Friday, January 09, 2009

College Football Postmortem

Tell me: how many college football seasons have ended with us being less certain about who the best team in the country is than we were at the beginning? Remember when everyone thought Georgia would run all over everyone this season? Yeah, kinda makes me chuckle too. For a laugh, check out this preseason top 25 poll. Georgia's at the top, and they got Oklahoma, USC, and Florida vaguely right. But Clemson at #6? They couldn't even beat Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. Auburn is at #10... and didn't make a bowl game. Ditto with Tennessee at #14 and Arizona State at #15. And what genius thought Illinois should be ranked #19? Wrong Illinois team, dude - shoulda gone with Northwestern. Meanwhile, Penn State languishes at #24, and Utah isn't even on the radar.

(Side note here: I think I remember saying at the beginning of the season that Utah had a pretty good shot at going undefeated this year. They had scads of returning seniors, their only loss since September of last year was a close call to BYU in Provo, and all their tough games - TCU, BYU, Oregon State - were at home. Their only remotely difficult road games would be against always-mediocre Air Force and rebuilding Michigan. Why did no one else see this? Why?)

Anyway, we now know that the BCS will never die, because if anything could destroy it, it was this season. This season was like a giant nuclear bomb exploded directly over the BCS... and it's going to survive, despite yet another disputed national championship.

Of course, disputed national championships are nothing new. But can you remember a season that ended with four teams that all have a legitimate argument? Florida beat nine bowl teams, won the SEC, and only lost to a team that ended up ranked #14. Texas played a tough Big 12 schedule and only lost an away game at on-fire Texas Tech after having played three straight ranked teams. USC didn't play anyone, but dominated everyone outside Corvallis and gave us the biggest bowl smack-down of the year against a pretty good Penn State team. Utah beat four currently ranked teams and, oh yeah, didn't lose. Go ahead, you pick a winner. I think the Utes have the strongest argument (the whole undefeated thing), followed by UF, Texas, and USC, but reasonable people can disagree.

This isn't the first time more than one team could claim a championship in the BCS era. Auburn and Utah had claims in 2004 when USC took the hardware home (and Auburn, in fact, won the AP poll). So that's twice in five years where the BCS system has completely exploded. The BCS was meant to settle two-team debates like the 1997 season where Michigan and Nebraska finished undefeated but were unable to face each other because Michigan was tied to the Rose Bowl. It can't settle debates among more than two teams, so it was designed with a very short memory. More than two teams have laid claims on a national championship before - the goofy 1970 season ended with three consensus national champions and two other teams that had an argument - but with the exception of 1993 it hadn't happened recently.

So as college football parity increased at the beginning of the decade, the BCS was caught with its pants down. More and more large-conference teams began playing well enough to get a title. And the small conferences suddenly became relevant. Before the founding of the BCS, you almost never had a small-conference team lay a claim on a title. Since Army won the title in 1945, only once - BYU in 1984 - has a consensus national title been claimed by a team currently outside the major conferences. (SMU sorta had claims in 1981 and 1982.) It has happened three times in the past five years (Utah in 2004 and 2008 and Boise State in 2005). The more teams and conferences that are relevant, the more often you'll have arguments among three or more teams that didn't play each other during the regular season... which means BCS disaster.

So we get what we had this year, with a national champion that half the country thinks doesn't deserve it and a President-elect calling for a playoff and an entire state suing the system. And it'll happen again, because a playoff is the only system that could conceivably settle a multiple-team championship debate, and we're not getting a playoff.

The BCS is what it is - a means of getting around conference tie-ins so that two teams in the national championship argument can play each other. It just needs to drop the idea that it is the final word in college football, especially in years where five teams have national championship arguments going into the bowl season. By conferring an air of finality upon a clearly disputed national championship, the BCS makes the system worse. Lose the pretension, and the BCS is fine.

One final note. That preseason poll? It's actually pretty important because it helps set television schedules for the year. Utah's only game on national television was a less-than-impressive road win at patsy Michigan (yeah, that's not an oxymoron this year). It's completely inexplicable why national television wouldn't pick up a game between #8 and #12... yet Utah's game against TCU was banished to satellite. Utah's poor poll performance - as well as that of USC, whose games tend to finish after most of the East Coast is asleep - is almost certainly related to low exposure.

1 comment:

another joe said...

Couple points:
1. The Mountain West has contracts with both CBS College Sports and Versus. Preseason polls had nothing to do with the Utah-TCU matchup not being seen widely on national TV; the Mountain West's crummy TV contract was the real reason.
2. The last time you could have 4 teams which could legitimately claim the national championship was 1973. (Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan-plus Alabama won the coaches' poll which at that time was conducted before the bowls.