Bowl Championship Stupidity
This past Sunday saw this season's first announcement of the rankings for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) for NCAA Division I college football. As much as I revel in upsets that create the potential for further doubt about the validity of the BCS at season's end (see losses by Ohio State and Nebraska this past weekend), I will not bother recounting those results.
Just to recap, the mission statement for the BCS - per its official website - is as follows.
The BCS is a five-game showcase of college football. It is designed to ensure that the two top-rated teams in the country meet in the national championship game, and to create exciting and competitive matchups among eight other highly regarded teams in four other bowl games.
How does the BCS determine those "two top-rated teams," one might ask? Again, we are able to reference their officially stated mechanism.
A team's on-field performance during the regular season is the principal factor in determining its position in the BCS standings. The formula consists of three components, each weighted equally: the USA Today Coaches Poll, the Harris Interactive College Football Poll and an average of six computer rankings (Anderson & Hester, Richard Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Kenneth Massey, Jeff Sagarin and Peter Wolfe). Because the conference commissioners believe that teams should be judged on performance, there are no pre-season BCS standings. Instead, the first list is released in mid-October, about halfway through the regular season.
My original motivation for visiting the official website of the BCS was not to read their company line. I wanted to find out where exactly I needed to go in order to line up to see their computers in action as this three-part formula is crunched to yield those all-important rankings that are the subject of so much water-cooler banter. Surely there would be a queue to witness this event, yes? They could sell tickets to that, couldn't they? I imagine the computer whirring with an ominous, foreboding power that holds the competitive fates of so many college athletes in its circuits, as the electrical impulses leap to action to fulfill the programmed equations. At the other end of the desk in that room - far below the cavernous spectator gallery - I envision an old dot matrix printer noisily sliding its ink cartridge with that characteristic jerky right-to-left movement, as the perforated holed paper spills out one line at a time with its revelation of how the teams are ranked.
Alas, I could not find the location for this imaginary event, although I wonder if the BCS would welcome an agitator like myself as a guest. Perhaps instead it could have been made available to me on pay-per-view television, but to save a few dollars I likely would opt instead to watch actual football games in a league that crowns its champion on the field with a playoff system that sees far less debate in determining who would participate in its title game. If there is debate, at least it is related to something tangible that actually happened on a field, as opposed to the abstract imaginings of who might defeat whom on a neutral field.
Of course, the NFL is not the only league that determines its champion with methodology that has a modicum of rational sense. The NCAA itself provides all its other sports at all levels some sort of championship event. It even gives its football teams at the Division II and Division III levels the opportunity to participate in single-elimination, sixteen-team playoffs. Those players do not even receive athletic scholarships or all the latitude and adulation that we know are bestowed upon Division I players, and somehow they manage to survive the terrible rigors of missing class and playing potentially four extra games of football at the end of the season, which is one of the weaker arguments offered up as a reason not to hold a playoff. Half of those sixteen teams only play one game. Only two of them actually play all four. The same would obviously be true of a Division I playoff. I defy you to show me any player that would not relish a little extra time given in the name of playing a tournament - much of which could be scheduled to take place between academic semesters in December - that would deliver the true national championship that we have never seen.
No, instead we have this speculative BCS that has made a habit of slighting teams year after year that any sense of intuitive fairness would deem worthy of at least a shot at the title. The wonderfulness of the BCS could only possibly be credibly trumpeted when compared to the system (or complete lack thereof) that the major Bowls formerly provided, which is akin to saying that when grading the BCS on a scale of zero to ten in delivering an undisputed national champion from among the teams that should be given a chance to win, we have gone from a one to a two.
I do not need to list all the instances for you of BCS championship game pairings that left the truly objective fans unsatisfied over the last twelve years since the system's inception. Recent history is rife with the stupidity that this system hath wrought. In fact, per polling of fans, the probability is high that I do not even need to convince you, and yet even with this large majority of opinion in our favor we are mired in the morass that is the BCS.
There have been several examples of teams that had one loss and were designated as "more worthy" of that second slot in the title game than other teams with one loss. Perhaps the majority of fans did agree with the decision in those cases, but the fact that there was a debate at all was troubling. The most egregious example of a BCS blunder occurred in 2004, when five Division I teams finished with zero losses, and yet only two of those teams were allowed to compete for the national title. The argument has been made that strength of schedule fairly assigns the BCS rankings, but in a league of over one hundred teams with conferences of varying strength, it is unfair to expect anything resembling an equal assignment of strength of schedule, regardless of the efforts that any single team might take to play tougher opponents in its non-conference schedule. It is a strong variable in any subjective argument as to which team is "better," but for the purpose of practicality it is a poor determinant for giving all teams a fair chance at a national championship, a game that ideally should have as one of its joys the ability to occasionally give us the upset of the winning team that was not "better" on paper.
