Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
04 Dec 2006
by Russell Levine
Voting controversy. The states of Ohio, Florida, and Michigan proving critical. An online red state-blue state map showing the country evenly divided -- about all that was missing from yesterday's dramatic selection of Florida as the opponent for no. 1 Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series title game on January 8 was Tim Russert and his dry-erase board.
The wait for Sunday's decisive human polls added an extra day of drama following a shocking Saturday that saw USC bounced from a date with Ohio State by its cross-town rival, UCLA. It's probably safe to assume that Roy Kramer, the former SEC commissioner who spearheaded the development of the BCS, never envisioned a day like Sunday, as an anxious fan base awaited the voting returns like a tight Election Day.
It has been known for weeks that the BCS would not enjoy a matchup free of controversy this season. With Ohio State the sole undefeated major-conference team, the primary question was how great would be the outcry from the schools that were left out. Poll voters and pundits alike appeared to embrace the candidacy of USC for the championship game following the Trojans' rout of Notre Dame last week, but when unranked UCLA pulled the upset, the second spot in the title game became a two-horse race between Florida (12-1) and Michigan (11-1).
Florida learned of USC's loss at halftime of the SEC championship game. Perhaps it was coincidence, but the news seemed to rattle the Gators, who saw a 17-7 halftime lead against Arkansas evaporate in the third quarter. But Florida rallied for a 10-point win, and speculation immediately began about whether the Gators would leapfrog idle Michigan into the second slot in the polls. Even with the game still in doubt, CBS analyst Gary Danielson began openly campaigning for the Gators to be the pick, offering an at-best questionable schedule comparison that seemed to suggest the Gators should go because the SEC's worst teams were better than the Big 10's.
As for Michigan, its biggest sin may have been not playing the last two weeks while first USC and then Florida passed it in the BCS standings. But this was no computer snafu. Because Michigan and Florida ended up in a virtual tie in the computer rankings, it was the human voters who put Florida in the title game.
It was not just the Gators' at-times ragged win over Arkansas that jumped them over Michigan. This was clearly a vote against Michigan -- and against a rematch with Ohio State, who handed the Wolverines their only loss of the season on November 18 -- as much as it was a vote for Florida, and although that violates the spirit of the BCS's goal of matching the two best teams regardless of conference affiliation, it's still understandable.
Rankled Michigan fans won't agree, but as controversies go, the snubbing of the Wolverines seems destined to rank below the BCS's greatest blunders: In 2001 and 2003, teams that were blown out in their final games and failed to win their conferences still qualified for the championship game. Though the BCS declined to make a rule change requiring championship-game participants to win their conferences, it seems those two scenarios -- in which Nebraska and Oklahoma went on to lose the national title game -- were on the minds of the voters who ultimately picked Florida over Michigan.
The Wolverines, of course, also lost their final regular season game and failed to win their conference. However, unlike Nebraska and Oklahoma, the loss was at No. 1 Ohio State and by just three points (although a late Michigan touchdown and two-point conversion made the game appear closer than it was).
Another past BCS failure also favored Florida. In 2004, Auburn went 12-0 and won the SEC title, but finished third behind fellow unbeatens USC and Oklahoma in the BCS standings. When USC destroyed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, the cries grew louder that Auburn had been wronged, especially for having gone undefeated in the powerful SEC.
Through reputation or fact, the SEC typically carries the label of the nation's toughest conference, and perhaps the voters who elevated Florida over Michigan had that Auburn situation in mind when they filled out their ballots and opted not to spurn the SEC a second time.
More than merely avoiding a game we've already seen, the thinking behind the voters' decision appears to have been that Michigan already had a crack at the Buckeyes, and that Florida had done enough to warrant a chance, even if many college football observers feel the Wolverines are a slightly better team than the Gators. It's difficult to interpret the polls any other way. A week ago, both polls maintained Michigan was a stronger team than Florida, but that changed while the Wolverines were sitting at home.
Because Michigan -- unlike Auburn in 2004 -- had a shot at the No. 1 team during the regular season, there is less mystery surrounding the Wolverines' exclusion. Of course, the topic will be revisited should Michigan beat USC in the Rose Bowl and Florida fail to be competitive against Ohio State.
Since the BCS has usually reacted to controversy by making changes, it's worth speculating whether the same might occur this off-season. The easiest change would be to eliminate from title-game consideration teams that did not win their conferences, which would have cleaned up three of the BCS's four biggest messes (including this year's). But even that change is no cure-all. Had that rule been in place this year, and had Florida lost to Arkansas and Rutgers beaten West Virginia, the field for the second spot in the championship game would have included teams with two losses (including Pac-10 champ USC coming off a loss), or a Rutgers squad ranked in the lower regions of the top 10.
In tabbing Florida over Michigan to face Ohio State, the BCS probably ended up with the less contentious matchup, but this still makes five times in the system's nine-year history that there has been a controversial selection. Given the BCS's task -- to match two out of 119 teams Division I-A teams in a single championship contest without the benefit of a playoff to help narrow the field -- this is hardly surprising.
