Monday, November 28, 2005

College Football's Secret Shame
By Zach

Editors's Note: Originally posted on Life of Sports

So the sports media was all atwitter yesterday because Notre Dame had become BCS-eligible by beating Stanford. That’s right, an impressive seven-point win over the now below-.500 Cardinal. The Irish needed a touchdown with less than a minute left to overcome a one-point deficit and keep their Fiesta/Orange/Sugar Bowl hopes alive. Now, despite standing eighth in the latest BCS rankings, it appears almost certain that Notre Dame will be headed to a BCS bowl game. It’s just another sign that it’s more important to “travel well” and have a “national fanbase” then to win games.

The BCS may draw the most criticism when there’s controversy over who should play in the title game, so assuming form holds we should avoid that nauseating debate this year. The truth is, without a playoff system there’s no way for any system to handle three unbeaten teams, or anything but two unbeaten teams really. Still, the hidden controversy is the fact that every year undeserving teams end up making tens of millions of dollars by sneaking into the big money BCS games while other, better, more deserving teams end up in second-tier bowl games.

This happens for two reasons. The first is that the BCS has promised automatic berths to the winners of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10, and SEC. Last year, the argument was that the Big East, without Miami, Virginia Tech, and now Boston College didn’t deserve an automatic berth. 9-1 West Virginia has managed to quell those cries, though I would point out that their schedule leaves much to be desired. They beat Wofford, Maryland, and East Carolina out-of-conference and got hammered by Virginia Tech. Beyond that, all they did was take advantage of a weak Big East. For that, they get millions?

But it’s not just the Big East. The dirty secret of college football is that most of the Big Six teams aren’t that good. Look at the Big 12. Or, as I call it, the Big 1 and the Little 11. I defy you to find a team outside of Texas with a single quality win out of conference. Here’s what you might find. A home win by Iowa State over a 7-4 Iowa team. The vaunted Texas Tech Red Raiders? Their out-of-conference schedule consisted of Florida International, Sam Houston State, and Indiana State. Still, they’ll coast to a quality bowl because they play in the Big 12. Sure, they got absolutely destroyed by Texas, but at least they beat Baylor! The Big 12 is notorious for this. None of the teams schedule any tough out-of-conference games, and then rely on the conference’s reputation to carry them through. Because of this, I credit Texas for going on the road and playing (and beating) Ohio State this year. While their in conference schedule was far from demanding, they did go undefeated and deserve their shot at USC.

So this brings us back to the big problem. Most folks (including me) would argue that USC, Texas, Penn State, and LSU (assuming they beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game) deserve their shot at the big money. I really don’t think West Virginia does, and I remain underwhelmed by Virginia Tech. Who did they beat this year? In their one true test, they got destroyed by Miami. At home. But at least if those six made the BCS games, I could soothe my conscience by saying that they lost, at most, one game, and won their conference. It’s the two at-large bids that are so troubling.

The first appears certain to go to the Irish. The belief exists that inviting Notre Dame to your bowl game ensures massive ticket sales and ratings. This may not be as true as it once was, but clearly Notre Dame has a national, devoted following. It’s a shame that the reasons Notre Dame will get invited to a BCS bowl game have nothing to do with people thinking they’re one of the top eight teams in college football, but that’s the system we have in place.

For similar reasons, I expect to see Ohio State get the other at-large bid. Despite going 9-2, the Buckeyes also look like a good bet to bring in big money.

So who’s left on the outside looking in? 10-1 Oregon. The Ducks’ only loss came to consensus #1 USC. They’ve played a tougher schedule than West Virginia or Virginia Tech, and come away with the same record. Still, unless someone above them slips, it’s hard to believe that they’ll get an at-large bid over Notre Dame or Ohio State. If they could move into the BCS top 6, they’d be guaranteed a spot but that looks unlikely to change if the teams above them win out. As a former West Coast resident, I’ve gotten used to seeing the Pac-10 get the shaft, both in the BCS and in the media in general. Recently, Sporting News magazine wrote that the Big 12 is a better conference than the Pac-10. Even if you concede that USC and Texas are equal (which I don’t agree with), the two next teams in the Big 12 are 9-2 Texas Tech (who I already covered), and the 7-4 Colorado Buffalos. The same Colorado team which lost 30-3 to Nebraska yesterday. Ok, so maybe Nebraksa’s the third best team. Except they lost to Kansas by 25. The Pac-10 meanwhile has the 11-0 Trojans, the 10-1 Ducks, and the 9-1 UCLA Bruins. Yes, UCLA will likely lose to USC next weekend, but still, 9-2 is a bit better than 7-4. It’s not just this year. California was left out last year, while in previous years Oregon and Washington have been denied chances at the National Championship.

What’s the point of this rambling monologue? Nothing much, other than that while I absolutely love college football, I couldn’t hate the current system more. At least under the pre-BCS system, no one pretended to be acting in the best interest of college football. The bowls tried their hardest to get teams who would sell tickets, and the Rose Bowl always featured the Pac-10 champ against the Big Ten champ. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.


Blogger The Armchair Quarterback said...

Couldn't agree with you more about the current system and the Eastern bias. Notre Dame has been getting a free ride for years.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Bryan Koch said...

Looking at the numbers, Notre Dame going to a BCS bowl is pretty much a joke. This exemplifies the reason why I can't ever follow college football on more than a casual basis. There's just very little fairness involved. I would get too frustrated taking it seriously.

