the BCS has acknowledged the need for a playoff, it will be much easier to expand it with time.
Major college football is big business. Americans get that, just as they understand that the largest conferences want to protect their turf and their prestige. But athletics, at its core, is about fair play and a sporting chance. Maybe Utah politicians had some influence in cracking the door open just a bit. If so, good for them. A cracked door is much easier to open wide than one that is locked shut.