Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Solution to the BCS College Football Mess (Keywords: BCS, Playoff, Bowl, Boise State, TCU, Oregon, Florida, Alabama, National Championship)

[Note to my readers: This blog has absolutely nothing to do with ministry. Nothing in the least. It isn't an allegory or a parable or a ministry metaphor. It is just about College Football. If you aren't interested in College Football, don't read it.]

A few years ago a parishioner of mine took a trip to Portland, Oregon and returned bearing a lovely gift, a University of Oregon shirt. It is a long sleeve, green shirt with the word “Oregon” in bright yellow letters across the front—the colors of the U of O. Two weeks ago I wore the shirt around town and someone stopped me to ask, “How’s your team doing?”

The Oregon Ducks are not my team, but I still had an answer. “I have no clue. They’ve played a bunch of weak opponents and blown them all out.” This is exactly the truth. The Ducks football team, the #5 team in the nation at the time I was asked about them, had demolished its three opponents by a combined score of 189-13. They had played two absolute cupcakes and also dispatched the University of Tennessee, a team that is usually solid but appears to be having a down year. Oregon will have its turn to compete. The next week they began a streak of nine straight games in the Pac-10 conference. Over that stretch they will play four games against teams currently ranked among the top 25 in the country. But, with perennial powerhouse USC crippled by sanctions, Oregon looks to be in great shape to make it to a BCS Bowl game and has an outside chance of playing for the national championship.

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Oregon lost its first game of the season to upstart Boise State, an emerging football dynasty that plays in a lesser conference. In frustration over the loss, Oregon star running back LeGarrett Blount punched a Boise State player after the game and was suspended for the season. Even without the services of their suspended star, Oregon went on to have a good year, win the Pac-10, and play in the Rose Bowl. But, that is somewhat of a consolation prize. The loss in the first week of 2009 all but disqualified them from having a chance to compete for the national championship. Is it any wonder that they scheduled a slate of cream puffs at the start of the 2010 season?

This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with ministry. It is entirely about college football. More specifically, it is about college football’s inept and infuriating way of determining a national champion.

A Short History of the BCS
In 1992 the Bowl Coalition, the precursor to the BCS, “was formed to increase the likelihood of matching the top two teams in the nation [in the championship game] while creating other exciting bowl pairings that would appeal to fans and would be based on the full season's results. When No. 1 Miami met No. 2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl [following the 1992 season], it was the first pairing of the top two teams in a bowl game since Oklahoma and Miami played for the national title in the Orange Bowl after the 1987 season. The Crimson Tide beat the Hurricanes and won the national championship in both the coaches and the writers polls.”

While that language, taken from the BCS website, sounds good, it is incomplete. In 1992 a third team, Texas A&M, was undefeated heading into bowl play. Should they have had a shot at the championship? Fortunately, they lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Had they won that contest, they would have certainly had an argument that they deserved a share of the national championship. In fact, in the past 17 seasons there have been only three seasons in which there wasn’t any doubt as to which two teams deserved to play for the national championship. What’s more, there has been several times when an undefeated team has not had the opportunity to compete for a national championship.

The Current System
In the current system, football teams play a 12 game season. Following the season, there are 34 bowl games and (arguably) the top 68 football teams in the country are invited to play in one of the bowls. With the exception of one outlier, the minimum payout per bowl game in 2009 was $750,000. The maximum payout, paid in each of the five BCS bowls, was $17 million.

The BCS bowls invite the regular season winners of the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC) plus four at-large teams. Those four at-large berths can go to a second place team from a major conference, an extraordinary team from a minor conference, or to an independent school. (Aside from two of the military academies, the only independent football school is Notre Dame. Notre Dame does this for financial reasons; because of its storied history it has its own television deal which earns it more money than it could earn joining a league and having to share its revenue. Interestingly, BYU stands ready to try its hand as an independent believing that it has a natural nation and worldwide LDS fan base, enough of whom will want to see every game televised.)

As I have for the past several years, this year I continue to root for teams from the minor conferences. In 2006, an undefeated Boise State team was not invited to compete for the national championship and went on defeat Oklahoma in one of the most thrilling football games ever played. In 2008, an undefeated Utah team was not invited to compete for the national championship and went on the handily defeat Alabama. Last year, 5 undefeated teams including two teams from minor conferences, Boise State and TCU, were invited to BCS bowls. Undefeated Alabama beat previously unbeaten Texas for the championship while unbeaten Boise State prevailed over TCU, but did not get a sniff of a chance to play for the national title.

I think hardly anyone believes that the current system is ideal. The debate hinges around what a better system would look like.

A College Football Playoff?
For decades, college football fans have called for some sort of a playoff system in college football in order to more fairly determine a national champion. It is an issue that has even attracted major political interest. Weeks after he was elected President, Barack Obama appeared on Monday Night Football and called for a college football playoff.
“I think it is about that we had playoffs in college football. You know, I'm fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams, the top eight teams right at the end, you've got a playoff; decide on a national champion.”
Many different formats for a playoff have been suggested. The most basic of these is the “And-1.” In other words, following the BCS bowls, one more game should be played pairing the two top-ranked teams. But, there are problems with this suggestion. In some cases, this would help to clarify a national champion. In other cases, there would be a dispute about which teams would compete in the “And-1” game. For example, last year we could have had a clear national championship by having Alabama play Boise State in an “And-1” game. However, what if Florida had not beaten Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl? If Cincinnati had won, there would have been two undefeated teams claiming a right to compete for the title. In many years there would have been substantial debate as to which teams deserved to play in a final game. In other years, the season would have ended with a clear national champion and no team could claim a right to challenge.

