Smilo Says 12.09.03 – The BCS

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be many interesting commentaries I will make here in 411black. This essay will probably be just one of many in the area of sports. You see, my two biggest interests are music and sports, and I already have a venue for my music-related musings, over in the 411 music section. In addition to sports, look for me to vent on topics like pop culture, celebrity, wrestling, college life, and occasionally politics (particularly the upcoming nine-horse Democratic Presidential nomination race). I believe this serves as a good enough intro, so let’s get on with it.

Bowl Championship Series: The National Whipping Boy

Let’s just give a quick recap of the current NCAA football controversy that has so many pundits and fans in a tizzy. Oklahoma, LSU, and USC all finished the season with one loss. Most notably of the three losses was Oklahoma’s, which came in the Big XII Championship game against Kansas State. Both the ESPN coach’s poll and the AP sportswriters’ poll have USC ranked number one, followed by LSU and Oklahoma. However, BCS rankings also take into account strength of schedule and computer-generated rankings, and the final BCS standings put Oklahoma and LSU in the championship game.

Furthermore, anti-BSC sentiment has manifested itself in the media as support of USC. While the coach’s poll is beholden to rank the winner of the BCS championship game number one, it’s very likely that the sportswriter’s poll will rank UCS first if they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, creating a split national championship.

Everybody claims this is proof that the BCS is not doing its job, and everybody seems to have a better (in their mind) solution. Some have suggesting reverting to the old pre-Bowl Alliance bowl system. Others advocate a four- or eight-team playoff bracket. ESPN.com’s “Daily Quickie” suggested a radical 117-team tournament, preceded by a shortened 5-game regular season schedule. While I have my own ideas, let me first analyze the shortcomings of each of these thoughts:

pre-BA Bowl System: If the ultimate goal is finding a definitive national champion, this shouldn’t even have to be discussed. The system proved so ineffective that NCAA football, an organization steeped in tradition like no other, implemented what was at the time a radically new Bowl Alliance system. (For those who don’t recall, Bowl Alliance was the name of the pre-BCS system that included all the BCS conferences except the Pac 10 and Big 10, and was based only on the polls without computers) For the most part, the original bowl system only satisfied people when a superior championship team fell into their lap, either being the only undefeated or only once-defeated team in the nation. 1993 was the final straw for this system, when one-loss FSU was crowned champion over one-loss Notre Dame, who had beaten FSU in the season.

In my opinion, the bowl system was torn down because public (and media) opinion dictated that it was imperative to determine an absolute national champion every year. The system was fine for people willing to accept that the short schedule and sheer amount of major programs meant that the season might end with two or three top teams, rather than one absolute champ. While it’s not my favorite system, I think it’s acceptable, for reasons I’ll highlight below.

BCS: In light of Michigan’s having to share the national championship with Nebraska in 1997, the Rose Bowl conferences decided they would join the Bowl Alliance and throw the Rose Bowl into the BA bowl mix. In addition, Mike Tranghese and company tweaked their system of deciding on two top teams, creating a complex formula that took into account human polls, computer-based rankings, strength of schedule rankings, number of losses, and number of “quality wins” over top teams. Thus was born the BCS.

In it’s five seasons of existence, the BCS has provided three championship matchups that the original bowl system would have never provided (1998, 2000, 2001), and one matchup that neither the original system nor the BA could have provided, in last year’s Ohio State/Miami Fiesta Bowl. In all, I find the BCS to be rather successful, but there are two situations which it cannot handle:

-A situation like this year, where three or more teams all either have no losses or one loss. Though computer rankings are in place exactly so that they can determine which two teams deserve to play a championship game, the underdog factor (people love to root for the team that got screwed or lucky) dictates that public opinion will undermine the BCS decision.

-A situation much like the above, where there is one team that absolutely deserves to be in the championship, but a logjam of worthy competitors. Once again, the objective computer-based formulas are there exactly so that they can find the most worthy team, but America generally finds that system unacceptable.

Four-Team, Two-Round Playoff: In the aftermath of this year’s issue, where there are three deserving teams, the most popular solution seems to be throwing those three teams, along with another, into a four-team playoff. My most basic issue with that is that it doesn’t really solve anything. This year, we can all agree that LSU, USC, and Oklahoma get into the four-team tournament, but which team gets the last spot? By my count, there are no less than four teams that all have one loss and all could legitimately claim to deserve the spot (Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Miami). How do we decide who gets the spot? Those hated computers? Furthermore, how do we decide how to rank these teams?