There are those who believe that every BCS dispute brings us one step closer to a playoff system, but BCS controversy does nothing to lower the considerable logistical hurdles currently preventing a postseason tournament. Until then, we're stuck with a flawed system and dubious votes. Does that remind you of another Florida election of note?
I have argued for years that all the clamoring for a playoff is a waste of time. The existence of the bowls, the resistance of the college presidents to the idea, and the fact that the NCAA does not currently run postseason football, all make it virtually impossible to have a Division I-AA style 16-team playoff. I'm also in the camp that suggests such a tournament would be bad for the college football by devaluing the best regular season in all of sports.
However, I do think there is one major change we might see as soon as a three years from now, when the first cycle of the "double-hosting" model is complete. The double-hosting model has created the infrastructure for a one-game championship. If the college presidents will take that tiny step, they might be able to create a four-team playoff under the auspices of the BCS, not the NCAA, that would stage two semifinals and a championship using the current bowl structure.
Here's how it would work. Each year, two of the four BCS games would host national semifinals, and one of them would host the title game a week later. The Fiesta and Rose would be paired as would the Sugar and Orange to make travel easier. In year one, the Fiesta and Rose would host semis and the Fiesta would then host the winners a week later. Year two would see the Sugar and Orange hosting the semis and the Sugar hosting the championship. Then back to the Fiesta/Rose with the Rose getting the title game, etc.
In years they weren't hosting semifinals, the other two BCS games would stage games from qualified teams outside the top four. Eligibility would be determined by criteria similar to what the BCS now uses: conference champs in the BCS leagues plus set criteria for mid-majors and Notre Dame. But I would scrap the BCS standings in favor of a selection committee made up of representatives of the six BCS conferences. They would establish clear criteria for picking and seeding the four teams. In other words, if rematches are to be avoided, make it part of the charter. If weight is to be given to conference champs, write that in the mission statement.
Limiting the field to four would obviously not end the controversy. For example, who would get the fourth spot this season, assuming Ohio State, Florida, and Michigan were the top three seeds? But that's still preferable to what we have now.
I believe very strongly that a four-team playoff is the largest that could be accommodated by the bowls. In this system, only two teams play an extra game, and only one of them has to travel twice in the postseason. It's not perfect (fans would most likely have to travel to the same destination two weeks in a row) but I think it would be a significant improvement over what we have now.
If access to the big money bowls is a problem (since this system would limit the number of slots to eight, down from the current 10), the fix is an easy one. Draft another bowl into the BCS, use some of the new-found TV money to increase its payout to BCS levels and keep the number of teams at 10. This game (I'd vote for the Cotton, but it could be one of the newer, well-financed games like the Chck-fi-a or the Capital One) would not participate in the hosting-rotation.
The key to this system is the use of a selection committee that would be charged with doing nothing but watching college football all season long and picking the four best teams using any and all available information, much as the NCAA basketball committee relies on the RPI. Does anyone think that this wouldn't be preferable to using polls in which most of the voters maybe see one or two games a week? To me, the BCS formula is the root of all its problems. Both the human polls and the computer rankings seem to lack the element of logic that a selection committee could bring.
I do believe we will see either a single-game championship with the participants picked from among the four BCS-game winners or something similar to the four-team playoff I've described, perhaps as soon as the next rotation of the BCS. It's both an improvement over the current system, and feasible, which virtually every playoff proposal I've seen is not.
There were lots of candidates for the JLS Trophy this week -- and several excellent suggestions in the Seventh Day Adventure comment thread -- but I'm going off the board for my winner.
Houston coach Art Briles was certainly a viable candidate after he opted to run the ball without any timeouts on the Southern Miss goal line at the end of the first half of the C-USA title game. The play was stuffed and the Southern Miss players sat on the pile forever as the clock ran out. Even though the officials should have flagged USM for delay of game -- Houston should have had enough time to run another play -- this was a particularly unforgivable choice for one reason: It occurred on third down. When the play was stuffed, there was no move to get the Houston field-goal unit on the field on fourth down. Even had the Cougars been able to run another play, it appeared all they could do was attempt another run.
But my pick for the JLS Trophy this week is Rutgers coach Greg Schiano for his conservative play-calling in overtime against West Virginia. The college overtime format doesn't favor a team like Rutgers, which has an excellent defense, special teams, and ground game, but which doesn't pass all that well. When the Scarlet Knights forced West Virginia to go three-and-out and kick a field goal in their first OT possession, Schiano failed to grasp that he was just presented his best opportunity to win the game. His quarterback, Mike Teel, was playing the best game of his career. Instead, Rutgers ran twice, then threw short of the first-down line on third down and kicked the tying field goal.
Predictably, that was as close as Rutgers would come to the win, and they didn't embrace the chance. It has been a great year for both the Scarlet Knights and Schiano, but he needed to trust his quarterback in that spot, and give his team its best shot to get to a BCS game. He did neither, and Rutgers is headed to the Texas Bowl, which is a long way down the bowl pecking order from Miami.
Rankings that may need some further explanation include:
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
99 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2006, 2:29pm by zlionsfan