The BCS: The right process, the wrong conclusion

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Darren Hellwege, sports commentator

For years now I’ve been opposed—sometimes rather loudly—to the entire notion of a college football playoff. The Bowl Championship Series is imperfect but a serious upgrade from the previous system. And while several good arguments against the playoff exist (my biggest? College football is the greatest sport in America, why screw up a good thing to make it look more like the NHL?) we’ve always heard that the current system, as opposed to a playoff, kept the regular season relevant.

The BCS system should work better because it judges a team on an entire body of work. A playoff lets a team sneak in on one big name and a two- or three-loss record and then win the championship by getting hot at the end of the season. The BCS means every game matters. One of the most vital games of this season happened just three days removed from the month of August, when Boise State beat Georgia. The Dawgs lost the next week to South Carolina and haven’t lost since. Had Georgia won that first game, sitting where they are now with one early loss to USC, they’d be right in the middle of this mess. Boise State lost one game three weeks ago and they’d be in the mix for a playoff spot.

The BCS makes the most sense. There’s just one problem, and that’s the human element. People complained about the old system because it depended upon voters and their biases and not merely who did the best against the best competition. That human element could lead to a serious miscarriage of justice and leave us with the game nobody outside the Deep South wants to see — a rematch of the dreadfully boring LSU-Alabama matchup. Remember that one? The Tigers won 2-1 after getting strong relief pitching down the stretch.
OK, that’s an overstatement. But just barely. I’m a big fan of watching good defense, but any way you slice it a football game that’s 6-3 is a bore. But that’s not the reason this isn’t the right championship game. The reason is Alabama doesn’t deserve it.

The computer rankings, which look at only who won the games, who lost the games, who beat better teams, and who beat up on cupcakes, have consistently ranked Oklahoma State above other teams with the same record, and with good reason. Those rankings don’t remember that Oklahoma State’s a wrestling school, is in tiny Stillwater, Okla., has ugly uniforms, doesn’t get the TV rankings of spring football scrimmages in Alabama and last won a conference championship in 1976. All that matters is they’ve won, they’ve beaten a lot of really good teams.

The human polls, where all the biases and preconceived notions reign supreme, have OSU not only behind Alabama, which is arguable one way or the other, but behind Stanford and Virginia Tech, which is preposterous. But, when you think Virginia Tech, you think big time football. When you think Stanford, you think a strong football team. You think Oklahoma State, you think “how long till basketball starts.”

Let’s compare the resumes:

Virginia Tech: Has played only one team ranked over No. 20, and that team, Clemson, destroyed the Hokies 23-3.  Since, they’ve beaten No. 21 Georgia Tech and an absurdly over ranked No. 24, Virginia. They have one game remaining, their ACC championship game against those same Clemson Tigers.

Stanford: The king of the Pac-12, it took three overtimes to get its signature win of the year, over No. 20 Southern California. The only other ranked teams it has beaten are No. 25 Washington and (speaking of being overrated based upon history) No. 22 Notre Dame. This team is ranked this high only because of a familiar name and having the biggest name QB in college ball, Andrew Luck.

Neither of these teams belongs anywhere close to the discussion. Should Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State Saturday, LSU vs. Alabama it is.

Now, on to the REAL argument, the two teams with a legitimate claim to the spot opposite LSU in the finale.

Alabama: They’ve beaten big names, sure. Florida was No. 12 when the teams played, but the Gators are now 6-6. Nobody can argue the strength of Arkansas, that’s by far Bama’s best win. There’s Penn State, at No. 23 in the AP this week after losing to Wisconsin 45-7, a game that was clearly for a league championship. Then there’s Auburn, which dropped out of the BCS top 25 after their loss to the Crimson Tide. In the top 25 of the BCS this week are exactly two schools Bama’s beaten: Arkansas (No. 8) and Penn State (No. 21). 
Yet many seem to assume that Bama’s spot in the championship game is a birthright, a done deal. Why? Because they’re Alabama. Bear Bryant is in the College Football Hall of Fame while Pat Jones does siding commercials in Oklahoma City. Alabama’s had the same jersey for 50 years. Oklahoma State’s not worn the same one twice all season.

But…

Oklahoma State: Assuming a win in the Bedlam game on Saturday, Oklahoma State will have beaten five top-25 BCS teams. Oklahoma (No. 10), Kansas State (No. 11), Baylor (No. 17), Texas (No. 22) and Missouri (No. 25). In national rankings of strength of schedule, Oklahoma State is No. 7 in the nation. Alabama? No. 42. And by the way, Stanford is 35th and Va. Tech is 79th.

The teams have the same record, but Oklahoma State’s played far, far tougher competition. People who look closely and dispassionately at the situation should see that, after beating Oklahoma on Saturday, Oklahoma State should play LSU for the national championship. They’re not just more deserving than Alabama, they’re a lot more deserving.

