Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Yet another BCS controversy (and other bowl-related thoughts)

Okay, I promise that this will be my last post about college football until after the Liberty Bowl...

Anyway, if it's early December, it must be time for another Bowl Championship Series controversy. UCLA's 13-9 upset over #2 USC in Los Angeles last Saturday, along with #4 Florida's victory over #8 Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game, resulted in Florida leapfrogging #3 Michigan to become the #2 team in the BCS standings and earning the right to face off against Ohio State in the BCS Title Game.

There will be no Ohio State - Michigan rematch. Some sportswriters are outraged by this outcome. Other sportswriters are happy with it. The debate will rage on, long after the January 8th title game is played. Then people will get ready for the 2007 season and the BCS controversy that it will invariably bring. Such is the nature of the Bowl Championship Series.

It didn't have to be this way, of course. Had the Trojans taken care of business against UCLA, this wouldn't even have been a controversy outside of Ann Arbor. USC's decisive victory over Notre Dame two Saturdays ago rightly vaulted them into the #2 spot over Michigan, and had they taken care of business against a 6-5 UCLA squad last Saturday they would have remained there. But they lost, Florida won, Michigan sat idle, the voters turned in their polls, the computers spit out their charts, and this was the result.

Michigan and its fans have a legitimate beef. They were #2 even after their loss to Ohio State a couple of weeks ago; how could they have fallen from second place to fourth place without their team playing a single snap? It's true that Florida's 38-28, come-from-behind victory over Arkansas was sloppy at times and not exactly impressive. And it's also true that Michigan's only loss was a three-point thriller to #1 Ohio State, while Florida's one loss was a ten-point decision to #11 Auburn.

So what happened? The coaches of the USA Today poll and the voters of the Harris Interactive poll, which comprise two-thirds of the BCS rankings formula, essentially decided that they did not want to see a rematch of a regular season game, especially between two schools in the same conference. And, truth be told, I can't really fault them. I never had anything against an Ohio State - Michigan rematch, but Michigan already had its shot at Ohio State. The 42-39 game was a classic, but Michigan lost. Isn't it time for somebody else to take their shot at Ohio State? Why not the champion of the SEC, especially since Florida played a tougher overall schedule than Michigan?

Now, it's not Michigan's fault that the Big 10, as a whole, was weaker than the SEC this year. But that's the nature of college football; the fortunes of various schools ebb and flow from year to year. Nor is it Michigan's fault that USC and Florida had two more weeks to impress the pollsters and tweak the computers after Michigan's season had ended and they could do no more impressing or tweaking of their own. But, again, that is the nature of college football, where different conferences have different schedules. Instead of blasting Florida for having the advantage of being able to play in a conference championship game on top of its regular season, perhaps Big Ten fans should be asking themselves why their conference doesn't have a championship game of its own. Would it kill the Big Ten to add a Missouri or a West Virginia to their conference, split into two divisions, and play a national championship game?

Truth is, the only way for Michigan to guarantee that it would get to play in the national championship game was to have beaten Ohio State last month. They fell three points short, and the people and machines of the BCS standings have now decided that it's time for somebody else to get a shot at the Buckeyes. That's the nature of the BCS: it's imperfect, it's controversial, and, unfortunately, it's likely to stick around for a while. Division I-A College football is no closer to a playoff today than it was a few years ago, and a playoff system would invariably have controversies of its own in any case.

Michigan will go on to face USC, which has some "what could have been?" questions of its own, in the Rose Bowl. Oklahoma will take on Boise State, this year's interloper from a non-BCS conference, in the Fiesta Bowl. We'll see Louisville match up against suprising ACC champion Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, and LSU will take on Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, which returns to the Superdome after a one-year absence.

Notre Dame? The team that lost to both Michigan and USC? Are the Fightin' Irish even deserving of a BCS bowl? One sportswriter thinks not. But Notre Dame got invited to the BCS dance anyway, because things worked out in their favor. Notre Dame ended up 11th in the BCS standings, but two teams ranked higher than Notre Dame - Auburn from the SEC and Wisconsin from the Big Ten - were ineligible for inclusion in a BCS bowl because the BCS only allows two teams per conference (in this case, Florida and LSU from the SEC and Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten) to participate. Given that fact, as well as the Sugar Bowl committee's business-minded desire to tap into Notre Dame's large national following, the selection of Notre Dame was a no-brainer. (Notre Dame is guaranteed an automatic BCS berth if they finish in the top eight of the BCS standings; but that didn't come into play this year.)

That still doesn't answer the question as to whether Notre Dame really deserves to play in a BCS bowl; we'll see how well they do against LSU on January 3rd. But I don't exactly envy Notre Dame's position right now: they have to play the Tigers, who are playing very well right now, in what essentially amounts to a home game for them. It might get ugly; good thing for Irish fans is that Bourbon Street is a short cab ride from the Superdome.

A complete list of all 32 bowl games can be found here. If you're wondering which ones to watch, Sports Illustrated columnist Stewart Mandel ranks all the bowls from best to worst. While some of these games are truly compelling, there are also the yawners. 6-6 Oklahoma State and 6-6 Alabama in the Independence Bowl? How many people are going to tune into see Middlee Tennessee and Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl? Which brings up the annual question: are there too many bowl games?

Well, how many bowls are "too many?" And why should anyone care, anyway? Does it really bother people that the proliferation of bowl games is allowing Rice to make its first postseason appearance since 1961 or is permitting Ohio University to go bowling for the first time since 1968?

I agreed with Sports Illustrated's Arash Markazi two years ago:
At the end of the day, it's still college football and what could be better than college football in December and early January? Saying there are too many bowl games is like saying there are too many presents under the Christmas tree.
And I also agree with MSNBC's Mike Celizic:
What difference does it make how many games there are? No one forces anyone to watch them. If you turn to ESPN33 and stumble across Little Sisters of the Poor playing Madame Plie’s School for Ballet, keep hitting the button on the remote. With all the other tedious drivel on television, why pick superfluous bowl games to vent your spleen on?

In fact, a good thing about the proliferation of bowl games is that, for once, every team that deserves to go to the postseason is going to a bowl game. Every year since 1996 I've kept track of deserving teams that were screwed and shafted out of postseason action simply because there weren't enough bowl games to go around. On four occasions, teams with ten wins were forced to spend the holidays at home. In seven instances, teams with nine regular-season wins missed out on postseason action. I'm happy to announce that this year, no deserving teams have been screwed or shafted out of postseason play. Every team with at least seven wins is going bowling.

Speaking of bowls, I need to make my hotel arrangements for Memphis.

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