Reward College Football’s Undefeateds!/Down with Boise State!

HOWARD MEGDAL:

As my colleague doubtlessly writes below, the BCS is an atrocity, and only a playoff system would truly satisfy Steve Kornacki, the President-Elect, and any rational person of justice.

My system is in place of the current one, and simply corrects for a fundamental flaw with the BCS—mid-majors cannot play for a national championship. Period. So a team can go undefeated in Division I-A football, and unless that team is in one of a handful of conferences—it doesn’t matter. The BCS is based on the voting of coaches who don’t value the mid-majors and a strength of schedule-influenced computer system that devalues non-major conference wins.

In other words, the deck is stacked.

My system change is a simple one: if you play a Division I-A schedule, and finish undefeated, you have the chance to play one of the top-ranked BCS teams. If you beat that team, you win a share of the national title.

Now there are those that say the mid-majors who beat up on lesser schools simply aren’t good enough to play with the Floridas and Oklahomas. Some of the time, those critics may well be right. (Why, just on Tuesday, we saw unbeaten Boise State fall to Texas Christian.)

But this certainly doesn’t present a problem of an undeserving champion. After all, if these inferior unbeatens get routed, they won’t qualify for a title, anyway.

And for those that do—well, isn’t it absolutely an affirmation that they deserve a title after going through an entire schedule unscathed, then beating the very best that popular opinion—the BCS—has to throw at them? Should there be several unbeaten teams that run through this gauntlet, not only would the split title be an appropriate way to reward them, it would reinforce just how many mid-majors were likely dismissed unjustly through the years.

Should the undefeated team also be from a major conference, that team will certainly get to play for a share of the national title, too—it isn’t as if a 12-0 USC team will get overlooked by the BCS rating. But I believe codifying a title for a team like 2006 Boise State—which went 13-0, beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, yet finished no higher than fifth in any poll—is a move long overdue.

Some may also say that rewarding a win like that would delegitimize a national championship—people will just say that the win was a fluke. But this doesn’t really matter. No one believes that Villanova was a better college basketball team than mighty Georgetown in 1985—but it is Villanova, on the strength of this victory, who is considered the 1985 NCAA basketball champion. UNLV had six NBA players in 1990-91—but Duke, upsetting them once, went on to the title.

Make the rules clear, and make them fair, and people will respect the title. And if this leads to multiple teams sharing the title, and mid-majors with something tangible to play for—in a world without a true playoff, what could be a fairer way to reward excellence in college athletics?

STEVE KORNACKI:

I was seven years old when my uncle took me to the track for the first time and the words he spoke have informed my thinking ever since: Never bet the chalk. It’s a principle I’ve embraced not just from an economic standpoint (when all of the “smart” money favors one outcome, bet on the other one) but from a philosophical one: Where’s the fun in cheering for something that’s supposed to happen to happen?

I bring this up because it would be easy to construe the argument I’m about to make as a defense of the kind of conventional wisdom that has governed college football for decades, always at the expense of the little guy. Please understand that this infuriates me as much as (I hope) it infuriates you.

That said, the proposition that every undefeated team in college football should automatically be slated in a “championship” game offers only a false promise of justice.

Yes, this would offer deserving small conference teams, like Boise State in 2006, the opportunity to earn a championship that the present system wrongly denies them. But this would be a devalued championship, an empty title that would do little to sway the skeptics who so callously dismiss small conference teams now, and the process would only perpetuate the kind of thinking that gave us the ghastly BCS in the first place.

Let’s start with some simple logistics. What happens when there are multiple unbeaten small conference teams? There are two this year (Boise State and Utah), and there easily could have been two more (Ball State lost in the MAC title game and Tulsa didn’t lose until around the ninth week).

Under this proposal, they would each be paired against the top teams in the final BCS rankings. But what then? How would we decide which team plays Oklahoma, and which one gets Florida? For the sake of argument, let’s say Boise State beats Florida but Utah knocks off Oklahoma. Who’s the champion? Utah, because they’re undefeated? How do we know Florida’s not the best team? They were ranked higher than Utah and just beat an undefeated Boise State team on a neutral field. It was just the luck of the draw that they didn’t get a shot at Utah. Or what if both Oklahoma and Florida win? Then what?

Other years would have been worse. In 2004, fully five teams finished the regular season unbeaten – USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah and Boise State. As it was, Auburn, Utah and Boise State were all left out in the cold, which was example No. 32,445 why the BCS is an anti-competitive atrocity. But simply pairing every unbeaten team against a top-ranked team wouldn’t have changed much. The result still would have been confusion and injustice.

But the bigger issue is the value of a championship under such a plan. Let’s say things actually went smoothly, with one undefeated major conference team (say, Florida) and one undefeated mid-major (we’ll go with Florida Atlantic, my personal favorite) emerging from the regular season. Then, the Fightin’ Owls stun the Gators in the Orange Bowl on last-second field goal. I guess that would make them the champions. But only in the technical sense. We all know that conventional wisdom would immediately take hold: Florida Atlantic won on a fluke; if they played 99 more times, Florida would win every time; and so on. We heard this all when Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a terrific story, but if you dared suggest that it meant Boise State actually deserved consideration for the national title, you were ridiculed – even though they’d just beaten the Big 12 champions and even though they were the only undefeated team left standing.

The real problem here is the misplaced premium we place on going undefeated in college football. Conferences vary widely when it comes to strength, depth and parity; in any given year, 12-0 in the Big East may the same as 9-3 in the SEC.

Remember 2007, when Hawaii posted a 12-0 regular season? Under this proposition, they would have played in the “championship” game, against Ohio State, I guess. But was Hawaii the best mid-major team? It kills me to say this (lover of underdogs that I am, I embraced their cause last year), but of course not: Their gaudy record was made possible by wins over the likes of Utah State (2-10), Idaho (1-11), New Mexico State (4-9), and UNLV (2-10), not to mention the two I-AA opponents (Northern Colorado and Charleston Southern) and a miraculous escape job against Pac-10 bottom-feeder Washington (then in the midst of what has become a 17-game losing streak).

There were far stronger small conference teams in 2007, but none of them scheduled their way to an undefeated season like Hawaii did. This proposal would do nothing to reward or recognize those teams or to ensure that the most qualified mid-majors got a crack at the big boys.

I agree with the principle behind this proposal. It is unjust to punish any team that has won every game it has played. And because the BCS is so fundamentally rotten, I wouldn’t lose sleep if we scrapped it for this plan. But why waste our energy on such meager, piecemeal reform? The only real answer is a playoff. If a mid-major team could survive that gauntlet, no one in America would deny their claim to the championship. I’m afraid the Boise State example proves that the same isn’t true when a mid-major wins one big bowl game.

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