Bowls are funny things. In 2010, a record of 8-4 was enough to get Connecticut the Big East championship and a berth in a BCS bowl. In 2012, a record of 8-4 is good enough to get Vanderbilt into the SEC's seventh tie-in bowl, what with 6 SEC teams having 10 wins and the Gator Bowl unwilling to risk a Vandy-Northwestern rematch on New Years Day. But this isn't about bitching at the indignity and inconvenience of facing the rest of the SEC, this is about the bowl process itself, and how the last 25 years have more or less ruined it.
Conference title games are a BIG part of that, of course. It did nobody any favors that the Big Ten's probation and suspensions left a 7-5 Wisconsin team in a position to take a Rose Bowl berth with one neutral-site win, but it happened. It hardly seems fair that a Georgia team that beat Florida head-to-head would be passed over to put that same Florida team in the Sugar Bowl and send Georgia to the Citrus, but there you have it. The combination of the BCS (and its annual automatic bids afforded to unranked conference champs) with the proliferation of automatic bowl tie-ins (with the resulting lack of matchup flexibility) has combined to routinely shaft deserving teams and deprive the college football world of exciting matchups.
How different would things be in Bowl World if we were still playing by 1990 rules? Let's have a look:
ROSE BOWL: Stanford vs. either Nebraska or Wisconsin depending on whether the B1G has a conference title game or not. Either way, not a game with national title implications, but a more attractive matchup if it uses the Huskers, and a prima facie demonstration of how the conference title game can bite your best team in the ass.
SUGAR BOWL: Alabama vs Notre Dame. We've seen this before, in 1973, but the old ways are sometimes the best. Still the 1 vs 2 matchup we would have wanted all along and in the most fun bowl town of all.
ORANGE BOWL: Florida vs Kansas State. The Big 12 inherits the old Big 8 auto-bid, and the "best available Florida team" that sometimes seemed to be a rule actually yields one hell of a fun matchup.
FIESTA BOWL: Georgia vs Oregon. The most arriviste of BCS bowls gets the runners-up from arguably the two top conferences in America, and gives us the SEC-Pac12 pairing that has only happened once in a bowl in the BCS era. And depending on what happens in New Orleans, a team who wins this matchup decisively might have a case for the national title if the Tide and Irish are lackadaisical and low-scoring.
COTTON BOWL: Oklahoma vs LSU. Couple of leftovers, but preserves some of the spirit of the old Southwest Conference. I would have said Texas A&M vs LSU, but thanks for nothing, SEC expansion.
There you have it - mostly top-10 matchups, except for the Rose Bowl and its insistence on locking in a champion from a conference whose best team is on probation instead of playing for a title. (Said champion now apparently being out of a coach.) Trickling down from there, you still have a chance to see choice games like South Carolina vs Florida State in the Citrus (you think Steve Spurrier isn't fired up for that?) maybe Texas A&M vs Clemson in the Holiday Bowl (if you think this is burdensome, you've obviously never been to San Diego). Point is, there's no reason the top six or seven bowls shouldn't be chockablock with top-10 matchups
If it weren't for the upcoming playoff, there would be no need to do anything but go back to the way things used to be. The system of conferences locking in berths all the way down (the SEC has lock-ins for potentially ELEVEN TEAMS if two go to the BCS, which they nearly always do) has done more than anything to stick us with unwatchable games. In fact, guess what? We HAVE a playoff, and have had since 1992, when the SEC brought in a conference championship game. If not for a clutch pick by Antonio Langham, the undefeated Tide of Gene Stallings would have given up their Sugar Bowl bid to 3-loss Florida and would probably have had to go to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas A&M for the winner to grasp at a title if Florida could knock off Miami.
Point being, as long as you force a one-off game at the end of the season, you create a point at which a top team could have a bad day and crap the bed and throw things into chaos (looking at you, K-State 1998 and Chokelahoma 2003 and in fact quite a few Big 12 title games). The minute you expand a playoff past 4 teams, you increase the odds that somebody slips in at 8 who may or may not deserve to be there - especially if you put a restriction on participants or insist on giving a bid to every BCS conference champ. Who deserves a bite at the title more: Georgia, Florida, or Louisville?
So in the Brave New World Of Bowls, here's how I would roll if made God-Emperor-BAWSE-in-Charge:
1) Auto-bids to bowls are for conference champions only, and are VOIDED if the conference champ is not ranked in the top 10 (so long, B1G - enjoy your Gators, Stanford!). No bowl shall be automatically saddled with a dud.
2) Minimum standard for bowl participation is now 7 wins. No more fretting over 6-6 or 6-7 or (as ESPNU couldn't shut up about at Wake) 5-7 teams. The 6-win baseline was from the age of 11-game seasons and no conference title games; in 2012, you ought to need 7 wins to rate any postseason play.
3) We inaugurate a 4-team playoff to start next year, and ONLY 4, with no automatic bids for anyone. Winning your conference title is no guarantee of anything, because you might win your way in without even being a top-25 team. Why should Wisconsin somehow get a seat on the starship because they luck-boxed their way into one win on the right day? If the goal is to get the true national champion, there's no room for feel-good spots. Let the committee pick or just use the top 4 of the BCS formula (and re-engineer the hell out of it to get the coaches poll far far away) - but in any event, it's crucial to privilege strength-of-schedule and discourage the practice of never playing more than one major-conference OOC game or never playing a non-rival OOC game on the road.
4) At some point down the road, there's going to be a reckoning that results in massive conference realignment with a hard cap of 10 members and mandatory round-robin scheduling. Once a team is the champion of the entire conference and everyone has played everyone else, we can go back to allowing automatic bids into a notional playoff for conference champs (and ONLY conference champs, this time) - 12 conferences, 4 byes, bibbity bobbity boo. We always used to get by just fine with 10 teams per league from 1966 to 1991...
I think this would be fair and fun. Otherwise, I think the way things used to be was better than the dog's breakfast we have now, which is just as arbitrary and crooked as anything else but adds a veneer of alleged respectability.
How 'bout it?