Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the BCS. Once again, it built a better mousetrap and wound up slamming the thing down on its own neck.
Auburn, your reward for a 12-0 season is to become the first undefeated SEC team since the invention of this bowl gerrymandering system not to play for the national title. Who knew that beating Tennessee twice, LSU and Georgia would matter so little?
California, your reward for going 10-1 and pushing No. 1 USC to within nine yards of its life on the Trojans' home field is to lose the Rose Bowl to Texas. Yes, the team that was shut out in Dallas by Oklahoma. If life were fair, the team that maximized its talent would have gotten the spot, instead of the team whose coach politicked for BCS inclusion on national TV. This just in: Life isn't fair. The Checkers speech got Mack Brown to Pasadena.
(Since Cal's mortal sin was beating bowl-bound Southern Mississippi by only 10 in Hattiesburg, perhaps we should compare that with what Texas did in its last road game. The Longhorns beat a 4-7 Kansas team by the hair on Bevo's chin, requiring a questionable interference call on the Jayhawks and a last-minute touchdown to pull it out.)
That's this year's new twist on the old mess. Next year, of course, it will be some other unforeseen complication -- unless we do the right thing and detonate this poor substitute for a playoff.
But if the bowl system is inevitable, and an eight-team playoff is the impossible dream, then let's at least go retro with it. Let's reconnect with traditional values -- political buzzword! -- and bring back the old-school bowl lineup.
Forget trying to manufacture a title game. Send the teams to their traditional bowls and let the voters sort it out. (Sorry, coaches, but in this bowl system your final Top 25 ballots will be public.) If a consortium of computer rankings wants to award its own title, that's fine -- just leave them out of the king-making process.
Let's have Auburn play in the Sugar Bowl against, say, California. Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl against Utah. USC in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. Virginia Tech can play Texas in the Orange Bowl for sun.
Then play them all on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day -- none of this drip-drip-drip of games over a course of four days -- and let the chips fall where they may.
That way, all three still have a chance at a national title in the polls. Auburn's season still would matter; it could finish No. 1 if both the Trojans and Sooners lose. Even Utah conceivably could wind up saying "We're No. 1!" if it beat Oklahoma and the other two unbeatens were to lose.
And that way, more than one bowl means something. As it stands now, we have the BCS championship bowl and a 27-game undercard of diminished importance. That's why New Year's Day is dullsville now, packing nowhere near the punch it once did.
Obviously, there were major flaws in the old bowl system that would have to be addressed. The secret sweetheart deals bowl execs once made with schools weeks in advance would need to be policed.
If the current setup is the best we can do, it's not good enough. And how college football keeps getting itself into this predicament, year after year, is beyond me.
Yes, at least this year the BCS got a matchup of two undefeated teams -- two teams that went 1-2 all year in the polls, that have the most star power, that represent perhaps the most enticing bowl matchup in three decades. (I'll still take Notre Dame-Alabama from the 1973 Sugar Bowl, Bear vs. Ara, as the sexiest of 'em all.)
But even with all that going for it, this system hasn't gotten it right. Here's why: There's simply no definitive way to differentiate between USC, Oklahoma and Auburn -- no reliable way to say which one absolutely, positively doesn't belong.
You can rattle off statistics from now until New Year's. You can blather about strength of schedule, quality wins and conference strength. You can produce all the computer ratings known to man.
But without a playoff to prove it on the field, you'll just be talking noise. The mousetrap still doesn't work right.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.