Here's what is wrong with big-time college football in America as we know it: Last weekend, the Mountain West Conference's members and hierarchy had to be hoping that Air Force, perhaps their best role model, would lose to Utah, which is only a month away from playing its last game in the league before bolting to the Pacific 10 Conference.
Nobody will admit feeling that way, starting with Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. But that's life in these bloodthirsty times, with second-tier conferences fighting for credibility and Bowl Championship Series berths.
On a day when two highly ranked unbeatens, Michigan State and Missouri, went down to defeat, the door was open for Utah to move up and join MWC rival Texas Christian University in the top six nationally. With those two teams playing this Saturday at Salt Lake City (1:30 p.m., CBS College, Comcast channel 170), having both unbeaten when they face each other means the MWC should join the treasured BCS lineup for the third consecutive year.
The Mountain West's BCS chances could have evaporated if Utah had fallen to Air Force, but then beat TCU at home. Of course, the Falcons fell just short in a 28-23 loss, so now the Utah-TCU winner will come away unscathed.
One more time, we're seeing the nasty imperfections of the current method that college football uses to determine its national champion. Those despised BCS standings, a toxic mix of polls and computerized rankings, tell us the best teams from mid-October on, and the top two after the regular season ends Dec. 4 will play in the next BCS Championship Game on Monday, Jan. 10, at Glendale, Ariz.
As of now, Oregon is No. 1, and if the Ducks make it to 12-0, nobody will argue. But who should be their opponent? Auburn could run the table in the Southeastern Conference, and few would challenge an Oregon-Auburn pairing. But the Tigers still have to face Georgia and Alabama and win the SEC title game, which won't be easy.
Meanwhile, Boise State and the TCU-Utah winner should finish 12-0. And any teams with one loss — which could include Ohio State, Wisconsin, the Nebraska-Oklahoma winner (assuming those two play in the Big 12 title game), and perhaps Louisiana State and Missouri — are likely to be out of the running for the national championship.
This picture is so wrong, on multiple fronts. First, if Auburn wins out, other teams with a perfect record, such as Boise State, TCU or Utah, don't get a national-title chance. Second, if Auburn loses, Boise State, TCU or Utah does get a chance — but any team with one loss in the Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC does not. That's illogical, even if the Mountain West deserves its national-level stature as an excellent conference.
Given the current structure, the Mountain West's best hope is someday to crack through and become a BCS conference, guaranteeing a spot for its champion in one of those huge bowls.
But the only fair solution for everyone still is a national playoff system, with eight or, preferably, 16 teams. We'll surely explore this in the next few weeks with our annual dream brackets, but just imagine the nationwide interest for a tournament that would use many of the current high-profile bowls. Then, finally, one regular-season loss (especially on the road, or by some kind of fluke) wouldn't ruin a great team's chances. Then, finally, the door would be open in the playoffs for any deserving team to make a run at the undisputed national title.
Until that happens, leagues such as the Mountain West have to play the standings game, hoping for unbeaten champions. Utah and Brigham Young will leave next summer, and in 2011 Boise State will join TCU in the Mountain West's elite. No matter how good Air Force, San Diego State or others might be, unless they're perfect they won't help the MWC — except by losing the big games, as Air Force did against Utah.
For now, sit back Saturday and see whether TCU or Utah will survive. (It's hard to pick against TCU, with its superior defense.) At least that's one game when the conference won't have to choose.
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