So Much For a BCS Rematch…
December 11, 2006 by Zach Jones • Print Story •
This column was supposed to be about why Michigan fans could whine all they wanted, but still didn't deserve to play Ohio State for the national championship in this year's Fiesta Bowl. It was supposed to about strength of schedule, rewarding preseason ambition, etc.
I'm telling you, I was almost finished making an eloquent argument for Pete Carroll's Trojans and their right to play in a third straight national championship game. Then, against a middling UCLA team and on national television, the Trojans made an eloquent argument for their right to return to Pasadena in three weeks and face-off against the Wolverines in the Also-Ran Bowl.
Yep, it was a disaster for about a day and a half. That is, until Florida was inexplicably selected for the big game. Columnist manna from the heavens. How the Gators, who are admittedly a good team with a strong resume, were selected over the Wolverines, whose lone loss was a three-pointer in Columbus, should be the stuff of an hour-long Unsolved Mysteries special.
In today's NCAA, however, it's no mystery at all. Coaches unwilling to endorse a double-jeopardy rematch between Michigan and Ohio State took Florida's 38-28 victory over Dec. 2 as the perfect excuse to drop the Wolverines in the polls (some as low as fifth) and give the Gators a chance at their first national championship since 1996. And what was Michigan doing while all this was going on, you ask? Sitting at home and watching Florida leap from fourth place to second in the polls after beating an Arkansas team that USC housed by 36 points in Fayetteville earlier this year.
There are a couple of things that strike me as interesting about the Florida-Michigan situation, but before I get to those, I want to take a short break and address the chants of "BCS SUCKS" that seem to be ringing from coast to coast these days.
Since its inception, the Bowl Championship Series has caught nothing but flack from media, coaches and players. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for this. One, in our sound-byte news culture, nobody ever sits down to think about the enormity of the task the BCS (or any other college football championship system) is asked to perform. Second, our standards for the BCS are irrational and ridiculous.
"I think the national championship should be decided on the field, not by computers." It might be the most chic cliché in the sports world at the moment, but I'm pretty sure none of the people saying it actually knows what it means. The average college football team plays either 12 or 13 games in the course of a season. Why is this significant? Because it means that there will always be a cluster of teams with identical records. This is why the NFL (which has the same problem with a 16-game season) uses tie-breaking procedures to decide playoff seeding.
In the absence of two clearly superior and undefeated teams, the task of the BCS or any other system will be to make (often arbitrary) decisions about whose one-loss record is better than the others. In the nightmare scenario that three teams go undefeated, the BCS is then faced with eliminating a zero-loss team from championship contention (sorry, Auburn fans).
The bottom line is this: somebody's going to be disappointed no matter what. Even the fabled playoff system will have teams on the bubble clamoring for respect. Look at the NCAA's basketball tournaments, which include 64 teams each season. Which of those selection processes has been free of controversy? Exactly.
Second, those who love to bash the BCS love to do so by comparing it to a playoff system. This is like calling your girlfriend worthless because she doesn't look like Heidi Klum and cook like Wolfgang Puck. A playoff system isn't in the cards (at least not in the next few years), and it's not the fault of the BCS as a system.
What we should really be comparing are the BCS and the previous system — what was it, again? Oh yeah, a bunch of teams randomly assigned to bowl games based on arbitrary conference affiliations. After the nation's two or three best teams finished winning their games, coaches and sports writers got to huddle and decide what it all meant. It wasn't a championship — it was an election.
As long as schools across the country stand to rake in almost $100 million under the current bowl system, don't expect a playoff any time soon. And in the meantime, BCS critics, try to remember that a championship game guaranteed to feature two of the country's three best teams is nothing to take for granted.
Four hundred words later, back to the Gators, Wolverines and three weeks of non-stop bitching from Skip Bayless.
The most interesting thing about these late-season debates is the way they reveal an underlying value system that voters may or may not be willing to acknowledge.
Tenet No. 1: Voters will value the last thing they saw.
