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NEW ORLEANS -- The system works. That's what we keep hearing about the Bowl Championship Series, now that No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech will meet in the national championship Sugar Bowl on Tuesday.

"This system is about as good as we can get right now," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "I don't see too many people disappointed. I didn't hear too many people complaining this year or last year."

But all those empty seats in all those Bowls around the country have to be saying something.

So don't be fooled. When it comes to getting the top two teams in a championship game, the system might work. But that doesn't mean it's right.

Because no matter how you slice it, poll it or bowl it, anything that doesn't end in a playoff is wrong.

Any system that only has room for two perfect teams when three exist (yes, Marshall counts) isn't right. Any system that relies on computers and formulas instead of honest-to-goodness competition isn't right. Any system that claims to crown a champion with a one-game "series" that reduces all other teams and bowls to meaningless bystander status isn't right.

"It seems like there's one major bowl and there's all the others," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "The Orange Bowl doesn't have the meaning it once did. Or the Rose. And the Fiesta."

Under the system, the Sugar, Orange, Rose and Fiesta bowls rotate as hosts of the championship game. But in the years they're not it, they become as insignificant and overlooked as the Humanitarian Bowl. And if you don't agree, just count the empty seats at Pro Player Stadium when Michigan and Alabama play the Orange Bowl tonight (8:30, Ch. 7).

And if you think the bowl tradition is such a wonderful thing, that implementing a playoff would kill the spirit of what college football is about, just count the empty seats at the bowl games already played.

Because this whole bowl thing has gotten to be a bloated, boring mess. Twenty-three games, and only one that counts.

"It was the same way in '95, when we played in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame," Bowden said. "Nobody cared. When you have a No. 1 vs. No. 2 going on, I don't think anybody gives a darn about the others."

So wouldn't it be nicer to have No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15 and six other first-round games that everybody gave a darn about? Wouldn't it be nice to have a four-stage playoff folded into the bowl structure that would leave room for all major conference champions? Wouldn't it be nice if Florida State didn't have to wait 45 days between games?

But Bowden doesn't want a playoff system. Neither does Beamer.

"I'm a bowl guy," Beamer said. He likes the concept of players being rewarded with a one-week trip to a city. "I've coached in Division I-AA and I know the playoffs aren't like that. You fly in the day before, play the game, leave and get ready for the next one. If you folded bowls into the quarterfinals and semifinal rounds, they'd be bowls in name only."

"I've been raised on the way it is," Bowden said. "I've been coaching 46 years and it's always been by vote. So I've learned to live with that. It doesn't bother me."

But the system should bother people. Because it doesn't seem right that a small-conference Cinderella story such as Marshall gets lost in the Motor City Bowl and doesn't at least get a chance to be exposed in a playoff. It doesn't seem right that college teams can get knocked out of a title chase by losing only once when NFL teams can reach the playoffs by going 8-8. It doesn't seem right that talented teams such as Alabama, Nebraska and Tennessee don't get the chance to strut their stuff on a playoff stage.

"I don't think college football has to be like pro football," Beamer said.

But how about Division I-A football being like every other NCAA sport, with a champion decided by playoff?

Instead we get claptrap about the sanctity of "bowl tradition." Tradition? How can anybody say this with a straight face? Where's the tradition in an Orange Bowl not played in its namesake stadium any more? Where is tradition in the Bowl? Where's the tradition in a Citrus Bowl that has a home team in Florida sucking wind at the box office?

College football would be wiser to look at the tradition of the NCAA basketball tournament to see what the public really wants. A playoff system where more than two teams are invited, where the drama builds with each round and many fans feel as if they have a stake.

There has got to be a way college football can tap into this, and never mind the excuse that a playoff system would extend the season too long or interfere with academics. If basketball and the smaller football divisions can do it, so can the big boys.

Until that day comes, get used to this. Only one bowl that counts, no matter how many Bowls they try to foist on us.

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