Obama’s idea of an 8 team playoff is another common suggestion. However, just looking at last year’s ten teams who played in BCS bowls, it isn’t immediately clear which two teams deserved to be excluded. All ten teams had an argument for inclusion in an 8 team playoff.

Others have suggested an expanded playoff with 12 teams like the NFL playoffs or 16 teams like the NBA or NHL playoffs. The problem with this is makes the college football season too long. It means three extra games for the teams playing in the championship game. Those teams are going to send dozens of players to the NFL and the extra wear and tear has a greater chance of costing the stars their livelihood. A four or five week playoff would have other logistical complications. Would some of these games be hosted by schools? Well, then what do you do with campuses that are closed down for winter break? Are the playoff games hosted at desirable warm weather locations like the bowl games? Well, then how do fans travel in the way they do for bowl games?

But, even if the logistics could be figured out and even if we decided that it was an acceptable risk to ask the players to play up to three additional games, it wouldn’t solve all the problems. Allow me to digress for a few moments and consider the arguments of those who argue against a college football playoff. The main argument is seldom stated. The main argument is that the bowl system, with 34 bowls with corporate sponsors, is extremely lucrative and there is no need to change this system. But, nobody is willing to admit that this is the real reason. Instead, there are two common arguments made against a playoff. The first argument is that people like the debate and that the debate is good for the sport. The second argument is that it makes the regular season more critical.

Unfortunately, both these arguments are specious. While debate is good for ESPN and sport radio talk shows, the debate is also infuriating. Nobody would suggest that we cancel the Super Bowl so that we can debate which team, the AFC or NFC champion, is better. The second argument is also problematic. The regular season is critical. Lose one game and your national championship aspirations are dashed, as we found out last year when Oregon lost to Boise State. However, schools have largely sought to avoid heartbreaks of this nature by scheduling schools against whom they can run up the score. Last weekend’s epic “contests” included:
#2 Ohio State defeating Eastern Michigan 73-20
#11 Wisconsin demolishing Austin Peay 70-3
#13 Utah cruising against San Jose State 56-3
#18 Iowa beating Ball State 45-0
#21 Michigan dominating Bowling Green 65-21
#25 Michigan State blowing out Northern Colorado 45-7
Arguments about the regular season being more competitive have to be compared against the reality that each team schedules two or three presumed drubbings each year. Take perennial national title contender Florida, for instance. They play in the most competitive conference in football and face a ruthless gauntlet of games against teams like Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, and Arkansas. Every year they also schedule mid-season tune-ups against hapless victims like The Citadel and Appalachian State.

And, this is a problem whether you have 10 BCS bowl games or a playoff with 8 or 16 teams. The regular season is short. That extra loss, whether it is your first or second or third, knocks you out of a chance at being number one. So, the schools schedule a couple of patsies so that they have a better shot. For most schools, competitive scheduling is a disadvantage. Something is deeply broken when competition is a disincentive.

My Suggestions for Fixing College Football
While I don’t believe that the current system works, I don’t think that a playoff is the best fix. As I argued above, I believe that a playoff system that is large enough to include all worthwhile competitors makes for a season that is too long and is too risky for football’s youngest stars. Further, a playoff system does nothing to combat the tendency for teams to schedule non-competitive games during the regular season.

So, here is my recommendation for fixing the college football season. Before the season there will be a preseason poll. The preseason poll will rank the top 32 teams in the country. Those are the 32 teams that will be invited to play for the National Championship. Other teams will still play a regular season. For those 32 teams, the season will work the following way. There will be one preseason game that does not count. The preseason game will be a tune-up game against a lesser opponent. This will allow those 32 teams to play, for example, a neighboring school and help that school financially. When Oregon beats Portland State 69-0, it is a loss for the fans, but it is a win for Portland financially. Have the game be an exhibition.

The first four to five games of the season will be played against conference rivals. For example, if KU is ranked among the top 32 teams at the beginning of the season, KU would play natural rivals Mizzou and K-State, one other team from the Big 12 north and one team from the Big 12 south. This arrangement allows schools to continue to play their natural rivals. A fifth game would be added in cases in which a team plays an out-of-conference natural rival, such as Mizzou playing Illinois or Florida playing Florida State.

The next part of the season would be “pool play.” Each of the 32 teams would be divided in four pools of eight teams. During the next 7 games of the season, every team would play every other team in its pool. The team with the best record in each pool would then play a simple Final Four playoff to decide the National Championship. If two teams tie for having the best record in their pool, their body of work during the first four or five weeks of the season would be used to determine the best team in each pool.

This system is an improvement over the old system in many ways. For one thing, the “pool play” portion of the season would guarantee that competitors have balanced schedules, something that is currently sorely missing in college football.

Some may object that it is exclusionary to make only 32 teams eligible for the championship. But, when has a team that began the season outside of the top 32 ever had a shot at the title? Heck, Boise State may go undefeated for a second consecutive season and still not have a shot at the title. Oregon or Oklahoma or TCU (or all three) may also go undefeated this year and not have a shot at the championship. However, to promote competitiveness, the four (or eight) worst teams in “pool play” will be ineligible to compete in pool play the following year which guarantees that the best teams that were excluded the year before will be included the following year.

While the top four teams compete in a mini-playoff for the National Championship, all other teams will be eligible to compete in bowl games with the 28 “pool play” teams receiving automatic bids.

Give me a call College Football. Let's talk.