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HOORAY! COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS SAVED! So sayeth the powers that be, who recently saw their dream of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game to determine the national champion come to fruition.

In a sure sign that Armaggedon is upon us, the Bowl Alliance, a system which takes teams from all conferences and which was created to ensure a national championship game every year, now includes all teams from all conferences. The Big 10 and Pac 10 were previously obligated to send their champs to the Rose Bowl.

Now, the top two teams in the country will face each other for the whole shootin' match.

Who's No. 1?
Warning: If you're not a math major,this next section may give you a brain cramp. You will need a calculator and some scratch paper. Ready? Here goes: To choose No. 1 AND No. 2 teams, the new and improved championship series will rely on a complex formula that takes into account a team's:

  • average ranking in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll

  • average ranking in The New York Times and Seattle Times and Sagarin computer polls

  • strength of schedule, as well as strength of opponents' schedules

  • overall record.

Sound confusing? You're right, it is. The formula is set up to determine, absolutely and without question, which two teams in the country deserve to play for the title. Before, The Big 10 and Pac 10's obligation to send their top teams to the Rose Bowl sometimes cost teams in these conferences the opportunity to compete for a national championship. Also, the old system relied entirely on the two polls, which didn't always agree, causing much debate over who was No. 1 in the end.

Just look at last year, for example. U. of Michigan won the AP poll and U. of Nebraska won the ESPN-USA Today coaches' poll. Under the old system, they were deemed co-champions, but the new system would have calculated them as the two highest-ranked teams at the end of the season, meaning they would play in a championship.

Is all the extra math worth it? Roy Kramer thinks so. "Now, the two best teams are going to play," says Roy Kramer, Chairman of the Bowl Championship Series. "We think we've done the best we can."

Though most would agree the revamped system is a step in the right direction, many coaches, players and fans still see room for improvement.

Power Play
Is the new formula weighted towards teams in power conferences like the Big 10, Pac 10 and SEC? Could be. With strength of schedule playing a large part in the new system, teams will no longer be rewarded for playing a parade of cream puffs and going undefeated.

In other words, a team would receive a better rating for beating 10-0 U. of Florida - from the powerhouse SEC - than 10-0 U. of Toledo from the less-competitive MAC.

Where does that leave teams that aren't in the power conferences? "It may not be fair to the smaller schools," says U. of Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, who led Kentucky's "Air Raid" resurgence last season. "They don't get to play against the other top teams."

U. of Tennessee head coach Philip Fulmer, who guided his team to a No. 3 ranking and matchup with Nebraska in last year's Orange Bowl, also sees flaws in putting so much emphasis on strength of schedule. "If somebody upsets you and they get upset twice, that hurts you," Fulmer says. "There's no way to know until later in the season how tough your schedule is."

The Big Game
Despite the glory and tradition of bids and bowl games, some say a full-scale overhaul is needed to make college football truly fair.

"It seems like the same thing - somebody's still picking - it's not a playoff," says UCLA quarterback Cade McNown, one of the early favorites for this year's Heisman trophy. He thinks a playoff system similar to the NFL's would be a better option.

In an ideal world, the polls shouldn't even be a factor, he says. "Coaches aren't seeing the teams that aren't in their conference," says the Bruins' QB. "Even the writers aren't. You still get a lot of East Coast writers who don't know what's going on on the West Coast."

U. of Nebraska head coach Frank Solich agrees. "Most coaches would be in favor of a playoff system to determine the national champion."

But some, like Michigan Daily sports editor Rick Freeman, would rather hold on to tradition. He likes the idea of a New Year's Day full of beer and bowl games, and by bedtime - a national champion. "I like that part of it. You wake up hungover and watch college football."

While Freeman will still get his New Year's Day football fix watching the lesser Bowl Games, this year's national championship won't be played until Jan. 4 at the the Sugar Bowl.

For one Penn State U. fan, the system will hopefully ease the pain of past injustices. "We got hosed in '94," says Derek Lawrie, a senior at Penn State and season-ticket holder. For those not so tuned into the blue and white, Penn State was leapfrogged in the polls by Nebraska during the '94 regular season and shut out of the national championship by the two major polls - even though the Nittany Lions finished the year undefeated.

With the other factors taken into consideration, Penn State would have been eligible to play in a national championship that year.

You Make the Call
While a consensus may not be reached, one fact cannot be refuted. The new system will determine a No. 1 and a No. 2, and those two teams will battle it out. If there are any other schools hoping to stake a claim to the championship, they're out of luck. A true national champion will be determined, with no controversy to exist.

Hah. Who are we kidding? This is college football. Controversy is as much a part of the game as tailgating and early entry into the NFL draft. What if there are three undefeated teams? What if there are three or four teams with one loss? What if, heaven forbid, one team is the clear No. 1 and two other teams finish with the exact same rating? Then what? Good question. But nobody seems to know the answer.

Before you start pulling your hair out trying to figure it all out, take our advice: Leave the math to the pollsters and do what you do best - grab some face paint, burgers and a 12-pack and hope you're sober enough to remember who won once the game is over.

While the Bowl Championship Series probably won't be the cure-all for college football's woes, it will try to alleviate the postseason pain of declaring an NCAA champion. The new, streamlined system hopes to eliminate gridiron controversies like these:

1997: U. of Michigan and U. of Nebraska both finish the regular season undefeated. Michigan, ranked No. 1 in both polls, wins the Rose Bowl game. No. 2 Nebraska wins the Orange Bowl game and captures the coaches' poll. The Cornhuskers and Wolverines split the title.

1996: Undefeated Arizona State U. (No. 2) is forced to play in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State U., instead of playing top-ranked Florida State U. in the Sugar Bowl. ASU and FSU lose, and U. of Florida usurps the championship.

1995: Brigham Young U. wins an NCAA-record 13 regular-season games, but can't play in a championship bowl game because teams from the WAC aren't invited. Nebraska wins the national title.

1994: Penn State U., in its first year in the Big 10, runs the table. However, late in the season, Penn State doesn't run up the score against Indiana U., causing Nebraska to leapfrog the Nittany Lions in the polls and capture its first national title of the '90s.

1993: No. 1 Florida State falls to No. 2 U. of Notre Dame, but the Seminoles regain the top spot in the polls when Notre Dame loses to Boston College on a last-second field goal. FSU beats Nebraska to capture the national title. Notre Dame ends the season without a share of the title, despite its win over the Seminoles.

By Casey Laughman,Ohio State U.

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