Tuesday, January 08, 2008

LSU, the BCS, plus-ones and playoffs

The 2007 college football season has come to an end. The Louisiana State Tigers convincingly defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes, 38-24, Monday night in the Bowl Championship Series Championship Game, securing both the BCS National Championship as well as the Associated Press title - the closest thing to an actual "national championship" in major college football. This is LSU's second BCS championship (their first was in 2003) and their second AP title (their first was in 1958; the AP crowned Southern Cal as national champion in 2003). LSU also becomes the first team with two losses to win the AP title since the poll began in 1936.

Which brings up the annual question: did the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series system get it right this year? Or does fact that, for the first time in history, the national champion had two losses on its record prove that the BCS failed to crown the most deserving team?

Of course, that brings up another question: if two-loss LSU doesn't deserve the national title, then who does? Two-loss USC? Two-loss Georgia? What about two-loss Missouri, or two-loss West Virginia? Fact is, 2007 was simply a strange year for college football, with no teams emerging undefeated and even the nation's best teams suffering multiple defeats. (The Kansas Jayhawks, who ended the season as the nation's highest-ranked one-loss team, might argue that they deserve the title, but their creampuff out-of-conference schedule as well as the drubbing they received at the hands of Missouri late in the season might say otherwise.) And although I think that the Georgia Bulldogs were playing the nation's strongest football at season's end, the BCS got it right with LSU: when the season as a whole is taken into account, LSU comes out on top. The Tigers went into the bowl season as champions of the Southeastern Conference, which is clearly the strongest conference in the nation. They played a total of eight ranked teams over the course of the season, defeating strong Florida, Auburn and Tennessee programs and even delivering a sound 48-7 drubbing to a good Virginia Tech team out-of-conference. Both of their losses (to Kentucky and Arkansas) were triple-overtime nail-biters; take away the NCAA's overtime rules that were implemented a dozen years ago and the Tigers end the year 12-0-2. All that, along with their convincing victory over the Buckeyes Monday night, make the Bayou Bengals legitimate national champions.

The fact that the BCS appears to have gotten it right in terms of crowning LSU the national champion, however, does not mean that the system is working. In fact, it remains mired in controversy. USC, Georgia, West Virginia and Missouri - all of whom ended their seasons with runaway bowl victories - can legitimately ask why an Ohio State program from the relatively weak Big Ten got tabbed to face LSU instead of any of them. Missou, in fact, didn't even make it into the BCS this year: the two-team-per-conference limit left the Tigers and their fans out in favor of the Kansas squad they had defeated. Illinois, which was ranked #13 going into their Rose Bowl slaughter, clearly was undeserving of a BCS bid, and the "mid-majors-don't-belong" elitists will point to Hawaii's drubbing at the hands of Georgia and complain. Simply put, the BCS is a screwy and convoluted system. Could you imagine what the NFL postseason would be like if it were run like the BCS? The BCS is also facing another problem: declining television viewership.

Mike Celizic at msnbc.com says that this season's outcome is further proof of the need for a playoff:
Be honest. Unless you’re an LSU fan — and hats off to them for grinding Ohio State into the Superdome turf — there’s no way you think this college football season should be over. I don’t know which team you want to have a shot at LSU. It could be USC or Georgia or Missouri. But I know you want another game.

In a way, what happened on Monday night in New Orleans is the best thing that could happen to the absurd system that arbitrarily anoints a national champion in the NCAA’s flagship sport. After this stinker of a game, there can be no more specious arguments about how the system isn’t broken.

Interestingly enough, some of the forces behind the BCS appear to agree that the system is indeed broken and needs to be changed. Last week, SI'com's Stewart Mandell reported about a movement afoot to implement a "plus-one" system to the BCS format:

While the 2007 college football season will conclude with Monday night's BCS National Championship Game between Ohio State and LSU, a different sort of season is about to commence -- one that will take place in conference offices, network suites and hotel board rooms.

"The season for analysis and consideration [of the BCS' future] will take place now through the summer," said BCS coordinator (and SEC Commissioner) Mike Slive.

The BCS' four-year contract with Fox is in its second year. (ABC's exclusive deal with the Rose Bowl extends an additional four years). The conference commissioners and bowl executives who oversee the BCS will soon hold potentially historic discussions about the possibility of adding a so-called plus-one game -- in which the BCS bowls would serve as a play-in to the national championship game -- starting with the 2010 season.

