14 Jun 2004
by Russell Levine
How do you defend the indefensible?
That's the position the BCS has put me, an avowed college football apologist, in with its latest no-doubt disastrous iteration: The five-in-four "piggyback" bowl model.
For those that haven't been paying attention, the BCS, fearful of congressional intervention if it didn't open up access to its lucrative bowl games to schools from "mid-major" conferences, announced in late February that it would add a fifth game for the 2006 season.
Many had hoped that last season's controversial split national championship between USC and LSU would lead to the creation of a true championship game, matching the top two teams following the four BCS games (which I will refer to as a "plus-one" championship). But the BCS immediately dismissed that possibility as "too playoff like."
Instead, the fifth game was added simply to join the other four (the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar) in the championship rotation. The same six leagues would have automatic berths into one of the games: The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC. The number of at-large berths would increase to four from two. Although none of the mid-majors (leagues such as the MAC, Mountain West and WAC) would be guaranteed a spot, according to the BCS if this new system had been in place, a school from a non-BCS league would have been included in four of the last six years. As it stands, a school from a non-BCS league has never garnered an at-large berth since the debut of the BCS for the 1998 season.
Non-BCS bowls, particularly the Capital One, Cotton and Gator, immediately began making their pitch to be included.
At the time, NCAA president Myles Brand, the man who has promised to put the "student" back in "student-athlete," hailed the decision by saying, "The agreement that has been reached today is a significant victory for college sports and higher education."
Presumably, Mr. Brand uttered this statement with a straight face, though that must have been a struggle. He was referring to the fact that the addition of a fifth game would prevent the all-out evil of a playoff, and would generate more revenue for the participating schools. By creating two additional at-large berths, the BCS would better spread that wealth across all the Division-IA conferences. But his contention that this would somehow be good for higher education is utterly laughable.
Only a tiny handful of schools turn a profit on their football programs. Many manage to take a loss on lucrative bowl payouts by inviting traveling parties of several hundred to attend. Coaches, seeing the opportunity for extra practice time and "team unity," will take their teams to the bowl site ridiculously early (as long as two weeks, in the case of my alma mater, Michigan, for last year's Rose Bowl), rolling up huge hotel and meal expenditures along the way.
Yet we are supposed to assume that the newly increased bowl wealth would somehow provide a boost to higher education? If anyone believes that profits from football (at the few schools where they exist) are used to increase professors' salaries, upgrade libraries, or in any way improve the experience of the regular student, I've got some swamp land that I want to talk to you about.
Three-plus months later, when the BCS ended the speculation about the format of the fifth game -- announcing last week that it would not be a new game at all -- Brand's statement became even more laughable. The fifth bowl will be a "piggyback" game. Once every four years, each of the existing BCS games would host a second, championship game about a week after the first one had been played.
The great irony is that one of the arguments from the school presidents against a plus-one championship game was that it would extend the season into early January, creating "second semester football," which was deemed to great a disruption for the student-athletes. Of course, the new piggyback game will be played a week after the other games, as late as Jan. 9 -- precisely the "second semester" situation that had been deemed unacceptable. Yes, there is a difference in that the participants in the piggyback game won't have played an additional bowl the week before, as they would in the plus-one championship model. But all that will accomplish is to ensure that the piggyback game will be even sloppier than most of the BCS games are already because of the long layoff between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the bowls.
As I wrote in a column earlier this year, the real problem that prevents college football from having a basketball-style tournament is the existence of the bowls. Many have proposed playoff formats that would utilize the bowls to host the various rounds, but I believe it's hopelessly naive to think that the bowls could thrive, or even survive, in such a format. As I wrote in January, the bowls exist as destination events for alumni and fans. There's no way they'd be able to sell 60,000, 80,000 or, in the case of the Rose Bowl, 93,000 tickets to fans for anything other than the final round. Using the bowls to host playoff games has always appeared to me an attempt to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
The one option that could work with the bowls is the plus-one championship format. The BCS has already taken the extra step to schedule its piggyback championship game a full week after the other BCS games. Is there any reason to think it couldn't at some point in the future move from the piggyback scenario to the plus-one format and stage a championship from among the BCS bowl winners?