3:30 AM  
Blogger eirishis said...

"It’s a shame that the reasons Notre Dame will get invited to a BCS bowl game have nothing to do with people thinking they’re one of the top eight teams in college football..."

What, besides being ranked no lower than #7 in the AP, Coaches, and Harris Polls? Seems to me that the CONSENSUS is that they are one of the top eight teams in college football. Also, you talk about the weakness of the Big 12 and Big East...but no talk about how weak the Pac-10 was this year, no doubt helping Oregon to 10-1.

All of that said, one of my best friends does football marketing for the Ducks, so I feel terrible that they are being left behind (likely). College football needs a playoff...if only so my Irish can earn another crack at the Trojans they should have beaten the first time.

You may have a point about the media though. Check out Sports Media Watch for commentary on the media's influence in sports.

1:31 PM  
Blogger RPM said...

LSU's non-conference schedule: North Texas, Appalacia State, and Arizona State. The also lost to a miserable Tennessee team. On top of that, Sagarin ranks the SEC as the 5th strongest conference (ahead of only the Big East amongst the BCS conferences). LSU is not that good of a team.

Keep in mind, the conference splits up the BCS payoffs -- so only Notre Dame gets to keep all of the $13mil, or whatever these games pay now-a-days. By the way, Notre Dame only played 4 teams above .500 (beating 6-5 BYU and 6-4 Navy, losing to USC), and they lost to 5-6 Michigan State.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boo. Hoo.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Frank said...

I'm curious why you didn't do an in depth argument about Ohio State being unworthy vs. a 10-1 West Va, Va Tech or Oregon? Is it because their two losses are to teams with a combined record of 21-1? Or maybe it's because they beat 5 bowl eligible teams. None of the other teams can make this claim. Remember they are conference co-champs as well. I don't see a problem with OSU getting an at large. Convince me otherwise.

3:12 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

eirishis: He's saying that even though the consensus is that Notre Dame is a top eight team, the reason they're going to a BCS bowl isn't because they're considered that good; it's because they're considered "close enough", which is an interesting distinction. If they're "good enough", then how come Utah wasn't "good enough"? That stinks.
Also: Weak Pac Ten? The SEC, Big Ten, and Pac Ten can claim to have three very good teams, and no other conference. Are you gonna claim Texas Tech is for real? Please. Are South Florida and Rutgers in the same tier as UCLA and Oregon? Nope. TCU has steamrolled a crappy schedule to a 10-1 season, including a season-opening win over Oklahoma, their only loss a fluky game against SMU. Even though the Mountain West is having a down year, I'd say that's an equal accomplishment to Texas Tech's record. Whoop dee doo, both of them beat every team they were supposed to and faltered once.
I get worked up over this because the Pac 10 seems to get shafted every year, and this year is no exception.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Bryan Koch said...

Erishis, the evidence for Notre Dame's rightful inclusion that you've cited gets at the very essence of everything that is wrong about college football: it is the only sport in which humans, fallible creatures who are quite easily swayed, determine success.

The computers rank Notre Dame #10, Oregon #6. Oregon has a better record. The only thing to Notre Dame's advantage is the human perception that they're a better team, which quite frankly, should be meaningless. But this is college football.

Notre Dame over Oregon is unfair, plain and simple.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

I feel compelled to defend my piece...

I wasn't necessarily trying to say that OSU didn't deserve to be in a BCS bowl game, or that ND didn't deserve to be there. My points were that:

1) By tying themselves to the "conference championship" concept of automatic berths, the NCAA and the BCS bowls have been forced to take lesser teams in previous years and might have to again this year. I know winning your conference is something of an accomplishment, but all FSU has to do to win the ACC is get lucky against Virginia Tech, even though they're clearly not on par with some of the other BCS teams.

2) Saying that the BCS exists to provide a) a National Title game and b) a venue for the top 8 college football teams to play on a national stage is disingenous at best. We all know that the national title game often doesn't pit the two best teams against one another, but I was trying to draw some attention to the fact that some of the teams in the other BCS bowls don't deserve to be there. The bowl games exist as a (very successful) money making machine for the major conferences and their member schools, the TV networks, and the NCAA as a whole.

3) Because of that fact, a playoff will remain nothing more than a pipe dream until it can be conclusively demonstrated to the powers that be in college football that a playoff would be MORE profitable than the current system. That probably won't happen until either a network or sponsor steps to the table with a massive offer or ratings and fan interest slip because of the frustrating matchups.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

However Zach, I will say without a doubt that Notre Dame has no place in a BCS game. Their strength of schedule is an absolute joke... They've beaten Pittsburgh(5-6), Michigan (7-4), Washington (2-9), Purdue (5-6), BYU(6-5), Tennessee(5-6), Navy (6-4), Syracuse(1-10!!!) and Stanford(5-6).

Wow, they beat Pitt! So did West Virginia and people don't think they're any good. Rutgers beat Navy people. Is Michigan supposed to impress me? This has been a down year for the Wolverines. Speaking of down years, Washington and Syracuse are two of the worst teams in college football.

Notre Dame has two losses; they have absolutely no right to play in a BCS game over any team with one loss given their strength of schedule. If you gain points by losing close to USC, do you lose points by playing close with Stanford? Or losing to a team that's under .500??

Much like Charlie Weis' "great turnaround" there, the whole program is nothing more than media hype.

6:19 PM  

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