Over at the Bowl Championship Series, the short answer to the question of when there will be a playoff in college football remains the same.
But get back in touch with the BCS next week, or better yet, with their sponsors after the Jan. 9 championship game and ask the question then.
For years now, playoff advocates have been drawing up nightmare scenarios that would shame the BCS out of business, but this season it's practically guaranteed that the title game will leave many fans unsatisfied.
Last week, four of the top seven teams in the BCS standings lost their footing and left an unprecedented three teams from the same division — the SEC West — holding down the top of the leaderboard.
Two of them, most likely current No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, figure to be on hand at the Superdome for the title game. But even if No. 3 Arkansas grabs one of those spots, the newly crowned BCS champion will seem more mythical than ever.
Remember, the BCS hijacked the postseason in 1998 with the promise of matching the No. 1 and No. 2 teams at the very end. And every time logic didn't jibe with their rankings, the guys in charge "tweaked" the formula after the championship game and promised it wouldn't happen again. You can argue over which school got jobbed the worst since then, but the two unofficial tweaks that matter here — a team must win its conference championship; the BCS finale shouldn't be a rematch of a regular-season game — likely means it's the fans who will feel cheated the most.
LSU, Alabama and Arkansas all will have played each other by the time next weekend rolls around and it's possible that none of them will be the SEC champion when the game ends on Dec. 3.
Given the results of that little round-robin tournament so far, only fans of tractor pulls will be rooting to see any two of those three reprise those games in January.
LSU slogged past Alabama 9-6 in overtime and the Crimson Tide pounded Arkansas 38-14.
In the past, the waiting period between the end of the regular season and the championship game has always worked in the BCS' favor. Tempers cool as weeks pass. The outrageous lobbying and occasionally over-the-top remarks coaches make about the selection process recede into the background. Among fans, a kind of fatigue sets in. Arguing over whether either or both teams are deserving gives way to acceptance. It's like walking around with a rock in your shoe.
What makes this season even more aggravating is that the rankings are just about right. Arkansas ventures into Baton Rouge on Friday and if the Razorbacks pull off an upset and go on to beat SEC East entrant Georgia in the conference championship, they will have earned the trip to New Orleans. There are 14 one-loss teams in the mix at the moment, but few would deny that LSU — even if the Tigers lose to Arkansas — and Alabama would be the most deserving of the lot. The problem is that all three would have flaws we might be willing to overlook if they had to clear a path to that championship game on the field — it's called a playoff — instead of relying on computer operators and best guesses to deposit them there. Now, there's virtually no chance the winner gets the benefit of the doubt from the majority of fans.
All we know for certain is that the guys in charge at the BCS don't mind seeing their brand being kicked around like a rusty can everywhere from the Oval Office down to the corner tavern. It hardly matters to them if the tweaks require additional tweaking, or if they throw out a stinker in the showcase game now and then. We keep hearing how resilient college football is, but it's hard to remember a worse couple of years for the game.
Southern California isn't bowl eligible because of the excesses of the Reggie Bush era and Miami didn't even wait for an invitation to turn down because of the ongoing investigation into a rogue booster's largesse. Ohio State, on the other hand, isn't likely to say no, despite standing on the threshold of NCAA double-secret probation, and probably neither will Penn State, embroiled in a child sex-abuse scandal that makes the usual transgressions in the sport barely worth mentioning.
What all those scandals have in common is, at the very least, the whiff of corruption, not to mention what the NCAA terms a lack of institutional control. So how fitting is that the BCS, which has twisted itself into a pretzel countless times to hang onto the postseason franchise and been just transparent enough to stay ahead of lawsuits and the Congress, could finally get called out by the fans for doing exactly what it was created to do?
It's shaping up to be a bowl season that will be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Can't wait to see how the BCS tries to tweak its way out of this one.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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