Blowing up the BCS

Admittedly, I didn’t watch one play of last night’s BCS championship game between SEC powers LSU and Alabama. Sure, I was at the Sixers game, but realistically I could’ve watched the whole second half when I returned home from watching my Sixers win their fifth straight. Only I decided I’d rather relax with my girlfriend and watch an episode from Season 1 of The Wire instead…..for the THIRD time. I didn’t regret my decision at all; I was able to see what I “missed” on Sportscenter – something like FG, punt, FG, punt, FG, punt. I’m not one of the many criticizing last night’s game due to its lack of offense. I watched the first matchup between these two teams that ended 9-6, and I was highly entertained by the quality of football and the superiority of the defenses. However, as much I enjoyed the first game, I wasn’t exactly eager with anticipation to watch the same game all over again.

Here’s the problem: I just can’t get into college football. I should love the sport; I LOVE football in general, love college basketball for all the same intangibles (atmosphere, energy, enthusiasm of the players) that its football brethren possess as well, and there are always exciting games every weekend. Part of the problem is my extreme case of homerism; since the Philadelphia area has no Division I football program that competes on a national level in a major conference, I have no rooting interest. The emergence of Temple football has been great and I was proud to watch the Owls slaughter Wyoming in their bowl game this year. But this is only a very recent development, and unless Temple joins The Big Whatever-They’re-Going-To-Call-Themselves-Since-It-Certainly-Isn’t-Just- East-Anymore, they really won’t be a relevant factor in the big picture of college football. As for good old Penn State, I’ve had a distaste for them ever since my father, a Temple football player in the 1970s, told be stories of Penn State giving them their only loss one season and preventing them from making a bowl, since back then “there weren’t a hundred bowls like there are now”.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with college football: the bowl system. There were 35 bowl games this year, most of them with sponsored names that are longer than the list of people who actually care about the game itself. Honestly, who cares who wins the Gildan New Mexico Bowl? I’ll tell you who: the schools and their alumni and boosters, and rampant gamblers. That’s it. 35 games over the span of a month and only one of them means anything in the grand scheme of things. I don’t watch preseason or minor league sports because the outcomes don’t matter; I don’t see the difference in 34 out of the 35 bowl games. I’ll watch one if I’m home or in a bar if there’s nothing else on, because I like football, but I’d rather watch the 35th game out of an 82 game regular season for the Sixers or Flyers because they actually count. To me, the bowl system would be similar to letting all 64 (68 now?) teams play games in college basketball, but only having one actually count. After witnessing the greatness that is the NCAA tournament for decades, would this seem remotely acceptable, or even logical? Every other major (and minor for that matter) college sport has a playoff system to determine its champion, including the lower levels of college football. Why is it that the biggest and most popular sport in college athletics is the only remaining holdout?

The BCS’ reasoning for why there is no playoff system can be found here. That sounds all well and good until I show you how the BCS can have their cake and eat it too. The biggest argument for proponents of the bowl system have to do with money. The bowls, even the long winded ones no one cares about, bring big chunks of money into the NCAA, the conferences, and the individual schools. So being invited to ANY bowl is a nice little cash windfall for schools that might not be invited to the tournament I’m proposing. I have two solutions to the money problem. In my proposed 16 team tournament, we would still need 15 sites for games over the course of a month. I see no reason why the other 20 bowl games still can’t be played under the current format. Some might argue that a playoff tournament would undermine those bowls and relegate them to inconsequential status like the NIT in basketball. I would argue that they don’t matter NOW, so what’s the difference?

While the BCS argues that the current system has brought more television exposure and revenue to the sport than ever before, I would argue that they’re leaving money on the table. CBS’ current contract to air the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is for almost 11 BILLION dollars over the next 14 years. Even with the bowl payouts skyrocketing to close to $200 million dollars a year, at that rate, it would take the BCS 55 YEARS to make the same amount of money that the men’s tournament is pulling in during those 14 years. You can’t tell me that as ratings went through the roof, and office pools all over the country took place in December as well as March, that a Division I football playoff tournament wouldn’t draw similar, if not bigger money.

This isn’t about money – it’s about not sharing the money. The six major conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big East, ACC) that get automatic bids to the “BCS Championship Series” (why is it called that when there are no series of games that lead to a championship?) receive the lion’s share of that money, while in basketball the money is disbursed based on how many teams in each conference make the tournament and for each win in the tournament. So VCU boosted the income of the CAA last year greatly with their Final Four run. The more equitable disbursement of funds means that the Big Six conferences are making more money from football, despite basketball’s massive TV contracts. That also explains the rush to form mega-conferences based on football, since in football, as long as you’re in one of the Big Six conferences you don’t need to share as much of the pie. In other words, the real argument against abandoning the bowl system is “We don’t want to share our money.” As for the exposure argument, it’s barely worth debating. I think the fine folks at Boise State would agree, that as much exposure as they’ve recieved by earning major bowl bids over the last few years, that they would’ve benefited even more from being football’s Gonzaga or Butler – a team that none of the power conferences would want to see in their bracket come playoff time. For more on the shadiness surrounding the economics of the BCS, here’s a great investigative report by the Arizona Republic on the issues.

