MIAMI — Jim Harbaugh needs no convincing that a playoff can work in college football.
His family has proof.
The Stanford coach's father, Jack Harbaugh, was coaching Western Kentucky in 2002, a season where the Hilltoppers got off to a 2-3 start. Any team that loses three of its first five games at college's highest level would have nary a chance of playing for a national title. But that Western Kentucky team closed with five straight regular-season wins, got into the 16-team bracket, beat Georgia Southern in the semifinals, McNeese State in the finals and won the championship.
Of course, when No. 5 Stanford (11-1) faced No. 12 Virginia Tech (11-2) on Monday night in the Orange Bowl, the season ended for both, win or lose, with no opportunity to move on to play for an even bigger prize.
Naturally, that leaves Jim Harbaugh clamoring for more.
"There's no NCAA sport that doesn't have a playoff system," Jim Harbaugh said. "So why not football?"
In this Bowl Championship Series era, that question is nothing more than rhetorical.
Still, it becomes an annual debate, something that has been argued by not just those inside the game. Of late, everyone from congressional officials to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has weighed in on the topic.
And it all makes for an interesting subplot to the Orange Bowl. Not only will Harbaugh and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer be on opposite sidelines Monday night, they're on opposite ends of the playoff-or-no-playoff debate as well.
"As far as I'm concerned, I want to keep it the way it is and keep on working with it and keep on getting it better and make sure we keep our bowls in place," Beamer said. "That's the way I see it."
Oddly, a playoff could have helped Virginia Tech maybe more than any other team in the nation this year.
The Hokies opened the season with a loss to Boise State, then followed that five days later with a surprising loss against lower-division James Madison. Going 0-2 within a week essentially ended any opportunity for Virginia Tech to win this season's national championship.
Since that James Madison loss, Virginia Tech is 11-0. Only Auburn, Oregon and TCU have longer current winning streaks.
"The bowls are a special deal," Beamer said. "I think we're closer to it. The only thing that I'd like to see is, I'd like to see a two-plus-one (format) at the end, to have the top four teams that have a legitimate shot at being the best in the country. Maybe there's a fifth one. But a lot of times, there is a third one."
Beamer's thinking on the issue has evolved — a little.
On Jan. 3, 2005, the Hokies met Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Virginia Tech lost that night 16-13, and Auburn finished the season 13-0, but with no shot at the title. The Tigers did get three first-place votes in the final Associated Press poll that season, but still finished No. 2 to USC for the national championship.
"They were good enough to play for the national championship," Beamer said. "But I think we've got a good thing going. I think it's unique. I think every game counts toward the national championship. We keep the bowls intact and they're special, it's special for the fans to go a week early and spend money and the whole bit. I'm a bowl guy, the whole way."
Make no mistake, Harbaugh is a bowl fan. He raved about the way the Cardinal was treated during its week in South Florida, and says the Orange Bowl experience made a distinct impact on his team.
Like it or not, the system is the system.
"This has been a great week for preparation as far as a football team getting ready for a game," Harbaugh said. "Couldn't be more excited about this particular game. ... The fact that it's going to be the only game in the world being played on January 3rd is really something that has our guys excited and motivated for the ballgame."
Even without a crystal football at stake, that's enough, he said.
"It works at the 1-AA level, and that's kind of what I base that off of," Harbaugh said. "But probably now's not the time to be talking about it. We've got other things to focus on, and that's the excitement we have for this ballgame."