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Army, 9-2 but without a bowl game, deserves better

By JOHN FEINSTEIN | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 21, 2020

Saturday evening was filled with euphoria on post at the United States Military Academy. Army's football team had rallied in the final minutes to beat Air Force, 10-7, on a frigid evening. A week earlier, the Black Knights had beaten archrival Navy, so Saturday's win gave them the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the third time in four years.

Saturday's win also left them with a 9-2 record and one remaining question: Who would their opponent be in the Independence Bowl, scheduled for the day after Christmas?

By dusk on Sunday, the answer had landed with a thud: no one. The Independence Bowl's other participant was supposed to be the No. 5 team from the Pac-12. Since only Oregon and Colorado from that conference opted to take part in bowls, the Independence didn't have an opponent for Army. After scrambling to try to find another team, the bowl gave up and canceled the game.

Army had been the first team in the country to accept a bowl bid in this virus-infested season, formally being invited to play in Shreveport in October after raising its record to 6-1. The trip to the Independence Bowl had been locked in by a deal between the school and the bowl that calls for Army to play there — if bowl eligible — this season and then again in 2022 and 2024. Now, even with a 9-2 record, the Black Knights have no bowl destination, despite a postseason schedule littered with sub-.500 teams.

Which lead us to this: The bowl system is so completely broken and corrupt that it needs to be blown up from top to bottom. Not tweaked. Not recalibrated. Blown up.

Everyone knows the so-called CFP — the College Football Playoff, or is it the College Fraud Playoff? — is a cartel that makes it possible for only the 65 teams from the Power Five conferences to take part. Take it a step further and only a few of those power teams have a realistic chance to qualify. In the seven years of the CFP, five schools have received 22 of the 28 bids: Alabama and Clemson (with six each); Oklahoma and Ohio State (four) and Notre Dame (two).

Cincinnati, out of the American Athletic Conference, went 9-0 in a season in which it couldn't schedule a power conference school because most were playing either conference-only or conference-plus-one schedules. Notre Dame did schedule South Florida as its plus one. USF did win one game during its 1-8 season, beating The Citadel — an FCS team — in its opener. The truth is, had the Bearcats scheduled and beaten the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers, they wouldn't have had a chance to make the four-team field.

Each year, the CFP trots out an athletic director or commissioner to represent its 13 members. This season, it was Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta. When he was asked Sunday why Cincinnati was ranked eighth by the committee — behind two-loss Oklahoma and three-loss Florida — Barta warbled for a while about how much respect the committee had for Cincinnati before finally saying, "We didn't think their resume was as good as Oklahoma or Florida."

Well, that certainly explains it.

Barta, it should be remembered, was once asked about expanding the CFP to eight teams to give more teams (read, more non-Power Five teams) a chance to take part. He said that would be too "complicated." Perhaps he also thinks adding two plus two can be complicated.

As the highest-ranked Group of Five team, Cincinnati now gets to play in the Peach Bowl against Georgia — in Georgia. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina, also undefeated, gets to play in the iconic Cure Bowl against unranked Liberty. Oregon, which didn't win its division in the Pac-12, plays in the Fiesta Bowl, one of the four big bucks but non-playoff New Year's Six bowls, while three-loss North Carolina will play in the Orange Bowl. Why? Because of conference tie-ins that require Power Five teams to get first dibs.

Two Group of Five teams in the New Year's Six bowls? That's as likely as a CFP chairman actually answering a question.

And then there's Army, 9-2 with no place to go. In the meantime, nine teams with losing records, including six from the SEC, are playing in the 28 bowls that have managed to piece together matchups.

In a normal year, there would be 43 bowls. Almost all have contracts with conferences requiring they take a team from that league. Generally speaking, Power Five conferences have between six and eight guaranteed spots, excluding the CFP and the New Year's Six bowls. That's why South Carolina (2-8), Mississippi State (3-7), Arkansas (3-7), Tennessee (3-7), Kentucky (4-6) and Mississippi (4-5) are in bowls and Army is not.

The Military Bowl, played in Annapolis, would have happily welcomed the Black Knights. Normally, that game matches a team from the AAC, Navy's conference, with a team from the ACC. But because of opt-outs in those leagues, the game was unable to find an opponent for the Black Knights, who would no doubt have loved to play a bowl game on Navy's home field. The game was canceled on Monday.

Here's a simple fact: Bowl tie-ins are a pox. And they shouldn't exist. Once upon a time, before there were so many bowls, the guys in the ugly jackets jockeyed to get the best matchups possible. The only locked-in matchup was Pacific-8 vs. Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.

The system created some chaos, since backroom deals were often made before the date designated for bowl invitations. Locking in matchups seemed to make sense. Except the power conferences — surprise — have run amok locking in bids for their seventh- and eighth-place teams. Independents like Army and Brigham Young must scramble for spots — which is why they are willing to accept tie-ins well in advance to ensure they have a place to play. BYU is already committed to the Independence Bowl in 2021, 2023 and 2025.

So, here's what you do to create a better — if still imperfect — system.

Switch to an eight-team playoff, with two spots guaranteed to Group of Five teams. Blow up the current selection committee and create a committee with one rep from each of the 10 FBS conferences and two media members to keep an eye on things. Notre Dame no longer has its own vote; it is represented by the ACC.

All bowl tie-ins go away. Each bowl is free to make the best deal it can, but no one can be invited until the day after the conference title games. (Army and Navy can be given conditional bids based on the outcome of their game the next week.) If a bowl is caught jumping the gun and makes a backroom deal, it is stripped of its certification for the following year and the school or schools it made deals with can't play in the bowl that season.

The NCAA agrees not to certify any new bowls unless one goes away. There are already far too many bowls; the world doesn't need more of them.

In the meantime, let's hope a bowl game can yet be found for Army. Their players have been on what amounts to lockdown since July. They have been on a completely empty post for more than a week now, since the rest of the cadets went home for the holidays.

All they want for Christmas is the chance to play one more game. They more than deserve that gift.

Feinstein also writes for Golf Digest, Golf World and does TV color on college basketball games.