In 1998, the college football bowl season ended in an unholy mess. After an unconvincing Rose Bowl win, Michigan held onto its No.1 spot in the sportswriters' poll, but the nation's college football coaches named Nebraska the champs. Not only had the official arbiters of the sport split for the ninth time in a quarter century, the coaches were suspected of giving their colleague, retiring Cornhuskers' coach Tom Osborne, a share of the championship as a goodbye present. Michigan fans were disgusted. Even defenders of the Bowl system knew in their hearts that the process had again succumbed to politics and sentiment and ended in ambiguity.

This week, Nebraska had a shot at the national title again, playing in the Rose Bowl against the University of Miami in a championship match-up determined by a computer. The Cornhuskers landed there thanks in part to a system known as the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), introduced the year after the Osborne debacle to create at last an appearance of fairness and rectitude-and a clear winner. Few outside Lincoln, however, believed Nebraska deserved the chance, win or lose, since on Thanksgiving Day they were stomped, 62-36, by the losers of this week's Fiesta Bowl.

The BCS organizers breathed a huge sigh of relief when Nebraska lost Thursday night, keeping their system intact. But the close shave with chaos has given fuel to those who say college football is irreparably broken. A plan to finance a big-league-style playoff with $1 billion from the networks has been given new credibility.

Amid the moaning, few have encountered a higher truth: College football is America's great spiritual challenge, a test of our ability to focus on what matters. In a country that thrives on moral certainty, on being number one, on Hollywood endings, the amateur version of our most popular spectator sport tests our ability to deal gracefully, even joyfully, with ambiguity.

This is not a panegyric to amateur athletics, a reminder that college sports should be the place where winning still isn't everything. Whether college football remains subject to the BCS's computer or goes to a playoff, amateur sports aren't any more or less threatened.

The bowls themselves are. The Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls and their descendants were invented to lure tourists south spend their money in Orlando, Dallas and New Orleans in January. (Which is why Michigan boosters, who "travel well" are almost always assured a bowl berth somewhere.) Even before television rights existed, ticket sales gave host schools warming economic bonuses at bowl time.

When the major bowls vied for the hot teams each year, the wealth and status was spread around. Under the new BCS system, when the computer's No.1 and No.2 face off, the other bowls become also-rans, and already, in the four years since the coming of BCS, ratings for the also-rans are down. The BCS at least tries to keep the major bowls alive by rotating the championship game from Sugar to Cotton to Orange, etc. If a playoff format succeeds BCS, even these bowls will become irrelevant. It's hard to imagine they would survive a competition with the playoffs for teams and a TV audience.

If the bowls die, Americans would be robbed of a once vital and entertaining--if sometimes benignly corrupt--tradition that, with its hullabaloo and sparkling blimp-cam shots, give the New Year an extra glow. With nearly 30 bowls, the most important coming in a hectic few days at the end of the Christmas holiday, the schedule plays havoc with the networks' ability to focus their hype. The BCS already allows them to channel our attention on one game, not two or three or six. A playoff would put us at their mercy.

For what? The Nebraska-Miami game tonight has already shown that BCS doesn't guarantee a more deserving winner, only a better defined one. A playoff, with its straitened march to the championship, only increases the importance of the lucky break, the direction of the wind or a bad call. A contested, poll-anointed winner like Nebraska could have been, even flawed by a tough loss, may serve better as champion than a playoff winner trying to live down a compromising instant replay.

Most who complain about college football's resistance to national champions answer that final, single winners (and losers) are the nature of sport. But we all know that there's more to sports that winning. Or at least, we recognize what's crucial is how you win. A bowl season's worth of winners provide that many more examples of how victory can be gained. Without a sole winner we probe deeper to ask, What does winning mean?

This year's hiccup in the BCS system allows us another chance to commit to the chaos of the bowl system. We are better off with a system that generates multiple champions, despite the computer's best efforts, than insisting that only one winner can arise from any competition. If America can't grapple with the koan of two national champions, are we ready to lead the world?

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