Conference championships could simplify BCS

Editor's note: ESPN.com asked five of its analysts to discuss one change they would like to see in college football. Here is the second installment of the five-part series.

Michigan or Florida?

That was the controversial firestorm that engulfed college football for more than a week after the Gators beat Arkansas 38-28 in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Dec. 2.

Did SEC champion Florida or Big 10 runner-up Michigan deserve a chance to play Ohio State in the Jan. 8 Tostitos BCS Championship Game?

Wolverines fans argued their team was more deserving because it had fought No. 1 Ohio State to the bitter end of a 42-39 loss on Nov. 18, a game that was prematurely dubbed "The Game of the Century" during the regular season.

Florida coach Urban Meyer lobbied his team played a tougher schedule in the sport's most difficult conference and was more deserving because the Gators actually won their league championship. Meyer argued the Wolverines had their chance against the Buckeyes and even though the outcome was close, another team deserved an opportunity at beating Ohio State.

In the end, Meyer proved to be right. Michigan lost to No. 4 Southern California 32-18 in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi. And the Gators, despite being overwhelming underdogs, blasted the top-ranked Buckeyes 41-14 in the BCS title game to win the school's second national championship.

One significant rules change in the way college football determines its national championship would prevent such arguments in the future.

While I'm among those media members who favor a playoff system in the sport -- a change that won't come anytime in the foreseeable future -- turning conference play into a playoff is the next best thing.

In the future, only conference champions should be allowed to play for the BCS title. That would have prevented the Ohio State-Michigan loser from being included in the BCS discussion this past season, and thus would have eliminated the ugly debate that preceeded the BCS title game.

University presidents and other key figures in charge of college football are reluctant to install a playoff system because, among other reasons, they say it would lessen the importance of the regular season.

College football's 14-week regular season is already the most important in all of sports. In college basketball, teams can struggle during their nonconference schedule in November and December, then rally during conference play to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

In professional sports, the regular season means even less. NFL teams can stagger early in the 16-game schedule, but rebound and claim a wild-card spot in the playoffs.
Seemingly half of the teams in the NBA and NHL qualify for the playoffs, and Major League Baseball teams have 162 games to right the ship.

College football teams have no room for error playing a 12-game regular season schedule. Lose one game and you run the risk of being left out of the BCS title game. Lose twice in college football's regular season and you're done.

Example A: The Trojans, whose 13-9 loss to rival UCLA in the regular-season finale prevented USC from playing for the national championship for the third straight season. Example B: LSU, which lost regular season games at then-No. 3 Auburn and then-No. 5 Florida by 17 combined points. The Tigers were playing as well as any team in the country at the end of the regular season, winning their last seven games, including a 41-14 shellacking of Notre Dame in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. But because LSU had two losses in the regular season, it not only was left out of the BCS title game, but also the SEC championship game.

In a perfect world, each of the BCS conferences would stage a championship game. Uniformity would even the current playing field in college football. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC conferences play championship games. The Big East, Big 10 and Pac-10 do not. NCAA rules require conferences to have at least 12 teams before staging a league championship game. The Big East has eight teams; the Big 10 has 11; and the Pac-10 has 10.

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said he doesn't anticipate the expansion of his league. Ditto for the Pac-10, which could add schools such as Boise State, Fresno State or Utah to reach the NCAA's minimum membership for championship games.

Notre Dame is the obvious choice to join the Big 10, but the Fighting Irish won't give up their independence any time soon, especially since they're winning football games again and collecting a hefty payday from the BCS.

Because Notre Dame has the ability to schedule whichever opponents it sees fit, the Irish are all but guaranteed seven or eight victories each season. Two or three more wins guarantees Notre Dame a spot in a lucrative BCS bowl game.

Under the current BCS rules, the Irish automatically qualify for a BCS bowl game with a finish in the top eight of the final BCS standings. They will be considered (and probably chosen) for a BCS bowl game if they finish in the top 12. Notre Dame keeps $4.5 million each time it plays in a BCS bowl game; the school receives $1 million from the BCS even if the Irish don't qualify for one of college football's biggest bowl games.

The BCS needs Notre Dame for obvious reasons (as disliked as Notre Dame might be, college football is at its best when the Irish are winning), and Notre Dame obviously needs to be part of the BCS system. But the Fighting Irish don't deserve preferential treatment and aren't any more important than any of the other schools from the six BCS conferences.

If every other team in the BCS system would be required to win a league championship, so should Notre Dame.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.