Now, let’s address the argument against this, that Alabama lost to the best team in America (LSU) while Oklahoma State lost to an Iowa State team that most consider among the nation’s worst. This ISU bunch has, by the way, become bowl-eligible and has a winning record in spite of six ranked teams already this year. Now I’m not arguing Iowa State is anywhere vaguely close to LSU. But they’re certainly a stronger team than several of those beaten up by Alabama this season.

In addition to the plain old awe of the history of the Crimson Tide program that many voters feel, there’s also the conference factor. People assume any team from the SEC will be better than any team from the Big 12 (or any other conference, including the AFC or NFC.) Top to bottom the SEC is better, better than any conference. But one realizes how misleading that can be when you look at Bama’s schedule. One thing that makes the SEC great is two excellent teams, both a bit overlooked and underrated. Georgia and South Carolina are both in the SEC East and thanks to a happy little wrinkle in SEC scheduling, Alabama dodged them both. It’s hard to hand them a berth in the championship game based upon a conference schedule that includes Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Auburn. Oh, and Florida, that powerhouse which actually has a worse record than Iowa State at 6-6. And LSU to whom Bama lost. Again, their one and only impressive win was Arkansas. The Cowboys’ Big 12 schedule was far, far tougher than the bunch the Crimson Tide played in the SEC.

And finally, let’s look more closely at the Cowboys’ one loss. Now, nobody in Stillwater’s played this card and it’s probably a good thing they haven’t. When he’s not screaming at reporters, Mike Gundy’s a guy who does things the right way, and the athletic department has a lot of dignity. It’s also an athletic department that is extremely close. You may snicker at the notion that the game they lost, on Friday night on ESPN, should have been postponed because the women’s basketball team’s coaches were killed in a plane crash less than 24 hours earlier. But OSU isn’t a typical athletic department, and given that this happened at the same school just more than 10 years earlier, this had to be an immense shock to the Cowboys players. Did it affect them?
Well, a team that led the entire nation in turnover ratio, in taking the ball away a lot and giving it up very rarely, had five turnovers in the game. A QB who was a legit Heisman candidate before the game threw three interceptions. Something was very, very obviously not right mentally and emotionally with this team. That’s not an excuse, it doesn’t mean the game doesn’t count. Nor does the fact that Iowa State is a team that always pulls a crazy upset and a team that, with a winning record in a very strong conference, turns out isn’t as bad as a lot of folks seem to think.

Going through the reasons I’d strongly oppose a playoff would just be more discussion of a topic beaten to death. Suffice to say I’d hate to see the bowls disappear (and you cannot have both, any playoff system that will draw any kind of fans will have to be in the home stadium of the higher ranked teams) and the cheapening of regular season games.

I’m old enough to remember the old ways, with two teams fighting over who was best, with one winning the Rose Bowl, one winning the Orange Bowl, and everyone wondering who’s REALLY the best. What we have now is vastly preferable to the old ways, without significant damage to the history and traditions of college football.

The BCS is the right way to go. But there needs to be more importance put on the so-called “computer” polls and less on the coaches and other human polls. You don’t have to be as close as I am to big-time college football to know a guy like Gary Pinkel works some insane hours, traveling for recruiting, scouting, practices, meetings. In the last week, I’m sure he watched an awful lot of football, every minute of it involving the Kansas Jayhawks. How much time do you think he’s spent watching Stanford play this year? Or Virginia Tech? Think a coach in the ACC has spent any amount of time watching Oklahoma State? Or Alabama? I understand most coaches put these duties off on an assistant coach and there’s not much real analysis going on there.

On the other hand, the AP poll, voted on by journalists, isn’t part of the BCS mix, the journalists saying they’re supposed to report news, not make it.

Which gets us to computer polls, which are hated for some perverse reason by so many fans. They spit out computer polls as if some robot were taking over college football. The computer polls are various computations involving win-loss record, strength of schedule and other factors to determine the best teams. Calling them “computer polls” is a little silly. One could figure out the computations (if you had a whole lot of free time) on the back of a menu at IHOP. Would it then become a “pencil poll”? Is this a “computer article” because I’m typing it on a computer?

The polls don’t know history, don’t have regional or conference biases. And in this case, the computers have had it right, the human polls are wrong. Should Oklahoma State win the Bedlam game this weekend over Oklahoma, the Cowboys should go to the BCS championship game. And fans of a football game where more than nine points are scored should hope that’s exactly what happens.

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2 responses to “The BCS: The right process, the wrong conclusion

  1. Adam December 1, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    ::Slow clap::

  2. Chris December 3, 2011 at 3:07 AM

    Or maybe SC and Ga appear strong because they avoided Bama and LSU ((and in Ga’s case, Ark as well). It’s probably not a coincidence that the top of the SEC east did not play the top of the SEC west. If they had, the standings might be different. Fla, for example, had two losses to Al an La. If they swap those games for softer west opponents like Ms, and Ga or SC steps up, maybe the leader is different even if team quality is unchanged.

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