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13 Jan 2009
by Russell Levine
It is probably fitting that the 2008 college football season ended in a pile of confusion. Sure, Florida grabbed the BCS crown, and finished atop the AP poll by a considerable margin. But in a year that ended with four different teams receiving first-place votes in the Harris poll, and three in the AP, it can hardly be said that Florida's championship is a definitive one. The muddled finish comes on the heels of a season that failed to deliver the classic games and memorable finishes that 2007 did.
In the end, it won't matter. Florida will be the team selling the championship t-shirts and the Sports Illustrated commemorative issues. It will be chalked up as another year that the BCS "did not work" by delivering a clear-cut, controversy-free title game. I put that phrase in quotation marks for a reason -- because I don't think it's accurate. The BCS is designed to select the nos. 1 and 2 teams in the nation by an agreed-upon formula. By definition, it "works" every year. The reason it doesn't "work" in the eyes of the public is that it has very little chance to. In any season in which there are more than two obvious candidates for the top two spots, the BCS will be viewed as having failed. In reality, it only succeeds in those years in which it gets lucky, the last being in 2005 when Texas and USC when wire-to-wire atop the polls and were the only two undefeated teams at the end of the season.
As that 2005 season fades further into the memory bank, it starts to look more and more like an outlier. Not only was the matchup controversy-free, but the participants delivered an incredible contest with a thrilling finish. Since then, we've had three years, three controversies, and three unsatisfactory games. Please don't tell me last Thursday's Oklahoma-Florida game was a classic just because it was close in the fourth quarter. It was a ragged game, plagued by four turnovers and 12 penalties, that never developed anything close to a rhythm. Competitive? Yes. Classic? Not by a long shot.
The fact that this year's championship was far from clean doesn't bother me. I'm more bothered by the preceding regular season, which was a far cry from a 2007 campaign that may have been the most memorable ever.
I've never hidden the fact that I'm not much of a playoff proponent. I'd much rather enjoy the 2007 season from start to finish -- messy BCS picture and all -- then have a ho-hum regular season capped off by three weeks of excitement. I have always accepted that the national champion of college football is a mythical title, one borne out of a century of bowl tradition that had nothing to do with crowning a champion. I don't mind that college football is different from every other sport in this regard, and I'm willing to argue titles from year to year with the caveat that we don't really know who the best team is most years (excepting 1997, of course).
In that regard, I don't find the BCS offensive. It does its best to create a college version of the Super Bowl. Sometimes you get Texas-USC and it feels like Super Bowl 42, more often you get Florida-Ohio State and it feels like Super Bowl 29, with the Steelers on the sidelines knowing that they were actually a better team than San Diego.
No, what bothers me about the state of college football is not the BCS -- it's what has happened to the regular season. When Michigan won its most-definitely-not-mythical national title in 1997, its non-conference slate consisted of Colorado, Notre Dame, and Baylor. While Michigan was always a team that traditionally scheduled hard, it was hardly alone in that regard. Today, almost no school plays that kind of schedule. Those that do are often considered foolish. Why risk taking yourself out of the BCS chase early with a big non-conference loss? Contending teams would rather treat the non-conference games like preseason games in the NFL and schedule four guaranteed wins, usually with all four games coming at home.
Memorable non-conference games have become so few and far between that the few that do get staged take on added meaning -- think Ohio State-Texas and Ohio State-USC in recent years.
The loss of non-conference schedule comes for several reasons, one being that conference titles are less valuable than they used to be as everyone seeks to contend for the larger goal of a BCS championship. Because of that, they don't want to risk a non-conference loss. Two, there is so much pressure to bring in revenues in the BCS conferences, to pay for the enormous coaching salaries and outsized support staffs, that the sport's Tiffany programs almost cannot afford to play a non-conference road game, which means very few home-and-home series between super powers.
If I'm encouraged by anything in this regard, it's that teams (at least Alabama, anyway) seem to be willing to play a neutral-site non-conference game at the beginning of the year. Alabama opened its 2008 season in memorable fashion by thrashing Clemson at the Georgia Dome, and will oppose Virginia Tech at the same venue this September.
With the added revenue streams available at a neutral site (namely, beer!) I think this is an idea that could take off. The TV networks aren't interested in airing crappy games any more than we are interested in watching them. I'd look for ABC/ESPN to push for more of these games in the future by making it financially worthwhile for the participating teams to take the scheduling risk.
In the end, maybe there will be something we take away from 2008, but we won't know for sure for some time. Maybe if in five years we're watching a four-, six-, or eight-team playoff, we'll be able to look back on 2008 and say that it was the tipping point for finally getting enough momentum to replace the BCS with something more effective. On the one hand, there is so much politics and so much money involved that I'll only believe a playoff exists when I'm watching an opening-round game. On the other hand, there is TOO much money for it not to happen eventually. If it happens in the next decade, perhaps Utah, for upsetting Alabama and further muddying the 2008 postseason, will get the credit.
No matter what happens, I won't be the one writing about it at FO. This column will serve as the swan song for me at Football Outsiders. It has been a great run, but life has gotten complex to the point that I can no longer devote the time and effort these columns, this site, or its readership deserve.
I have had a tremendous amount of fun writing for FO, and I remain grateful to Aaron for taking a chance on me back in 2003. As I gradually found my voice and morphed into "the college guy," I took pride in watching a college football audience grow at a stats-centric NFL site. I was thrilled to see Aaron add a couple of terrific college writers in Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly, and I think the coverage of the college game is in good hands going forward.
Since I was never much of a stats guy (especially considering where I have been writing these past five years), I will leave you with some final numbers:
108: The number of Confessions of a Football Junkie columns hosted at FO.
84: Seventh Day Adventures.
37: Seventh Day Adventure podcasts.
19: Number of different guests to appear on an SDA podcast.
750: Number of games picked in SDA since 2004.
359-374-17: My final record picking games.
41-38-4: My final record on Fred Edelstein locks.
.490: Overall winning percentage of SDA picks.
.518: Overall winning percentage of Fred Edelstein locks.
(Ed. Note: We'll really miss Russell, because if not for him, we never would have had college football coverage on Football Outsiders. From an NFL perspective, we're also losing our only NFC South fan. We will be looking for at least one new college football writer, and perhaps more; if you are interested, keep checking out the site over the next few days and look for that announcement. -- Aaron Schatz)
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