IT HAPPENS THIS time every year. I get a call, an e-mail, even a few of them, from a student somewhere interested in asking about abolishing the BCS bowl system in favor of a playoff.

They're doing a paper or something, and this is their topic.

It's been going on like this since 1998, when the BCS system was put in place to ward off cries for a national college football playoff system, thus protecting a time-honored bowl system that rewarded the rich conferences while barely tolerating all others.

The difference now though, 12 years into this milquetoast mess, is that no one ever asks me about going backward anymore. Some don't even know that the current perceived mess was designed to fix another perceived mess. They are too young, have no recollection of those magical New Year's Days of yesteryear, when as many as three games could influence that all-telling final poll that dictated a national champion.

New Year's Day was a real holiday then, not just National Hangover Day. There was buildup, there was conjecture, there were scenarios here, there, everywhere. What if No. 1 struggled in its game against No. 4? What if No. 4 won big over 1, 3 won big over 2? Who deserved to be on top of the polls when the day ended?

Oh sure, there were years when two teams were crowned by different wire services and years when teams that probably deserved a share of the title - yes, yes Penn State alums, we know, we know - were denied one. But is that any different from the plight of undefeated TCU this year? Isn't the same argument - strength of schedule - being used to keep them out of a title shot as was used to place the undefeated Nittany Lions teams of 1973 and 1994 behind the anointed national champions of those seasons?

Twelve years later, I still feel the same. The pros of that system far outweighed the cons, especially when you look at what devolved instead: a slew of bowl games, 35 in all, some "BCS," most not, 34 of which the result will not make a damn difference in deciding the national champion.

Indeed, New Year's Day will once again come and go with nothing to distract us from the headache and upset stomach generated the night before. We will wait a few days later to find out whether Oregon or Auburn gets the title. The games on New Year's Day? Well, if you went to one of those schools, you care, but for everyone else?

Anyone know whether "It's a Wonderful Life" is on?

What I have found is that this debate splits neatly into two sides: those who need finality and structure to their interest in sports, and those who seek to maximize their entertainment.

The former tend to dissect a sport thoroughly - their detractors might say endlessly - probing beneath its blood and skin to the organs that actually operate it and, to a large part, determine the outcome. They seek the fairest route, not necessarily the sexiest. They like this way better than the old way, but they want, no, demand, a playoff system, and soon.

The latter is all about the action, the more the better, the more relevant teams, the better, too. There is no doubt that the haves of college football are reaping rewards from the BCS they would not under a playoff system, or even the old system. Notre Dame, bless their mediocre souls, gets more than $2 million when they don't participate in a BCS bowl as part of the wacky deal. But this has taken from the game's excitement, suspense, and has led to as many incongruities if not more than the old way.

One-loss Michigan State, which defeated Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin and whose strength of schedule was superior this season to both the Badgers and Ohio State, is headed to the non-BCS Capital One Bowl to play Alabama, which lost to Auburn and LSU by a total of four points.

This is not a BCS matchup? How is that possible?

And what is a BCS matchup anyway, if it isn't the National Championship Game? With all the sponsorships mucking up the names, is going to one of the original bowls even a big deal anymore? If the Cotton Bowl - the AT&T Cotton Bowl I mean - isn't for the national championship, why should we care about its outcome any more than we care about the Capital One outcome?

Ah, so much for the annual rant. Truth is, I told the student on the other line yesterday the same thing I said last year, and the year before, really ever since I accepted that the good old days aren't coming back.

Sure, let's have a national playoff system, I said.

Probably won't make my New Year's Day any more interesting.

But it could make some cold December weekends more intriguing.

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