Don't Expect College Football 'Parity' to Last

Four years ago, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) computers offended college football's glamour pimps by leaving Southern California out of the national championship game. The BCS responded dis

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Jerry Dowling

Four years ago, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) computers offended college football's glamour pimps by leaving Southern California out of the national championship game. The BCS responded disastrously.

Because USC fell short in 2003 due to its relatively weak schedule, the BCS took its usual blunt instrument approach and just stripped the strength of schedule component from future calculations. College football pundits approved tying fate more closely to the whims of voters, but they also expected the regular season to pay a heavy price.

By and large, the pundits were right. Lacking incentive to play one or two tough non-conference games, most football powers eased up on their schedules, all but killing the national title race.

Ohio State and Texas were the major exceptions, playing each other in consecutive years, ruining the loser and starting the winner toward the national title game. Otherwise, 2004 through 2006 played out as three of the dullest college football seasons in memory.

In 2004, Southern California and Oklahoma rated first and second in the second BCS ranking of the season. On Oct. 30, when the third ranking came out, Auburn moved up to No. 3.

For the season's remainder, that's how they stayed. USC beat Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl, while Auburn finished the season unbeaten and with no chance to play for the national championship.

In 2005, the first BCS rankings came out with USC No. 1 and Texas No. 2. Everyone with a drunk's wit knew they would play each other for the national title, and the season droned on without suspense for another 10 weeks until the Rose Bowl, when Texas beat USC for the national title, coronating Vince Young as a national treasure for the next few months.

In 2006, Ohio State came up No. 1 in the first BCS rankings, Michigan climbed into No. 2 a week later and they both ticked through the Big Ten like clockwork until they met for the Buckeyes' thrilling 42-39 win in Columbus. Michigan fell from No. 2, replaced for a week by USC before Florida sneaked in at the end. Florida then crushed Ohio State for the national title.

For three consecutive seasons, the team on top of the first BCS ranking stayed there through the final issue that decides who will play for the national title. Three entire seasons elicited barely a yawn between them.

In any other sport, comparable monotony is poison if not for playoffs. Only college football can survive such drudgery and the lack of a playoff system, thanks to the most and the strongest annual rivalries in all of sports.

Why is this year different? Or is it really so different in the end?

The college football season transpired so chaotically that it circled all the way back to form, settling into Ohio State and Louisiana State for the national championship on Jan. 7. Hardly a big surprise. LSU began the season ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press. Ohio State started out 11th but climbed the rankings as it slugged Youngstown State, Akron and Washington before winning all its Big Ten games through October.

Four times this season, the No. 1 team lost, six times the No. 2 team lost and both lost three times in the last two months, including each of the last two weeks. Yet the outcome isn't much different from the first BCS ranking on Oct. 14, which showed Ohio State No. 1 and LSU No. 4, though No. 2 by the computers.

After all the upsets, we still have the game that seemed most likely on Oct. 14, unless you thought Boston College and South Florida were for real. After the cameo appearances among the top three by South Florida, Boston College, Oregon, Kansas and Missouri, we still get the likely national championship game.

It's not as likely as the title games from the last three years, but it's Ohio State, master of the Big Ten, against the Southeastern Conference champion, which happens to be LSU. We get Ohio State, on top of the BCS in five of eight issues, against LSU, which led two issues and came up second in two others.

Nobody with a right mind would put down the 2007 college football season, which gave us more twists, turns and surprises than history has ever seen. We knew a strange storm brewed when Appalachian State won at Michigan on the first Saturday of September. In no other season has college football won so many converts from the NFL's following.

But the drama of one season doesn't necessarily predict a compelling future for college football. Even if we've just witnessed, by far, the best regular season of any major spectator sport in the 21st century, it might just be a freak occurrence.

One breath after considering that we've never seen a season like it, we wonder if we'll ever see its like again. Because, in the end, it's nothing shocking.

Has college football achieved lasting parity? Has it even reached parity this year? And how would college football fans react to a national championship game between Kansas and South Florida? Maybe we should be relieved.

Here's your final BCS top five: Ohio State, LSU, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Georgia. Sound familiar?

Admittedly, that question leaves out a lot. But so does all the dreaming about parity on college football. It's true that Kansas came from absolutely nowhere this year to finish No. 8 in the BCS and that Missouri, Boston College, South Florida and Oregon came from close to nowhere to contend for a few days. It's equally true that Texas, Michigan, Louisville and California fell much further than anyone expected.

But one year does not make a trend. It makes a beautiful sight, it raises hopes that top recruits will spread themselves around and it even goes some way toward vindicating college football's bizarre championship system, for those who need it.

There's nothing in the structure of college football, however, to guarantee that the national picture will ever again approach this year's excitement. Four years after the BCS restricted itself to two polls and an aggregate computer score, we've enjoyed one terrific season and endured three complete duds.

In the end, this college football season has taken us just about where we expected to wind up. Unlike past seasons — and perhaps future seasons — getting there has been more than half the fun.

Great ride. Hope to take it again some time. Just don't count on it.

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