But as is often the case when it comes to college football's convoluted governance, the conflicting agendas of the various parties will make for a potentially contentious debate over any possible changes to the BCS.

This summer Slive, along with ACC Commissioner John Swofford, plan to present a "plus-one" arrangement to the conference commissioners, bowl executives and television networks that make up the BCS leadership. They believe that the plus-one arrangement - essentially, a four-team playoff, although nobody will call it that - will settle many of the problems inherent in the current system and boost television revenue. However, Slive already expects that he will run into opposition from at least three major BCS stakeholders: the Big Ten, the Pac-10, and the Rose Bowl.
Those people Slive is presumably referring to are Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen and school presidents from both leagues. The two conferences, which, along with their longtime partner, the Rose Bowl, have repeatedly stated their adamant opposition to any postseason modification that might impinge on their arrangement. The fact that their ABC deal is locked in through 2014 will make any such discussions trickier.

"My sense," said one major bowl executive, "is that Mr. Delany is unconvinced [about a plus-one]. Mr. Hansen is uninterested. Everyone says, 'Why can't we get to this yet?' Until they look at it through each party's respective self-interest, nobody understands how hard it is to come to an agreement."

Indeed, as long as the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl protect their sacred - and lucrative - turf, any major reform to college football's postseason is unlikely. And that means that, as much as fans might want one, a playoff for college football probably isn't going to happen anytime soon.

Any discussion about the future of college football's postseason must start with the requisite disclaimer that "the one thing [all] of us are in agreement on is there isn't going to be a playoff," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.

Such sentiments routinely frustrate the large segment of the public that clamors for a playoff and can't comprehend why Division I-A football remains the nation's only major sport -- and only NCAA football division -- which refuses to implement a full-scale tournament to determine its champion.

Leaders of the sport generally point to two primary concerns that would arise from a playoff -- that it would devalue college football's uniquely gripping regular season, and that it would unduly interfere with players' academics.

Although I generally support the creation of a playoff, I think the first argument - that a playoff would lessen the importance and appeal of the regular season, is valid. The second argument - that a playoff would adversely affect academics - is more difficult for me to accept. Especially when people like Tranghese come up with incredibly lame reasons to buttress it:

Playoff proponents counter that plenty of other sports, such as baseball and basketball, cross over two semesters (though those sports also account for many of the NCAA's lowest APR scores), and that Divisions I-AA, II and III all hold their playoffs during the mid-December finals season.

"Don't insult my intelligence," said Tranghese. "Don't compare I-AA football to I-A football. Appalachian State-Delaware, that's a great game, but they are not operating in the limelight that I-A is. For anyone to think there could be a I-A playoff during exams -- the press demands, the television demands, they're just huge.

"The limelight?" Please. The kids at the top schools have been playing in the media spotlight all season long, yet still manage to take their tests and write their papers. To think that they couldn't handle such a situation during finals is laughable. Especially considering that most schools end their fall semesters with final exams in mid-December, meaning that much of any football playoff would be played after finals are over anyway. Somebody's intelligence is being insulted here, but it's not Mr. Tranghese.

Interestingly enough, support for a playoff is coming from a member of a group commonly said to be dead-set against them. University of Georgia President Michael F. Adams, doubtlessly miffed about the fact that his team didn't get a shot to play for the national title, is proposing an eight-team football playoff:
"I find it interesting that our most high-profile sport is the only place where we as presidents have turned the end game over to another group," Adams said. "There has been a concentration of power among the conference and bowl commissioners. I believe it is time to take the ultimate power out of their hands."
And how, Dr. Adams, are you going to force the conference commissioners - the Delanys, the Hansens, the Trangheses - to let go of that power? How are you going to force the bowl executives - notably Rose Bowl CEO Mitch Dorger - to surrender the influence they wield? They're not going to give it up voluntarily. The only way it's going to happen is if you can convince a sizable majority of your fellow college presidents that a playoff is the way to go. If history is any guide, putting men on Mars will be an easier task.

I've given up hope that a true playoff in major college football will occur anytime soon. There is simply too much money and power concentrated against it. The BCS system, as much as it sucks, is what we're stuck with. To its credit, however, it did get one thing right this time around: congratulations to the LSU Tigers.

The Ohio State Buckeyes, meanwhile, suffer a loss in the BCS championship game for the second year in a row.

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