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Column: Playoffs? Not yet, but finally on the way

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Column: Playoffs? Not yet, but finally on the way

The final whistle of the national championship game also signals a new beginning.

It's time to start saying goodbye to the Bowl Championship Series as we know it. The cartel hijacked the postseason in 1998 and despite a tweak here and a tuck there, kept it roughly the same during that run, despite facing more criticism than the replacement refs. Mercifully, though, the 2013-14 season, ending at the Rose Bowl next January, is guaranteed to be the last gasp.

The most obvious change the season after that - without going full Jim Mora on you - will be PLAYOFFS???

Or to be more exact, a four-team mini-playoff in January 2015. The site is still to be chosen from among a half-dozen bids, and after that, the process will be open to all comers, the way the NFL chooses its Super Bowl cities. For plenty of us, that can't happen soon enough.

``I won't kid you, this system has been plenty good to us,'' Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood said as the second-ranked Crimson Tide wrapped up preparations in search of their third BCS title in the last four years, this time against No. 1 Notre Dame.

``But I got a lot of calls and texts from friends on other teams who don't think it's fair,'' Norwood added, with a quick glance over his shoulder to see if anyone else was listening in. ``Me, too. When I was in high school at D'Iberville (Miss.), the chance to play for a state title was everything. You could lose a game here and there, and not feel like your season was done. It's a lot fairer for everyone.''

College football won't be that democratic for a while. How fast and far ``bracket creep'' begins remains anyone's guess. The current TV deal extends out a dozen years and most of the same guys who ran the last version of the BCS remain in charge. As noted above, they do not like to be bullied.

There's also nothing in the contract that even hints at expanding the format. But if the mini-playoff proves successful enough, and especially if there's some turnover at the top of the conferences in charge, adding four more teams to the mix could come as early as a half-dozen years down the road.

Anything beyond that, especially the 16-team playoff that would do college football justice, is no more than a pipe dream at the moment. Remember: It took a century or so of wrangling just to reach the threshold of a playoff. So for the moment, let's limit the discussion to the mini-playoff.

Asked what challenges the new order will present to the BCS, executive director Bill Hancock thought the committee charged with selecting the playoff teams will be scrutinized way more than its NCAA basketball counterparts. For teams and players, he suggested ``the week between the semifinals and the championship game is going to be a big adjustment.

``The rhythm will be a lot different than the regular season. There will still be a break and then a big game, and then a bigger game after that. Pros are used to that,'' he added. ``For 19- and 20-year-old kids, it could be tough.''

The toughest adjustment, though, could be the bowl committees themselves. The Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls have already been assured of spots in the national semifinal rotation, expected to be joined by the Fiesta Bowl and two other sites - maybe Atlanta and Dallas.

``We've got a semi every three years and eight other significant games,'' Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said. ``Obviously, we're pretty happy with the road map.''

Few of the bowl committees further down the food chain are feeling that comfortable. There were 35 bowls this season and while TV ratings have generally held steady, a slight drop in attendance for the second straight year has some in the industry wondering whether they've reached the saturation point.

``I'm getting that question a lot,'' said Wright Waters, who heads the Football Bowl Association, which looks after the interests and paperwork for all the non-BCS bowls. ``My initial reaction is that as long as the bowls continue to market themselves as events, and not just games, and focus on getting strong regional matchups and competitive, compelling games, we'll be fine.

``I think the challenge is going to be the perception - in the minds of the public and the players - more than the reality. I worry are we going to have the seven (BCS-sanctioned) games and everything else will be well, something less. We saw a little bit of that this year, where teams were focused on winning a championship, then went to a second-tier bowl and lost their enthusiasm.''

From where he sits, however, Wright doesn't see the long-term problem as supply. With the Western Athletic Conference on the verge of dissolving, there will be 10 conferences playing next season, plus independents and any team with a 6-6 record will be bowl eligible. To make certain the demand for second-tier bowls can be met in a way that makes money for the schools, the committees and the host cities involved, the FBA commissioned an analysis back in August.

