Here is how you play the game, any game.
You get the participants together, come up with the rules and figure out a way to determine a winner. When everyone agrees, you play. At the end there is a champion.
There can be mistakes and misgivings. There can be second-guesses and complaints. But the bylaws can't be changed in the middle. The system can't be altered. The rules are the rules are the rules.
Which is why the national champion in college football this season will be either Oklahoma or LSU. That's it; that's all.
For another team to claim a share of the title – no matter what the nation's sportswriters, pollsters or, say, a construction crew in La Crosse, Wis., have to say – is to rewrite the rules on the fly.
So forget all the talk about the Rose Bowl being a national championship game. You can ignore Southern California coach Pete Carroll's assertion that if his Trojans knock off Michigan, then they are national champs.
And pay no attention to the Associated Press poll that, understandably, will do whatever it wants.
USC may wind up No. 1 in that poll.
But the Trojans will not be the national champions.
Now regular readers will recall that I oppose the entire BCS process, and believe that USC, not Oklahoma, deserves a spot in the Sugar Bowl, which this year serves as the BCS title game.
That opinion is based on what we saw throughout the season, a comparison of victories and losses and my belief that a team that cannot win its conference title should not play for the national one.
But what I think – as so many Sooner fans have written me to point out – hardly matters.
What matters is what the BCS formula determines. And the BCS is clear: The two best teams in the country are in the Sugar Bowl. That determination was made based on a combination of criteria that all the football honchos (at least among the six top conferences) devised and shook hands over back in August.
That includes USC and its league, the Pac-10.
The system provided a mechanism for choosing two one-loss teams over a third. It allowed for a team to lose by four touchdowns and still be ranked No. 1.
We may disagree with it. The formula may wind up being reworked. But as far as this season is concerned, the rules must be followed.
Claiming otherwise is just foolish.
Not that I blame Carroll. He's a coach, and he is going to put the best spin on things he can. But he also agreed to the BCS.
It is my opinion that if last March's NCAA basketball tournament used a best-of-seven format, the Texas Longhorns would have won. But it wasn't. And they didn't.
The tournament's rules were agreed upon long ago. Trying to suggest after Texas lost in the Final Four that a new standard for elimination should be enacted or that the Longhorns, who looked much better than Syracuse all season, should get a share of the title would have been utterly absurd.
But that is basically what is being argued in football.
The Trojans' opinion, of course, is that if the AP voters choose them No. 1 then, hey, they are No. 1.
But that is a No. 1 with an asterisk. Before the season no one said the national champion is whoever the AP chooses.
It was whoever wins the Sugar Bowl.
Prior to the BCS, when college football had no set way to choose its champion, relying on the polls was fine. But not now.
The writers who participate in the AP poll are not beholden to the BCS. They can pick whomever they want. There is even a component of the BCS that factors in their opinion.
And while you can argue that the idea of a media poll runs counter to the principles of journalism – reporters should report the news, not make it, as their contribution to this operation surely does – they do have the right to name whomever they want national champions.
Just like construction workers in Wisconsin, truck drivers in Florida or you and I.
But none of us would be correct. The agreed-upon system that flawlessly followed its exact formula will be.
Because the rules are the rules. Always.