Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Monday, December 06, 2004

A few words about the BCS.

First, I would like to please retire the phrase "It's all about money" from the discussion. This point is, I believe, self-evident. In any controversy having to do with televised sports, the key factor in the end will always be vast, vast gobs of sponsorship money. The national championship game is played every four years, after all, at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, which fact I think speaks for itself. But the phrase has become akin to the now-exclusively-ironic "Will someone please think of the children?" and it is becoming embarrassing to hear it uttered in earnest.

When the BCS was first being discussed, it was relevant and salient to point out that the two incompatible goals of maintaining the traditional bowl structure and crowning an undisputed* national champion were nonetheless going to be smashed hamhandedly togehter due to the dictates of corporate profit, owing to the fact that montstrous sums of corporate money are tied up in the branding of the bowls, both major and minor, and to abandon that system would be to do the unthinkable and render many of those investments valueless. But now I think we can all agree on the nature of the dead horse, and he merits no further flogging.

One question that was given a truncated hearing at the time was the question of why, exactly, it had suddenly become all-important to crown an undisputed* national champion. In my purist opinion, the old system of simply crowning champions of invitational bowls was sufficient. The so-called "national championship" was from the very beginning a fiction dreamed up by sportswriters, not a real championship decided on the field of play. It was not as if there was some golden age (when the national championship "really meant something") to which we were trying to return.

What's more (and this is a pet peeve that transcends sports) I was amazed at the lack of discussion of the fact that the system that had been proposed - having the top two teams actually play each other - would not in fact fix the worst flaw in the old system, that of arbitrarily having to exclude a team that is objectively just as deserving as one that is included. It's just that now the result of this arbitrary exclusion is that instead of a pall of illegitimacy hanging over a fake championship trophy that never really meant anything significant, the pall of illegitimacy hangs over an actual game.

Now, for two years in a row our bright and shiny solution-in-search-of-a-problem has produced a national title game involving football powerhouse University of Oklahoma at the expense of a more deserving team. Last season, the howls of the sportswriters were deafening; this year they are barely audible. Why? This year, the excluded team is Auburn, a team few people have heard of. Last year it was USC, one of the most famous and successful programs in the country. Thus last season, when the nonsensical BCS rankings excluded USC, they were exluding the team that had actually been voted the #2 team in the country.

Indeed, you may be surprised to read that the Auburn exclusion is on one footing with the USC snub, as most of the sports media seems to think it's just fine, as opposed to last season when a casual channel surfer might have concluded that the building housing the BCS computers was actually being burned and looted by outraged sports fans. But consider the comparitive accomplishments of the two teams and see if you can explain why Team A is in the championship and Team B is not.

Team A played three top-quality teams in 2004, #6 Texas, #22 Texas A&M, and #23 Texas Tech. Two of those games were at Oklahoma, one was away (@Texas A&M.) Their conference championship game was agaisnt Colorado, a marginal team.

Team B also played three top teams in 2004, #8 Georgia, #12 LSU, and #15 Tennessee. However, they played Tennessee again in the conference championship, for a total of four quality wins. One of those wins came on the road (@Tennessee) and another on a neutral field (vs. Tennessee.)

You could argue, and you would be correct, that Team A (Oklahoma) dominated in a much tougher conference, the Big 12 South, than did Team B (Auburn), in the SEC West. There is only one walkover game in the Big 12 South (Baylor), while Auburn was in no real danger of losing to subpar Mississippi, Mississippi State, or Arkansas. But the overall in-conference slate of the Tigers, who also played the two top teams in the SEC East, stacks up fine against that of the Sooners, who added only Big 12 North cellar-dwellers Kanas, K State, and Nebraska to their regular-season schedule.

The only thing you could possibly say in favor of Oklahoma's schedule is that OU was a little more daring during its nonconference games, hosting the sometimes-dangerous Oregon Ducks (who were not in fact dangerous this season - they beat no team with a winning record) and scrappy Boston College while Auburn faced perennial pushovers Louisiana-Monroe and The Citadel.

But the fates of top teams should not be decided on the basis of whether they choose to bestow merciless beatings upon horrible teams or simply very bad ones. And in the end it matters little if you believe that Oklahoma really SHOULD be the team on its way to the national championship game this year. The fact remains that the BCS seems capable of rendering a satisfactory verdict on the identity of the country's two top teams only when the answer is already obvious to anyone who follows college football.

When the result is close, as it has been the last two years, the BCS computers are powerless to lend any clarity to the situation. This is because tiebreakers (that's what the BCS computer rankings are, a complex tiebreaker system) are ALWAYS arbitrary. In pro sports, the tiebreakers that decide the identities of playoff teams exclude at most the 5th- or 6th- best team from the postseason. In college football, the complicated computer tiebreaker system has the potential to exclude, on the basis of reasons no one can explain, the second-best team in the country from the national championship game, and in this writer's opinion it has done so for two straight years.

So what is to be done about this screwed-up situation? Well, maybe nothing. When you think about it, as much noise as is being made about how crazy all of this is, it's hard to say who, exactly, is being hurt by it, other than the people who have this deep psychic need to know exactly who is the undisputed champion of amateur* American football, who you'll recall are the idiots that got us into this mess in the first place.

Consider USC, last year's "shadow champion," who got shut out of the national title game, were crowned co-national champs anyway, and went into the following season as the consensus #1 team in the country. There are worse fates.

Or this year's Auburn Tigers, who would have had to defeat the hypertalented Trojans or the amazingly versatile Sooners to preserve their winning record under a fairer system, in a game in which they would have been double-digit underdogs. Instead, they'll face the solid but very beatable ACC Champion Virginia Tech Hokies and (with a win) can crow all offseason about how they COULD have won it all, if only they had been given the chance.

In that sense, the deliciously ironic reality of the BCS is that it's not totally clear that winning the BCS tiebreaker sweepstakes is better than losing it. The team that loses the Orange Bowl this season will have no claim to the national title. The team that lost the right to play in the Orange Bowl at all just might.


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