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College football is no fun to watch anymore

Published 9:32am Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

Why watch college football?

Sports Illustrated’s college football writers every year produce their “crystal ball” forecast of who will be the bowl winners. This year, they say the Alabama Crimson Tide will defeat the Oklahoma Sooners in the title game.

Boring. These are the same powerhouse teams that always win in college football.

Why watch?

I fail to understand why people love college football. Forget the money. Forget the corruption. I’m talking about drama. The same teams win most of the games every year and not much really changes. The same few teams seem to swap spots at the top. The top teams some years are really good, instead of just good, and rarely do they delve into bad.

It would be healthy for college football if a team that is not one of these teams won the national championship, or even made it to the game:

Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Georgia, LSU, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Southern Cal, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State.

Think of how many college football fans root for teams that aren’t one of those teams. It’s like playing monopoly but the other players get to start of with the blue, green and yellow properties.

Why watch?

You might point out that teams that aren’t classic powerhouses have won the title of national champ before. But you have to go back 20 years now to find it.

Washington shared the title with Miami in 1991. AP gave it to Miami, UPI to Washington. Colorado (AP) shared the title with Georgia Tech (UPI) in 1990. BYU won the title outright in 1984 and Clemson in 1981.

Then you have to jump back to the 1960s. Michigan State was UPI’s champ in 1965, and AP gave it to Alabama. Fans of the Minnesota Golden Gophers know their team finished at the top of the heap in 1960.

Of course, the titles for Colorado, Washington, Georgia Tech, BYU, Clemson, Michigan State and Minnesota all came before 1997. That’s when the Bowl Championship Series started, and it was used to determine national champions.

You see, in the olden days, college football teams would play 11 games, then the best teams (not just teams with .500-or-better seasons) would play in a handful of bowls.

Though there were other polls, the two main polls were AP and UPI. The AP poll was voted upon by sports writers, while the UPI poll used coaches. Usually, the two polls matched and a single champion was crowned. Sometimes, they didn’t, and fans would get two title holders.

These days, teams play 12 games and pretty much every team with a 6-6 or better record goes to a bowl, especially if they have a fan base that likes to travel (i.e.: Iowa Hawkeyes). There are more bowls these days than teams in the National Football League! (FYI: 35 bowl games; 32 NFL teams.)

The Bowl Championship Series is a collusion of the top bowls and top conferences to ensure the big money stays with the big programs. Which means the champions are more likely to be from major conferences. Which makes it even harder for teams not on that powerhouse list to win. Which means college football cannot have a season without bitter fights over how the BCS fails to do its job.

Why watch?

The NCAA, which once governed football, lost much of its hold over the system thanks to a lawsuit over TV rights in the 1980s. (Blame Oklahoma and Georgia.) That’s why the BCS exists. Control the TV money, control the sport.

In America, we used to have a strong anti-trust movement. We disliked monopolies. We had trust busters. These days, college football demonstrates that modern Americans tolerate such cartels, though I can’t say it comes without pause. Many fans would like change in college football. The debate is endless: Do athletes deserve pay? Should there be playoffs? Should the BCS be abandoned? Should the NCAA take hold of how a national champion is picked (like it does for every other collegiate sport), rather than ceding the job to the BCS? Can a program win a title without cheating?

I do hold out hopes for Oregon this season. The Ducks have never won a national championship in football, are not a traditional powerhouse and are one of the best teams right now. College football needs more of these programs. I could care less about seeing winning programs win some more. That’s dull. As a result, I probably won’t watch one down of college football on television, I just might if the Ducks make it to the title game. They would be something I haven’t seen before.

That’s why I would watch.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.