I'd like to give the BCS officials the benefit of the doubt and suggest that perhaps that's exactly what they are planning to do. In order to get from point A to point C (a plus-one championship game), they had to establish point B (a piggyback championship game). But to assume the BCS is planning that far in advance would ignore mountains of evidence suggesting nothing about the BCS has ever been given much forethought.
Nonetheless, the establishment of the piggyback championship game (which the BCS prefers I would refer to as the "double hosting" model) does lay the groundwork for a future plus-one championship. It puts into place the extra week that would be needed to stage such a game and provides a method of insuring the four BCS games won't have to give anything up to host the championship -- by keeping the four-bowl rotation and giving each the extra game once every four years.
Right now, a plus-one championship may seem abhorrent to college presidents, who seem determined to use the sport of football to take a stand against college athletics' excesses, but give the piggyback game a few years to establish itself and it will no longer seem like such a leap to turn it into a plus-one game.
Further controversy is virtually guaranteed, because the BCS has yet to address its real problem -- how it selects the teams for the championship game. Whatever new formula it comes up with, it is bound to have more years in which there is an argument over which teams are deserving of berths in the championship. Another title split is not only possible, it's practically guaranteed. Adding a fifth BCS game does nothing to change that.
One more split national title is probably all it will take to tip the scales in favor of a plus-one championship. The college presidents will finally stare at the dollar signs that ABC will offer for a plus-one game (an event they could bill as a college football Super Bowl) and acquiesce. They will attempt to spin things by stating that the only change in moving to a plus-one game is that two teams will play one extra game. And the world will rejoice.
Or will it?
Would a championship game from among the BCS bowl winners really solve the problem? Sure, it would put a more definitive stamp on the winner, but does it really guarantee an end to the controversy? Far from it.
Everybody looks at last year's situation, in which both LSU and USC finished with one loss, and demands they face off for the title. But what happens in a year in which three teams emerge from the BCS with one loss? It could easily have happened last year. Say Miami beats Tennessee in the regular season, and then wins the Orange Bowl. Who from among Miami, USC and LSU should play for the title?
Scholarship limits and the proliferation of television coverage have brought unprecedented parity to college football. The likelihood of multiple one-loss teams grows every year.
The BCS was created to solve an unsolvable problem. There is no way, short of a full-blown playoff, to ensure an undisputed champion. I don't think a Division-IA playoff will ever happen and if it does, it is surely many, many years away. In the interim, we are left with the BCS, teetering after absorbing years of body blows.
I still think the BCS can be a success. Give it five or six seasons (depending on the length of the new television contract) to establish its piggyback game. Give it another controversial finish or two, and what will emerge is a plus-one championship game. Return the four BCS games to their traditional conference tie-ins (insofar as possible; Big Ten and Pac-10 in the Rose, SEC in the Sugar, Big East in the Orange, Big 12 in the Fiesta, etc.), determine some method for picking two teams to play after those four games, stage a college football Super Bowl a week later, get the NCAA on board to sanction the champion of that game (the NCAA does not currently recognize a champion of Division-IA football), and live with the occasional controversy. It's the best possible compromise.
Of course, there's one major issue to still be tackled. The BCS has promised to adjust its selection formula for next year. The new formula hasn't been announced yet, but it will most likely reduce the reliance on computer rankings in favor of an increased emphasis on the human polls.
I have an idea about how to solve this problem as well. The BCS' previous efforts at tweaking its formula have always been too reactionary; this year's changes address last year's problem and undoubtedly create a new problem for next year.
What we need is to take 10 or 15 formula ideas and 20 years of statistical data and run them all against it. Figure out which one worked best over the last 20 years and go with that model.
Sound like a foreign concept? I've got just the man for the job. BCS officials, please forward all data to aaron-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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Updates: In April, I wrote about Paul Hornung's comments on Notre Dame needing to loosen its academic standards so the school can get "the black athlete." Though the decision rested with Westwood One and not the university, Hornung will not return as a host on Notre Dame radio broadcasts this fall.
"I know I should not have said that. If they don't want to forgive me, then that's their problem. I've done as much as I can," Hornung told the South Bend Tribune. "They don't have to worry about me embarrassing them again. If they don't want me, they won't see me again."
In March, I wrote about the controversy swirling at the University of Colorado. Much to my surprise, the school on May 27 reinstated head coach Gary Barnett and instituted a series of reforms. For more, see this ESPN.com article.