On the aforementioned official site, the BCS does its best to convince you of its merits. The most laughable example is the following statement: "Thanks to the BCS, the top two teams have played each other 12 times in 12 years by BCS measurements."
Yes, the BCS is actually claiming credit for correctly selecting the number one and number two teams to play against each other, when they were the organization that said which teams were number one and number two in the first place. I doubt I have ever seen a more specious self-congratulation in my life. Certainly there was a great danger that the BCS might ignore its own formula and place numbers five and six in the championship game, right? It's not as if its very mandate as stated above isn't to name the top two teams that will play in the game, right?
The official site goes on to admit that three out of the twelve years their formula produced a different ranking of the top two teams from the Associated Press poll. It does not bother to delve into that large margin of error in opinion that might not have altered which two teams were considered the strongest at the end of the regular season by way of a standard poll but did represent a glaring lack of fairness and the ample room for debate that existed in each instance. If voting and mathematical formulas were all that it took to reveal which team was second best and which team was third best, then haven't we seriously undermined the point of playing the games at all?
I understand that there are certain conferences and schools that profit from the BCS in its current form. I understand there is a contract between the BCS and the NCAA that will prevent any immediate change. It does not seem to matter that the bowls could still exist largely in their current form in conjunction with a playoff system; a playoff somehow threatens "tradition." My starry-eyed idealism has once again placed a much higher priority on the optimal gaming experience than on the powerful moneymaking business that is major college football. How silly of me to expect the fundamental concept of fairness from a game that is already dissected according to every other variety of ridiculous minutiae.
It irks me that on a weekly basis I hear people giving the BCS rankings the dignity of discussion and debate, when they are an utter farce. We complain, and yet we validate the system by accepting its results and rooting for teams to succeed under its constraints, even if those constraints represent a veritable impossibility for some teams regardless of how well they play (perhaps read: Boise State).
Imagine if we all stopped talking about it. I'm not saying you should give up college football. I largely ignore it, but I realize that is much to ask, particularly if you attended a Division I school. In that respect I have the luxury of not being too invested, as I attended a small university. Nevertheless, I do care. I have rooting interests brought about by familial loyalty and locality, and I am lured in by certain big games. (That USC-Texas finale back in January of 2006 was particularly memorable.) When I think about college basketball's March Madness, which in my opinion is unmatched among all sporting events in its potential for excitement, I cannot help but imagine how incredible a true football championship tournament could be as well. There are many sports fans like me that did not attend a large university, and we would be much more likely to watch a series of games with actual stakes that highlight the persistence of year-end excellence and clutch performances than a smattering of almost randomly assigned exhibition games.
As for the money, I refuse to believe that by bringing in those numerous neutral fans a true tournament would have nothing but total financial upside in terms of advertising and television ratings. The distribution of those potential dollars might worry BCS proponents, but I myself have never been one to agonize over how the fat cats divvy up their spoils. It is a small price to pay for competitive integrity and the abolishment of a system that I daresay is un-American in its lack of opportunity and arbitrary assignment. Alternatively, if the concern is so pressing, render an agreement that skews the profits toward those who profit under the current BCS as a compromise. Let someone else figure that part out; just give me the playoff.
No system is perfect, but which seems more given to folly: a system that leaves you debating the second-best team in the nation that should be playing for the championship, or a system that might leave you debating the sixteenth-best team in the nation and gives all four of those teams that arguably could have been number two an opportunity to play for the championship on the field?
I request that you consider ignoring the BCS for a few weeks. Maybe the next time it comes up in conversation, in lieu of telling your co-worker that list of contingencies that needs to happen to bring your team into contention, simply mention first that the whole system is bent. Keep that meme alive, and perhaps one day we'll see that playoff.
New Bonus Feature - Sports Links of the Week
In case you missed them, these are worth checking out:
In Pennsylvania, Joe Sobucki records an 82-yard touchdown pass, an 86-yard receiving touchdown, and zero receptions - on the same play.
C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.