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2000s: The First Decade — Utah at front of BCS battles

Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner and Bowl Championship Series coordinator John Swofford, left, and West Mountain Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson, right, are sworn in before giving their testimony before the House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner and Bowl Championship Series coordinator John Swofford, left, and West Mountain Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson, right, are sworn in before giving their testimony before the House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing on the football Bowl Championship Series on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 1, 2009.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

The First Decade — Third in a series: A new millennium was born amid concerns about the Y2K bug. Far more real fears unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001. Deseret News and Associated Press writers today continue a series of essays examining the major developments of the past decade and their impact on Utah and beyond.

Utah became a central character during the 2000s in the volatile debate over the way college football decides a national champion.

The debate smoldered throughout American culture even during a painful recession at the end of the decade. If college football, now in its own second century, evolves from a bowl system into a playoff system, people of the Beehive State will have their fingerprints all over the ground-breaking shift of the status quo. If the Bowl Championship Series — disliked by 85 percent of Americans in a Gallup Poll — is toppled, America can thank key Utah figures and events for doing a chunk of the work.

This testy fight involves billions of dollars and pits traditional storied bowl games and six elite athletic conferences in a fight to keep a firm grip on money, prestige and the road to national titles away from leagues like the Mountain West, of which Utah and BYU are charter members.

As recently as Dec. 9, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, had a role in this controversial debate when he voted to support a bill aimed at forcing a college playoff in a meeting of the House Commerce Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. That bill would make it illegal for the BCS to promote and advertise its system as a national championship.

In October, Utah native Matt Sanderson, whose father owns and operates an Orem funeral home, used his legal skills and experience working on John McCain's presidential campaign to help create Playoff PAC, a lobbying effort in Washington to lead a reform of college football.

Back in July, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chaired a congressional hearing to debate the fairness of the BCS system, a road by which teams from the Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, SEC and ACC are given preferential treatment by having teams from their conferences automatically qualify for spots in the lucrative BCS bowls. Teams from the five other major conferences — including the MWC and Western Athletic Conference, of which Utah State is a member — must jump through many hoops to be considered for a BCS bowl bid.

This week the ACC, which may not be as strong as the MWC, will receive $18.3 million as an automatic qualifying league while the MWC will divide $9.6 million with the other four conferences that don't automatically qualify. Neither undefeated MWC champion TCU nor undefeated WAC champion Boise State were given a chance to play for the national title, a privilege reserved for Texas of the Big 12 and Alabama of the SEC. BSU and TCU were instructed by the BCS to play one another in the Fiesta Bowl, once again confirming a "caste" system in college football.

The Hatch hearing, which made national headlines, came after undefeated Utah's impressive upset of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Alabama had been ranked No. 1 much of the 2008 football season. Yet, Utah, which never lost a game, was not considered for a run at a title.

This prompted Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to prepare an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS, a case yet to be filed in federal district court. The threat by Shurtleff, the hearing by Hatch, the lobbying effort by Playoff PAC, the bill forwarded by Matheson's vote and the second BCS appearance by an undefeated Utah team (2004, 2008) has made national headlines and reinforced attacks on the BCS system from coast to coast.

This college football controversy today had its roots in Utah back in 1984 when an undefeated BYU team defeated Michigan in the Holiday Bowl and Associated Press and UPI voters declared the Cougars national champions. Repulsed by that vote, commissioners of the six conferences and representatives of major bowls collaborated to create a system by which that would never happen again.

That Bowl Coalition became the Bowl Alliance when the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl joined the effort. In 1997 the Bowl Coalition became the BCS.

In 2001, a 12-0 BYU football team received a letter from the BCS informing the Cougars they were "released" from consideration for a BCS bowl that season. The decision fueled new pressure on the BCS that only increased when an undefeated Utah team became the first outside team to bust into a BCS bowl in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2004 season. But the perfect Utes were paired against a Pittsburgh team with two losses. They were not allowed to face undefeated Auburn or get a sniff at a national championship against eventual combatants USC and Oklahoma.

The six automatic-qualifying conferences represent a majority voting bloc among the 120 major universities whose presidents and chancellors govern the NCAA. To date, the NCAA has bowed to the major bowl officials and their six leagues and allowed the BCS to take over how a major college football champion is chosen. It is the only NCAA sport where a champion is decided without a playoff or elimination on the field or court or course.

If change comes, it will only be through the courts or Congress. Utah is watching everything from the front row and the role of Utahns, it seems, could well factor in the outcome.