The Michigan/Florida situation is a case-in-point, and it's the reason that the Wolverines' coaching staff is already reconsidering its long-standing policy of finishing its schedule early and giving its players the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend off. The fact that Michigan sat idle while Florida posted a solid win over Arkansas was, if not a valid reason for moving the Gators ahead in the polls, certainly a convenient excuse.
It's also human nature. Take the case of USC, which was a lock for the Fiesta Bowl until its loss to UCLA. The Trojans sat in third place in nearly every ranking system heading into Michigan's meeting with Ohio State. Despite being a one-loss team trailing a pair of undefeateds, USC was virtually assured of moving past whoever came up short in Columbus.
Why? Certainly there was a notion that USC's schedule made its one-loss record better than that of either Michigan or Ohio State. Then again, there was a sense that a losing team "must" drop in the rankings, even if it's only a three-point road loss to the best team in the country. It was the same logic (only in reverse) that may have compelled some voters to boost Florida past losing USC and idle Michigan last Saturday, head-to-head evaluations be damned.
Tenet No. 2: Conference runners-up can't play for a national championship.
Once again, this is simply a product of laziness and conference politics, but it was enough to keep Michigan out of a national championship. The national championship is for elite teams, not really good teams. If your conference champ isn't elite, they don't get to go. Period.
I know the folks in the Southeastern Conference are so used to hearing that they're the country's strongest football conference that a spot in the Fiesta Bowl for their conference champ seems like some sort of a birthright. But here's the thing. SEC teams just aren't that special. Don't get me wrong — the fifth-best SEC team is probably better than the fifth-best team in any other conference, and the depth of talent in the SEC is probably the country's best.
But here's a project for somebody with a lot of time on his hands: find a dominant SEC team. The Gators are softer than bread pudding and produced a total of zero impressive wins. Come to think of it, can you find any truly dominating performances for Urban Meyer's crew? No, because the Gators don't dominate (except for you, Central Florida). Florida's signature wins were a one-point squeaker over a solid-not-great Tennessee team, a 13-point win over LSU (at home), and the SEC championship win over Arkansas.
In the meantime, the Gators managed to make it interesting against a brutal Georgia team (if you almost lose to Colorado at home, you're brutal), and they escaped from what should have been statement games against South Carolina (at home) and at Florida State. Watching Florida on a weekly basis, was there not a sense that they could lose to almost anybody at any time in any stadium? 'Nuff said.
Tenet No. 3: Championship contenders shouldn't have to play a team they've already beaten during the regular season.
Sadly, this is the average Florida voter's strongest argument. Should Ohio State play Michigan for the national championship and lose, wouldn't something deep in your soul rebel against the Buckeyes' loss, given that the season series would be tied, 1-1? It does seem a bit unfair that Ohio State's earlier victory would count for virtually nothing if this scenario were to unfold in January.
At the same time, however, it's important to remember what the national championship game is all about. It's the nation's two best teams playing each other. End of story. Over the course of the regular season, two teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack (even if it involves those very two teams battling to a standstill) and then meet at a neutral site for a final, deciding game.
Does a loss to the best team in the country (by three points on the road, no less) disqualify Michigan from being the second-best team in the country? Hardly. In fact, it's exactly the outcome one might expect if we posited ahead of time that two identical teams were to play at one team's home field with a tremendous home advantage: a three-point win for the home team, complete with plenty of fireworks for both sides.
For those who feel a 1-1 tie in the season series shouldn't result in one team's receiving a national championship and the other heading home empty-handed, remember that the first game was played at Ohio State, while the second would be in Tempe, Arizona. If Michigan were to win the second game, on the biggest stage in the sport and with no home-field advantage, perhaps that win should count for a little more.
In the end, all of this is immaterial, because the voters decided last week that they knew what was "best" and "right" for college football and its national championship.
Ohio State vs. Florida. Quite frankly, it tells us a lot more about those voting in the polls than it does about the players playing in the game.