``It will be nice to get an opinion for somebody who's actually studied the situation,'' chuckled Wright, an old-school guy who used to head the Sun Belt Conference. ``Up until now, the only thing we've had a surplus of is opinions.''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at www.Twitter.com/JimLitke

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Orioles catcher Bryan Holaday finishes game as pitcher as Orioles blown out by Nationals 15-3

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Orioles catcher Bryan Holaday finishes game as pitcher as Orioles blown out by Nationals 15-3

After six straight wins led by their offense, the Orioles seemed due for an off night. And they finished it off with catcher Bryan Holaday on the mound.

Holaday was the 17th position player in Orioles history to pitch in a game, and the last since Stevie Wilkerson recorded a save last year against the Angels. But he only entered the game when the score was out of hand. 

The Orioles suffered a blowout loss in the first game of a three-game set against the Nationals on Friday at Camden Yards in a 15-3 loss, the first loss where the team was never in the game in a few weeks. 

Holaday’s finish wasn’t the only unique part of Friday’s game, as Keegan Akin made his major league debut. Akin threw three innings, allowed two hits and three earned runs with one home run allowed. He was sent to the team’s alternate training site at Double-A Bowie after the game.

“I thought he threw the ball really well,” manager Brandon Hyde said of Akin’s debut. “I was really encouraged by how he threw the ball. Really nice life to his fastball, good tempo, he flashed some decent breaking balls. He went out and attacked hitters and I was really impressed with him making his debut tonight and facing a lot of tough hitters for the Washington Nationals and he did a nice job.”

As was a problem throughout the night, however, the Orioles didn’t play good defense. They were credited with just one error, but the defense was more shoddy than that would suggest.

Starting pitcher Tommy Milone threw four innings, allowed nine hits and six runs — but three were unearned as the Orioles fell behind in the second inning and never came back. The Nationals scored in six of their nine offensive innings, including a six run outburst in the eighth inning.

The offense wasn’t much help, as they recorded just six hits compared to the Nationals 19 in a disappointing performance across the board. Anthony Santander slugged a home run in the first inning off Stephen Strasburg, who left with an injury in the inning, but the Orioles were quiet the rest of the night in a dominating defeat.

“I just didn’t think we played well defensively,” Hyde said. “I think we’ve been pretty good for the most part, especially in the infield. Tonight just wasn’t our best night defensively. We just didn’t play very well. So we just chalk this up, try to put this one behind us.”

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Brent Johnson calls for rookie Vitek Vanecek to replace Braden Holtby in goal for struggling Capitals

Brent Johnson calls for rookie Vitek Vanecek to replace Braden Holtby in goal for struggling Capitals

After the 5-2 Game 2 loss to the New York Islanders Friday night in a Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series, Rob Carlin asked the Caps Postgame Live crew how they would fix Washington's error-ridden performances seen in the first round so far. 

Brent Johnson knows the pressures that comes with playing in net during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that doesn't mean he'll sympathize with the end results. As a goaltender for the Capitals for four seasons in the mid-2000s, Johnson has vast experience with the ups and downs that come with the position. But he had a pretty radical answer to Carlin's question: Bench veteran goalie Braden Holtby, the man who helped Washington win a Stanley Cup in 2018, for a rookie who has never played in a regular-season NHL game: Vitek Vanecek. 

"I know how they can shake it up. I know how they can shake it up. Right?" Johnson said. "Vitek Vanecek. Right there. That’s it. Hey. You know what? Bold decision. Bold decision. Do something bold. You never know. I’ve seen it happen in the playoffs thus far."

To call for Washington's veteran netminder to take a seat on the bench for a rookie who hasn't even played in the NHL yet is more than bold. Johnson's proclamation left Carlin yelling "Whoa!" and fellow panelist Al Koken saying he didn't know how to top that one. Alan May simply smiled and shook his head. 

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The Capitals wouldn't be in this position at all had rookie Ilya Samsonov never gotten injured during the long NHL break back home in Russia in an off-ice incident. The 23-year-old had a breakout season for Washington to get in the rotation in what's been an up-and-down year for Holtby. Samsonov had a .913 save percentage and won 16 of his 26 games in net this season. Vanecek, on the other hand, just got called up for the postseason after playing all season for the AHL's Hersey Bears.  

Nonetheless, the Caps have to figure out something to get a spark going for Game 3 against the Isles at noon Sunday. Johnson's solution was by far the most radical suggested, but everyone agreed changes needed to be made or the season could end far sooner than anyone anticipated. 

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