I do agree that it’s better to have to leave out a two-loss team from a four-team tournament than a one-loss team from a two-team matchup. But the fact of the matter is, the BCS system at least has an opportunity to get it right, like last year when the two undefeated teams squared off. A four-team playoff would almost guarantee controversy every year. Think about it, how rare is it that there are exactly four top teams that stand out significantly from the pack? Much more rare than times when there are two. The issue at hand really is more about public perception of the championship system than about finding a true champion, and this system would produce at least as much public outrage as the BCS, on a yearly basis.

Eight-Team, Three-Round Playoff: From a less-complaints basis, I find this to be much more acceptable than the four-team system. There will still be issues about teams being left out, and about rankings. However, an eight-team system assures that any school remotely worthy of playing in a decisive championship game gets a shot to prove itself worthy on the field.

But, a system like this would be a logistical nightmare. Just about the only way to ensure that games won’t interfere with academics is to have the first round on or about New Years Day, the second round exactly one week after, and the championship seven days later. Can you even imagine the amount of time a school’s Athletic Department will have to spend coordinating team arrivals, hotels, and fan ticket dispersion at a neutral (read: not in anyone’s home area) site, given only seven days of notice? That’s just one aspect of the horrible logistics of this idea.

Further, consider the McGahee Effect. Willis McGahee was Miami’s star running back last year, sure to receive a high draft pick and millions of dollars. In last year’s championship game, his knee was turned in a way that knees are not meant to be turned. It’s a small miracle that he’s going to recover enough to play football again, but one hard hit can aggravate his injury enough to knock him out of the game.

ESPN’s Jason Whitlock wrote an eloquent piece months back about the McGahee incident, which turned into a polemic against the proposed tournament systems. Whitlock made an excellent point, noting that you almost never hear University personnel or even players asking for a playoff system. It comes almost exclusively from fans, and in my opinion the fan sentiment is propagated by the media. Players don’t place so much emphasis on assuring that there’s a definitive champion. They just want to have fun playing, and hopefully impress enough people to get a chance to play professionally. The McGahee incident shows the risk that players put up every time they step on the field. Who are we to demand that they play extra games, just so we can declare a number one team?

In all, I think college football faces a number on inevitables. First, there will always be controversy over which teams are given a shot at the title, and which are left out. Second, the short season will generally guarantee that multiple teams have identical records, so there has to be a system to decide which of the 11-1 or 10-2 teams are better than the rest. Third, there will always be a sizeable faction that wants to change the system, either in small increments or radically. Fourth, the very idea of bowl games in neutral territories is an integral part of college football. With this all in mind, I believe the framework of the current BCS is the best system for college football. Having every worthwhile team get one bowl game to end the season is fair to the universities without being too demanding of the players or Athletic Departments. The only change I would like to see is to get rid of the computer formula system and let the two polls decide the top two teams, maybe with strength of schedule as a tiebreaker if there’s a deadlock (let’s say the coaches had OU at two and LSU at three, while the writers put LSU at two and OU third).

The biggest argument against a two-team championship game is of course that it could leave out worthy teams, like this year. That’s what the polls are for. It’s absolutely inevitable that multiple teams will have the same record, so let’s let the experts decide which of the teams are worthy. We can’t go changing the system every year based on the results of the previous season. We could institute a four-team playoff for 2004, and then when the season plays out we could end up with two undefeated teams and six worthy one-loss teams. The nature of college football is for these situations to happen.

Teams know that one loss in the season could knock them out of the title running. That’s the way it’s always been, and it’s part of the tradition of the college game. In the end, tradition is a hugely important part of the equation, which is often forgotten by pundits. When you combine tradition with progress, it seems clear to me that the best option is a one-game championship, with participants decided by those who know college football best.

As always, I welcome a chance to discuss and debate things like this. I believe there’s some type of comment system attached to 411 black, so feel free to leave a public comment there. As well, you can email me directly at viceroymonarch@aol.com or send me an Instant Message at the screen name viceroymonarch. Take care, and look out for my next contribution to 411black sometime soon, as well as my 411music Sunday news report on, well, Sunday.

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