January 02, 2002 11:00 pm

The Oregon Ducks have made the strongest case yet for the need for a playoff system in NCAA Division 1 football. The Ducks destroyed the hottest team in the country Tuesday, a 38-16 shellacking of Colorado, a team that had won eight straight games, including a win over Texas and a whipping of then-No. 1 Nebraska.

But the Ducks wont be playing No. 1 Miami in the Bowl Championship Series finale tonight. Nebraska will, because the computer-scored BCS uses a point system that had Miami No. 1, Nebraska No. 2, Colorado No. 3, and Oregon No. 4. The Ducks are No. 2 in both the human-scored polls The Associated Press rankings and the ESPN-USA Today poll, which is voted on by coaches and is committed to declaring the winner of the BCS championship game No. 1. The Ducks only hope for a share of the national title is a Nebraska win over Miami tonight, in which case they would likely be No. 1 in the AP poll.

No matter how you look at it, its a shoddy and unrealistic way to determine a national champion. Division 1 needs a playoff format, just as every other sport and division in football has. Only if the Ducks, clearly the No. 2 team in the country at 11-1, were to meet unbeaten Miami could a clear-cut national champion be crowned. A playoff format is the only system that can determine a true national champion.

The BCS was a compromise that resulted from annual debates on the need for a playoff. The bowl games have ingrained themselves as part of America. Big money is at stake. So a few years ago, rather than move toward a true playoff, the big bowls, leagues and athletic directors got together and determined that a computer-scored rating system would determine the champion, with games rotating between the bowls. This year the national championship will be played at the Rose Bowl, which traditionally has been the site of the game between the Pac-10 and Big-10 champions. The BCS not only cant determine a true champion, but this year it spoiled the tradition of the Rose Bowl.

The bowl games rule the post-season in Division 1 football. They are the overriding reason a playoff format has not been established. But a playoff format wouldnt have to spell doom for the major bowl games. A playoff could incorporate bowl games as sites for some of the playoff games. On a rotating basis the major bowls could be used as the site of the championship and third-place games. A rotation might not make bowl sponsors happy, but it would provide one method of assuring the tradition of such bowls as the Rose, Orange and Fiesta.

This years DUCKS will never know how good they are. Getting a share of the national title is out of their hands. Only Nebraska can help the Ducks now.

Somethings wrong with this picture. Imagine, now that the Ducks have proven to the doubters that they deserve their No. 2 rating, what a Miami-Oregon showdown would mean to college football. A playoff would leave no doubt as to who is the best team in the country. Last year Miami deserved that shot and didnt get it. This year its the Ducks who get the shaft.

There has to be a better way. And the NCAA needs to admit it.