27 Dec 2005
by Russell Levine
People evaluating the Bowl Championship Series tend to fall into one of two camps: either the system failed entirely, or it got lucky. Even in a season such as this one -- when the BCS championship is a highly anticipated, controversy-free matchup between the nation's only undefeated teams -- most college football observers are loath to give the eight-year-old system any credit.
But consider the alternative for a minute. Had this season played out as it did, say, 15 years ago, before the existence of the BCS or either of its precursors, the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance, #1 USC would be playing in the Rose Bowl, and #2 Texas would be in the Cotton Bowl.
In that scenario, the national title would be very much in the hands of the sportswriters and coaches who vote in the two major polls. USC would almost assuredly win the title -- an honor so subjective it was routinely referred to as the "mythical national championship" -- with a win in Pasadena, but a sloppy victory coupled with a Texas blowout might have allowed the Longhorns to sneak into the top of the polls.
The BCS represents a vast improvement over that scenario. By lifting conference tie-ins for its title game, it is able to at least put on a game between somebody's idea of the top two teams. The problems have been in picking those teams when there is either a lone worthy candidate or more than two.
This is the eighth season of the BCS, and it's currently batting .500 in terms of avoiding controversy. The four contentious years -- 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004 -- occurred for a variety of reasons. In 2000, Florida State was chosen to oppose Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl despite the fact that Miami finished with the same record and beat the Seminoles head-to-head. Miami fans cried foul -- though they conveniently overlooked that Washington also finished with the same record and beat Miami head-to-head. Formula changes rewarding wins against top teams were subsequently instituted to prevent such a scenario from occurring again, and thus far it hasn't.
The ugliest years for the BCS were in 2001 and 2003, when Nebraska and Oklahoma, respectively, reached the championship game despite not winning the Big 12 title. The Nebraska scenario was particularly galling: the Cornhuskers were annihilated by Colorado in their regular-season finale and failed to even qualify for the Big 12 championship game. Oregon, meanwhile, finished 10â€“1 and won the Pac-10 title, but was relegated to the Fiesta Bowl against Colorado.
In 2003, Oklahoma was the nation's only undefeated team entering conference championship week, but was routed by Kansas State for the Big 12 title. Despite the 28-point loss, the Sooners remained atop the BCS standings and went on to lose to LSU in the Sugar Bowl, while USC failed to qualify for the title game despite being #1 in both human polls. When USC won the Rose Bowl, the Trojans and LSU shared the title -- the exact scenario the BCS was created to prevent.
A simple BCS rule change could have prevented the problems of 2001 and 2003, yet it still hasn't been made. The BCS should require participants in the championship game to come from the list of automatic qualifiers -- conference champions of the six BCS conferences, or Notre Dame, or any mid-major conference champion that meets the requisite qualifications. Doing so would have relegated those Nebraska and Oklahoma squads to at-large berths in other BCS games, rather than unseemly appearances in the title contest.
Of course, like anything that makes perfect sense in college football, that rule change is unlikely to occur. And just like every other nonsensical thing about the sport, this one is also driven by money. To eliminate teams that fail to win their conference from title-game contention would be to unfairly punish the conferences that stage league championship games (like the ACC, Big 12, and SEC). And since the BCS serves at the behest of those conferences (as well as the Big East, Big Ten, and Pac-10) it certainly isn't going to ruffle their feathers by discouraging revenue-generating league title games.
Last year was the ultimate nightmare for the BCS. For the first time in its history, three major-conference teams finished undefeated. Auburn went 12â€“0 in the regular season, but was ranked third in both human polls and by the BCS, and was left out of the USC-Oklahoma Orange Bowl. Since nobody has yet figured out how to play a single game with three participants, this scenario is likely to occur again under the BCS system. At least Auburn was a consensus #3, somewhat mitigating the controversy.
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The greatest failing of the BCS is that it changed the nature of the college football debate, and in doing so, set itself up to be perceived as far less successful than it actually is. College football is a unique sport, and survived -- thrived even -- for over a century without much concern about how its champion was crowned. Even as the proliferation of games on cable TV increased attention on the sport, most fans seemed to accept that some years, the bowls would provide a championship matchup, while in others, the writers and coaches would have the final word.
But by placing all the emphasis on creating an annual #1 vs. #2 game that it didn't always have the ability or the wherewithal to create, the BCS has turned itself into little more than fodder for late-night comedians. Most of the criticism is spawned by what the BCS isn't and will never be: a playoff.
Perhaps that's about to change. Beginning next season,the BCS will add a fifth game -- the plus-one game. For now, this just increases the number of participants from eight to 10. But the most interesting thing about the new game is the logistics. Rather than add a fifth bowl partner, the BCS will continue to rotate the title game among the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, and Rose Bowls, each of which will host two games once every four years. The first game will be the regular bowl game, on or about New Year's Day, and the second will be the title game, played on the same field a week later.
If you think that sounds like laying the groundwork to somehow pick two lucky teams from among the four BCS-bowl winners for the title game the following week, you're not alone.
The pace of change in college athletics is nothing if not glacial, so we should probably give the BCS four to eight years to kick the tires on its new five-game model before the championship gets turned into a one-game playoff. If it can pull it off, the BCS may finally have found the optimal balance between maintaining the traditional bowl system and providing an annual, undisputed champion.
For now, the BCS will probably continue to bat .500, which is maybe not as impressive a feat as it is in baseball, but it's also not the miserable failure it's perceived to be.
Falcons coach Jim Mora picks up his second JLS Trophy honor this season for his actions in the closing minutes of Atlanta's OT loss to Tampa Bay Saturday.
Mora received a lot of attention for the cell-phone call he made at the two-minute warning of OT, trying to determine how a tie might affect the team's playoff chances. Failing to receive an adequate answer, Mora elected to go for the win in the final two minutes. Fine -- no problems there. I won't hold Mora responsbile for not knowing every single playoff scenario. Someone else in the team administration should have had that angle covered. Where Mora truly dropped the ball was in electing to punt three plays later, on fourth-and-2 from deep in his own territory. If the Falcons truly were "going for the win," then why punt at all? Why not go for it? It was their only chance at victory. Sure, failing to make it would have all but assured a loss, but that's what ended up happening after Tampa Bay returned the punt to midfield. With just two yards to go, the Falcons had to go for it. Instead, they'll be going home.
Portions of this article appeared in Friday's New York Sun.
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