Reign of Stupidity
The horror behind the BSC football rankings
By Randy Horick
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: If there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, there must be some especially tormented circle of hell for the BSC rankings. Such is the judgment we usually reserve for false messiahs.
As an acronym, BCS stands for Bowl Championship Series. As an idea--like Prohibition, utopian communities, and other well-intentioned debacles--the BCS stands for the preservation of a morally bankrupt ancien regime.
The aim of the BCS formula is simple: to preserve the bowl games (college football the way the framers of our Constitution intended it to be) and avert the advent of anything so crass and simple (and bowl-destroying) as a championship playoff.
Dissatisfied with the historical inability of the bowl system to deliver a New Year's matchup between the nation's highest ranked teams? We'll fix that, the money-bagging bowl boys promised. With a formula complicated enough to make Rube Goldberg's head swim, the BCS would remove the ranking process from the hands of subjective football coaches and rum-soaked sports journalists and leave the whole schmeer to the grinding, emotionless logic of supercomputers. Just input a slew of numbers for each team (wins and losses, margin of victory, opponents' wins and losses, opponents' opponents' wins and losses, average IQ of opponents' opponents, net punting average, plus two or three REALLY arcane statistics), push a few buttons and--voila!--you got your two title contenders.
All you have to do is situate your two top teams in one blockbuster bowl, and you can remove the "mythical" from the Mythical National Championship.
Of course, you don't have to wear a pocket pal full of pens to figure out the flaws in this formula: Not even at Sam's can you buy enough air freshener to hide the stink if more than two teams from major conferences finish the regular season undefeated.
That possibility looms as a distinct one, with Tennessee, Ohio State, UCLA, and Kansas State entering November with perfect marks.
If the season had ended 10 days ago, the computer would have tabbed the Buckeyes and Bruins--relegating UT (whose impressive scalps include Florida, Georgia, and Syracuse) and K-State (whose average margin of victory is 52-8) to the mourners' bench.
This week, because they narrowly escaped defeat against lowly Stanford, it's the Bruins who find themselves disrespected by the BCS' Uniblab. How, though, can you reasonably exclude a team that, if it winds up 11-0, will have beaten Arizona, USC, Oregon, Texas, Miami, and Washington?
In the Unintended Consequences Department, the computer also transmits a clear message to coaches of highly ranked teams: If you wish to remain in the running, roll up the score as remorselessly as you can.
As an alternative to this rigmarole, a playoff system makes perfect sense. It would at least ensure that no major undefeated team would be excluded from the big game simply because it didn't win by enough points. And a playoff at least would allow the fundamental issues to be settled by players on the football field, instead of within some computer's data fields.
The bowls, on the other hand, traditionally enjoyed a certain moral legitimacy. They were a pleasant, even broadening, experience, not simply the last hurdle on the track to a national title.
A trip to Southern California for the Rose Bowl, or to Miami for the Orange Bowl, or to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, for example, once provided a reward for a deserving team--an opportunity to enjoy a winter week in a warm, sunny spot, take in the parties and parades, and, while in town, play a football game.
In their efforts to ensure the survival of the bowls amid growing pressure for a playoff, however, the bowl committees, college presidents, university-financed junketeers and various other mossbacks have destroyed the very qualities that once made those games quaintly attractive and worthy of preserving.
Today, the bowl games are like any other big American corporate venture: They're about money and turf and takin' care of business. Except for well-heeled boosters who can afford the trips, the fun has mostly been squeezed out.
Consider the bowl committees' flaccid arguments against a playoff system:
Too much time for student-athletes to be away from the classroom. Oh, please. When administrators start bandying about the term "student-athlete," you know it's time to check your wallet and hide the silver.
In the end, playoffs would require no more classroom absences than one bowl trip. And remember: at most schools, exams are over by mid-December anyhow. Funny, too, how this argument never arises during the extremely lucrative NCAA basketball tournament.
Bowl games give traditional underdogs something to shoot for. If that were true, then the bowls would not increasingly have sought to lock in fourth, and fifth, and even sixth-place teams from the Big Ten or SEC. But because they're motivated by the bottom line, the bowls would rather host a 6-5 Alabama team whose fans will fill the stadium than a 9-2 Oregon team that might be more deserving. Besides, nothing about an eight-team playoff will prevent some happy 7-4 squad from enjoying a trip to Nashville for the gala Music City Bowl.
But the bowls have so much tradition. Well, so did slavery and the Spanish Inquisition. Besides, the bowls themselves already have ditched much of the pageantry--as the Cotton Bowl did with its once-grand parade because, in the parlance of the bean-counters, it generated negative revenues.
Sooner or later, we're going to have a playoff anyway. So, BCS boys, if you want to do yourselves and us a favor, listen to me.
Turn the Rose Bowl into the championship game. The Orange and Sugar can be the semis; the Cotton, Fiesta, Citrus and Gator can be quarterfinals. Add as many other bowls as you like for everyone else.
Pick the top eight teams (who would practice through most of December anyway). Play the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, like always.
Spare us the whacked-out mathematical formulae. And please, please tell Lee Corso and Beano Cook to shut up.
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