Saturday, January 03, 2009

Legitimacy for the BCS

It's popular every year to engage in the debate about the state of the BCS and how lousy a job it does, or not, in determining a national collegiate football champion.  And since I'm all about being popular, I thought I ought to jump in here and add to the noise a bit.  Maybe what I've got to say is a bit different though.  And maybe not.

I'm going to start with a basic premise about any championship series.  That premise is that it is possible for any participant to become the eventual champion of the series.  That's the promise of participation.  At the beginning of the season, every participant starts out at the same level as every other participant, and every participant can believe realistically that they have a shot at winning the overall championship.
Notice, I didn't say an equal shot.  Equality is certainly subjective, and in many championship series, there are many things that are not equal.  Ferrari has a much better chance than Force India to win the Formula One championship, and the Celtics have a better chance than the Jazz of winning an NBA title.  A lot of this has to do with money, markets, buying power, superior athletes, etc.
Still, the series itself gives every participant a fair chance to win.  There is nothing about the nature of the series that will make it so that an inferior competitor cannot win the championship.  If the Utah Jazz win enough games, they will make the playoffs - and if they make the playoffs and keep winning, they can eventually win the NBA title.  The championship is completely within the realm of possibility, something that is realistically achievable.

This, then, is the fundamental problem with the BCS.  I maintain that, in the BCS, not every participant has a chance to win the championship.  More precisely, there are a number of teams for which winning a championship is not possible, no matter what they do, without certain lucky circumstances also taking place that are outside of that team's control.

The recent Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Utah really brings this into light.  Make no mistake, Alabama is legitimately one of the top football teams in the nation.  They deserved the BCS berth they were awarded.  They deservedly spent five weeks at the #1 spot in the nationwide polls.  And they were soundly beaten in a square, fair fight by Utah.  Soundly.  Beaten.
Consider this:  The only other team to beat Alabama this year was Florida.  Florida did not handle Alabama as well as Utah did - not even close.  And no other team - not Clemson, not Georgia, not Ole Miss, not LSU - managed to beat Alabama.  Alabama is a good team.

Utah is a better team.

Hey, even I wouldn't believe it beforehand.  Oh, I wanted to.  I wanted Utah to win.  But I just didn't think it would happen.

So, here you have Utah, who soundly beat an Alabama team that was the top-ranked team in the nation for nearly half of the regular season.  How can they not at least be considered as a candidate for the national title?

The common argument here is a strength of schedule argument.  Actually, Utah's strength of schedule was not that bad.  But strength of schedule is just an excuse.  Penn State, who lost soundly to USC in the Rose Bowl, very nearly went undefeated in the Big Ten.  Had they finished their season undefeated, this year they would have been playing for the national title.  It doesn't matter that the Big Ten is a relatively weak football conference these days - an undefeated Penn State plays for the national title this year.

The same goes for USC.  Who knows whether the PAC-10 is any good this year or not?  What I do know is that the Mountain West went 6-2 against the PAC-10 this year.  That implies that Utah's schedule is even stronger than it initially seems to be.

This is why I say the BCS as it currently stands is running the risk of being declared completely illegitimate.  Any team from any of the major six conferences has a chance of playing for the national title - all they have to do is go undefeated.  Strength of schedule does not matter for them.  But a team from outside the major six conferences?  That team pretty much has no chance of winning a national title, even if they do go undefeated the whole year.  Strengthening their schedule is a crapshoot - they might schedule a team like Michigan, only to find that they are not any good and did nothing to strengthen their schedule.  And what incentive do the major conference teams have to schedule the mid-majors?  It offers them no upside whatsoever, and is not necessary for them to win a national title.

It's going to be an interesting next few days for the BCS.  If Utah is not awarded a shared national title, in my opinion the BCS will prove that mid-major schools don't have a shot at winning the championship, thus proving that the system is broken.  And they will have to break their current rules in order to do the right thing.  This should provide for some very interesting discussion.