The Big Ten Conference was at the forefront of instant replay in college football. And Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has been a staunch supporter of the Bowl Championship Series formula for deciding a national champion.

That's what made the irony of last week's nail-biting finish in East Lansing richer than Bill Gates.

Instant replay overturned an official's ruling that a Hail Mary by Michigan State at the final horn came a whisker short of the goal line. The improbable finish sent the Spartans and their fans into a frenzy, left stunned Wisconsin with its first loss and all but assured the Big Ten is out of the national title picture before November.

The Badgers' loss left the conference without a team in the top 10 in the BCS standings this week. Michigan State is the highest-ranked Big Ten team at No. 11, followed by Nebraska (14) and Wisconsin (15).

Seven teams ahead of them remain unbeaten, meaning the Big Ten needs help and perhaps a different kind of Hail Mary to send a participant to the BCS title game for the first time since the 2007 season.

For those who crave a college football playoff, though, don't hold your breath.

"I don't know about ever," Delany said Thursday when asked about the potential for a playoff. "But I don't see that kind of thing in the near future."

Too bad. As much as we love college football and the drama that unfolds on a weekly basis, the sport's method for determining a national champion still drives us crazy. There has to be a better system than combining human polls and computer rankings. It's too confusing, which is why newspapers run an "explanation key" under the weekly BCS rankings. Here's an excerpt:

"Six computer rankings are used to determine the overall computer component. The highest and lowest ranking for each team is dropped -- and the remaining four are added and divided to produce a Computer Rankings Percentage."

Make sense? This might sound wishy-washy, but we're not advocating for the destruction of the bowl system. Bowl games are wonderful, even some of the minor ones. Not always, of course, but they often provide compelling matchups that keep you from nodding off in the Barcalounger during the holidays.

It just seems sort of strange to know a conference probably doesn't have a shot at the national title before all the leaves fall. That's not a Big Ten-centric complaint. That sentiment applies to any of the major conferences.

Maybe that's the beauty and curse of college football. BCS backers have long espoused the belief that the regular season is made more meaningful because teams face a win-or-else edict every week.

Wisconsin -- and the Big Ten, by extension -- certainly felt that sting this week. Granted, the conference will still send one and possibly two teams to BCS bowls. That brings a nice payday for all conference members, especially if a second team receives an at-large bid.

The SEC has cornered the market on BCS titles of late, and LSU and Alabama look head and shoulders above the competition this season, too. (Some are even speculating that the BCS title game will be a rematch of next Saturday's clash between those two teams.)

The Badgers represented the Big Ten's best hope to at least be in that conversation -- until they stumbled on the road against a quality opponent. Now they must recalibrate their goals, even if they wouldn't dare admit so publicly.

"It's going to be hard to go through this conference unbeaten," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said this week.

The good news for the Big Ten is that the addition of Nebraska allows for a conference championship game, which gives the league another stage to showcase itself. The lack of a title game and traditional pre-Thanksgiving finish to the regular season always left the Big Ten with an out-of-sight-out-of-mind feel to it.

"I do think that having a 13th game -- where that eventual champion would beat another football team with a lot of wins -- is going to give that power rating a big boost and maybe that can happen," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "But I guess it's dependent on what everybody else does as well."

That's precisely the point.

Chip Scoggins •