Fear and Loathing in New Orleans (Specifically Loathing the BCS)

Since the BCS National Championship game was announced Sunday night, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth since the game features a rematch between SEC foes LSU and Alabama.  Stopping short (so far) of calling for the resurrection of Sherman to once again march through the South, like a streaker on a nationally televised game, I’ll not dignify their vitriol by posting links here.  The reader can find that on his or her own.

Rather than argue about what went wrong with this season’s BCS, I’d rather focus on what could/would have been wrong if other scenarios had played out, including the popular “plus-one,” an 8-team playoff, and a highly improbable but still occasionally mentioned 16-team playoff.  Before mentioning these scenarios, it is worth mentioning that in 2008, SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a plus-one format in which the top four teams would play in two BCS bowls as semi-finals with the winners playing a week later in a championship game.  Then Big XII commissioner killed it before discussion ever really began saying that the Big XII liked things the way the were.  Basically, Oklahoma State has Dan Beebe and the Big XII presidents to blame for not having a plus-one format in place this year.  (Interestingly, the traditional holdouts, the Pac-12 and Big 10 favored such a system early this season.)  However, even with some kind of playoff format in place, this season would have created an endless discussion of fair v. unfair, deserving v. undeserving, and brand v. on-field accomplishments.

The most common solution to the BCS problem seems to be the “plus-one” playoff in which the top four teams play each other in some kind of  rotating schedule of the BCS bowls as semifinals with the winners playing each other in a separate championship game like we have now.  If this year’s postseason had included a plus-one using the BCS poll the top four teams would have been (1) LSU, (2) Alabama, (3) Oklahoma State and (3)Stanford. According to the basic idea, LSU plays Stanford while Bama plays OSU with the winners meeting a week later.  The problem is that this would be as inherently “unfair” as detractors are calling the LSU/Bama rematch.  Here’s why.

One of the criticisms leveled against Alabama being in the national championship game is that they didn’t win their division, much less their conference.  A valid criticism, except that the BCS only stipulates that the two best teams should play for the national championship, not that they have to be conference champions.  This is a system problem…not somehow something wrong with Alabama.  However, if the “not-a-conference-champion” is extended to the plus-one format, Stanford would be equally undeserving because (5) Oregon won their conference but didn’t make the top 4.  If being a conference champion is important for matching up the top two then it should also be important for a four team plus-one (less important for 8 or 16 teams).  To have the top four conference champions one would have taken (1) LSU, (3) Oklahoma State, (5) Oregon and (10) Wisconsin.  Try selling that to Alabama, Stanford, (6) Arkansas, (7) Boise State, (8) Kansas State, and (9) South Carolina.  The bottom line with a plus-one is that it will still be necessary to use polls to determine the top four teams, and in a season like this numbers 5, 6 and 7 (in this case, Oregon, Arkansas, and Boise State) are going to be lobbying hard to get 3rd or 4th place votes like OSU was lobbying for 2nd place votes.  The problem is only backed up a level, not resolved.

An eight team playoff is arguably more “fair” but will take three weeks to play all the games and would extend the season considerably (an option virtually all university presidents are loathe to entertain).  Teams that play in a conference with a championship game would conceivably play sixteen games to win the championship.  The logistics bowl-wise are not too difficult.  Two bowls would be added to the current four (Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Rose) BCS bowls to play the quarter- and semi-finals (perhaps the Cotton and CapitalOne bowls). Each season the semi-finals would rotate.

But all is not solved.  The top eight in the BCS final standings would be LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, Arkansas, Boise State, and Kansas State.  Notably left outside looking in would be Wisconsin, which won their conference (avenging one of their losses in the Big Ten Championship game) while five of the top eight teams did not, at 10th.  Is this “fair”?

A sixteen team playoff is virtually an impossibility if for no other reasons the university presidents’ pretensions of academics being a priority.  (Funny, I-AA football plays an eleven game season and concludes with a twenty team playoff that extends the season an additional five games if a team from the first round makes it to the championship game, four games for the top seeded teams.)  Honestly, it seems so ridiculously unlikely that a team outside the top ten would have any realistic shot at the championship that sixteen teams is a waste but the NCAA basketball tournament includes 64…er, 68…uh, 72…well, a whole bunch of teams that have absolutely zero shot of winning the tournament (while excluding marginal teams because of automatic bids for lower tier conference champions).  Admittedly, no real contender would have been left out of a sixteen team playoff but there is enough average football during the regular season.  Why extend that into the playoffs? We want the top teams.

However, for the sake of argument, the top sixteen teams in the BCS would only include the conference champions from the SEC, Big XII, Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC.  All other I-A conference champions would be outside looking in.  In this scenario, conference championships are certainly desired accomplishments but not a prerequisite for playing for the national championship.  In other words, a conference championship is virtually irrelevant.

Requiring teams to win their conference to play for the national championship will incentivize putting powder puffs on the schedule so teams can focus on winning their conferences.  On the other hand, basing the postseason strictly on polls and unaccountable computers (GIGO) makes the process wholly subjective and dependent on a team looking good and not just winning games.  In days not so long ago conference champions were tied into specific big bowls (the SEC to the Sugar Bowl for example) while the rest were chosen by the lower tier bowls (back when a bowl was a reward for a good season and not simply an entitlement for every average team).  Sometimes numbers 1 and 2 would play each other but more often they wouldn’t.  The subjectivity of the polls came in after the bowls were over (although in the really old days the national champion was chosen before the bowls because the bowls were not technically part of the season, but that’s a different story).

While this may be anathema today, the old system rewarded conference champions with major bowls and the pollsters did the rest after the bowls were over.  Was it perfect? Of course not, but quite frankly, it was no worse than anything the conferences themselves have cobbled together since then (the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Alliance and the BCS…although I will say the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance would have been much better had the Big Ten and Pac-10 not been locked into the Rose Bowl.).  In the end, no system is perfect and there will always be some team’s fan base complaining about being left out.  The BCS was little improvement and a full playoff is out of the question because of university presidents.  I seriously doubt a plus-one format would solve many of the current problems.

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