The other major argument against a playoff system is time away from school for the “student-athletes”. Please. By looking at graduation rates, at many schools, these kids aren’t in class when they’re actually on campus. It’s no coincidence that, in many conferences, the schools with the highest graduation rates are the bottom feeders of their conferences in football, with the notable exception of Stanford. Also, the student-athletes in Division I-AA, II, and III don’t seem to be overwhelmed by their playoff formats. Basketball players leave campus expecting to be away for a weekend of games over the month of March, not to mention their conference tournaments, which can last up to five consecutive days. But the football players couldn’t play one game a weekend over the course of a month? High comedy.

Two more arguments from the BCS statement are that the bowl system maintains the integrity of the regular season, and that it ensures that the top two rated teams play in the championship game. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in seeing the “top rated” teams by a computer system play for a national title. I want the two BEST teams playing for the national title and I want that decided on a football field, not by crunching numbers that still include subjective polls. As for the integrity of the regular season, wouldn’t the regular season mean more for so many teams if their chances at winning a national title weren’t over after one loss? Unless a team plays in the insanely strong SEC, if they lose ONE game their odds of playing for a national title are minimal at best. Wouldn’t playing for a tournament berth give more significance to a November game between Ohio State and Michigan and push that rivalry to even further heights? What am I missing here?

So here’s the format: there are 11 conferences in college football, plus independents like Notre Dame and the service academies. 16 teams make the dance. I’d like to see that include the 11 conference winners and five at large bids, but I’m thinking that’s extremely optimistic to think that the Big Six would give up 5 bids to smaller conferences. There’s definitely merit to the argument that putting teams like Arkansas State and Louisana Tech into a playoff format over teams like Michigan or Baylor isn’t good for ratings or the quality of the tournament. Since the tournament is so much smaller than March Madness, an honest attempt to pick the 16 best teams should be made. So I’ll pander to the BCS standings and the Big Six in order to keep them happy. The Big Six get automatic qualifiers for their conference champions; any team in the top 10 of the BCS standings, that did not win their conference, will also be included automatically. Whether or not Notre Dame maintains its privileged status is debatable; I say no, but TV may demand yes. This year’s automatic qualifiers would’ve been conference champions LSU, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Oregon, West Virginia, and Clemson, as well as top 10 BCS teams Alabama, Stanford, Arkansas, Boise State, Kansas State, and South Carolina. This year that would leave 4 bids available for at large selections by a committee similar to basketball. The amount of bids could, and would, change if more or less of the conference champions were in the top ten of the BCS standings. This year, let’s say the at large selections would’ve been Virginia Tech, Michigan, Baylor, and Georgia. Seeds would also be determined by the committee but do not need to reflect the conference champions’ automatic qualifier status; in other words, West Virginia could be a 10 seed or lower, while Alabama could still be a 2 seed, if the committee deemed it appropriate. With this system, there would be all the fun controversy that comes with who was selected for automatic bids, as well as debates over seeding. The five bowls that are a part of the championship series could host the 4 Final Eight matchups, with the last bowl hosting the Final Four and championship games on consecutive weekends. The five bowls could rotate positions similarly to the way they do now, with each taking a turn hosting the championship games. If the logistics of playing three games at one bowl location over two weeks are impossible, we simply add two bowl sites for the round of eight, and only the title game would be played in a rotating location. Most conference championship games were played on December 3; even if we skipped a week to allow the “student-athletes” time to take finals, the four rounds of playoffs, with one round played each Saturday, would’ve ended this past weekend, or last night if they want to keep the title game on a Monday.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just use the BCS standings to seed the teams that might’ve been involved this year. I’ll also attempt to avoid conference matchups in the first round. Our first round would’ve looked like this: LSU vs. West Virginia, Alabama vs. Clemson, Oklahoma State vs. Georgia, Stanford vs. Michigan, Oregon vs. Baylor, Arkansas vs. Virginia Tech, Boise State vs. Wisconsin, and Kansas State vs. South Carolina. Any college football fan would have to admit that there are some tantalizing matchups in there. Baylor/Washington was fun to watch, but imagine Robert Griffin III battling the high octane Oregon offense in a game that decided who got to play the Stanford/Michigan winner. I’m not even a college football fan and I’m already excited by the possibilities.

So there it is. There are still 20 other bowl games for the little guys and the gamblers, the big money and the best chance to play for a title stay within the Big Six conferences, the fans get a playoff system that would send interest and ratings through the roof, and maybe one of those talented SEC defenses would see a real offense in the title game. Now that’s a real Championship Series – one I might’ve skipped the Sixers game and The Wire for entirely.

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