Saturday, November 05, 2005

Pondering the Oblate Spheroid
It's another football weekend here in Wisconsin. Today we will watch the Badgers take on Penn State. When the season began, Wisconsin was picked by most experts to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten. So was Penn State, for that matter, but experts are wrong a lot, which is why they play the games. As it turns out, the winner of today's game will have the inside track to the Big Ten championship.

"Big Ten championship," when it refers to football, is an awkward phrase. What sounds better is "the inside track to the Rose Bowl," which is where the Big Ten champion usually plays on New Year's Day. This year, however, the Rose Bowl is hosting the BCS national championship game, so the Big Ten champ will have to play somewhere else. And that fact will diminish the value of the Big Ten championship. In Big Ten Country, the Rose Bowl is the only game that matters. Sure, the champion will get to go someplace warm for New Year's--Miami, Phoenix, or Atlanta--but it's not the same thing.

Losing the Rose Bowl to the BCS every four years wouldn't be so bad if the BCS wasn't such a bad hype. It was designed to make sure the top two teams in the college polls meet each year. Trouble is, none of the geniuses who designed it accounted for the fact that there might be three or four undefeated teams at the end of the regular season deserving of a shot at the title. This year, there could be as many as five. Far from resolving controvesy in a satisfying way, the BCS is the best argument yet devised for a postseason tournament in college football, like every other NCAA sport has. Take the champions of the top eight Division 1 conferences (throwing out the MAC, WAC, Sun Belt, and maybe the Mountain West, which contain few teams capable of competing consistenly against the majors), choose eight at-large teams, and play them off. You'd have to shorten the pre-conference schedules by a couple of games and increase the number of games allowed per team, but it could be done, and the TV networks would fall all over themselves to fork out billions for the rights--money that would easily make up for any revenue non-tournament schools lose from playing fewer games.

You'd also have to get by the university presidents, who become very concerned about student-athletes being out of the classroom whenever such a plan is announced--a concern that never arises in basketball, with its more frequent travel and weeknight games. And you'd also have to get by the patrons of the existing postseason bowl games, who see the playoff proposal as death to their events--even though it wouldn't be. The major bowls could host tournament games, and the minor bowls would have a better slate of leftover teams to pick from. Both of these obstacles are like kryptonite, apparently, because they've stopped several eminently sensible proposals dead in their tracks. But that doesn't make those proposals wrong.

Tomorrow, the football weekend continues with Green Bay hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers will be without two of their top offensive players, including their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, which has given some hope to Packer fans. It may be false hope, though, and if the Packers fall to 1-and-7 with a loss, things are going to get even uglier up here. Coach Mike Sherman's wrapping is coming undone--he had two weird conniptions over trivialities during press conferences this week, which is indicative of the way the season has gone to hell--and it's growing clearer by the day that Brett Favre is going to retire after this season. Plus, stories have surfaced that Aaron Rodgers, much hyped as Favre's heir when he was drafted earlier this year, may not have the skills to make it as a pro after all. As I wrote last weekend, while it's all hard to swallow, it's not something we veteran fans have never seen before. And we've spent the last couple of years preparing ourselves for the team's eventual decline.

Nevertheless, the guy behind the counter at my neighborhood convenience store is optimistic: he says it's a Wisconsin-beats-Pennsylvania weekend: Badgers over Penn State and Packers over Steelers. Your mouth to God's ear, dude.

(For what it's worth, the Wisconsin-Penn State game is at Penn State, which is in in State College, Pennsylvania. The Mrs. and I have been there, and it's about as remote a place as you can imagine. It's maybe 20 miles off Interstate 80 in the rugged center of Pennsylvania, and not close to anything. To get there by air, you'd probably fly to Harrisburg and then drive nearly 90 miles across the mountains. It's no wonder they love football out there--there's nothing else to do. And why a team nicknamed "Nittany Lions," after the Nittany Mountains in the region, plays in a place called Beaver Stadium, I have no idea.)

Shameless Plug: I've been invited to start posting at Gather.com, a web project of American Public Radio that's going to be officially launched later this month. Eventually, anybody who wants to contribute will be able to do so by setting up an account--but it was nice to be asked, anyhow. My first post is up this morning.

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