Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Cap'n Ken's offseason overanalysis of the BCS

[editor's note: if you're not a fan of college football, please move along.]

The Lords of the BCS are meeting this week to talk about how to "fix" the system that allowed USC to be incorrectly called national champions by some after last season.

I suggest a simple solution: Print the rules of the BCS in bigger type next year to help the Associated Press writers and Pac 10 fans notice them before the season.

But I suspect simply getting people to understand that the BCS system was created because human polls are so flawed (USC was not an objectively better team than LSU or Oklahoma - they were only No. 1 in the human polls because they had been No. 2 and the No. 1 team lost), won't suffice.

So the BCS will likely add more weight to the human polls in their formula, factor back in things like margin of victory and - in a move intended to shut up the pretend contenders of the MAC and other non-factor conferences - add a fifth bowl game to the BCS mix.

Word on the street is that Atlanta's Peach Bowl is a front-runner for the fifth BCS spot, and I'd be all for that. It was nice to watch LSU tear Georgia up in the SEC Championship game two miles from my house, and it would be nice to see us win a future national championship there, too.

But ABC is also pitching an idea called "Five Plus One" in which there would actually be six BCS bowl games. Under that model, the top 10 BCS teams would play in five bowls, and the top 2 teams among the five winners would play in the sixth and final BCS game for an "undisputed" national championship.

(God help the BCS if USC ends up winning one of those five bowl games, finishes as the No. 3 team and doesn't get to play in the championship game.)

Such a format would be a real financial win for ABC and the NCAA. Instead of only one BCS game having much significance, they'd have five bowls being played to determine the top 2 teams, and then a blockbuster BCS showdown a week or so later.

It wouldn't, however, resolve any of this "controversy".

The problem is that you'd end up with five winners of the earlier BCS games, and the "system" would still have to determine which two will play in the BCS championship game.

The Five Plus One plan as currently outlined would have the five earlier bowls host teams according to traditional conference alignments. The Sugar, for example, has historically been the home to the SEC champion.

There's also a move afoot - call it the Oklahoma rule - to eliminate any team from BCS consideration if they don't win their conference championship. Of course, that rule won't apply to Notre Dame, which doesn't play in a conference, and would favor Pac 10 teams, which don't play a championship game.

So let's say the system ends up like this: The conference champions of the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Pac 10, MAC, WAC and Conference USA get automatic BCS bids. Notre Dame gets in if they are in the top 10, otherwise there's an at-large bid for the highest-ranked team that didn't get a conference-champ bid (of course, that would mean non-conference champs could be eligible).

The five early bowls would be aligned by conference. Based on historical alignments, I suspect the Sugar would be SEC/Big 12; the Orange would be ACC/Big East; the Rose would be Pac 10/Big 10, the Fiesta might be WAC/MAC and the new bowl might be C-USA/At large team. Already you have problems because the Fiesta and the new bowl would always have the weakest teams.

But say there is balance among all these conferences. In a year like 2003, the system would have worked perfectly. LSU would have beaten Oklahoma in the Sugar, USC would have beaten Michigan (BCS No. 4) in the Rose, and the final game would have been a clear 1/2 matchup. But what about a year in which Miami (in the ACC) is No. 1 going in and they beat a weak Big East champion in the Orange? If LSU were No. 2 and beat a so-so Big 12 champion in the Sugar and USC were No. 3 and beat a strong Big 10 champion in the Rose, who goes to the championship?

That kind of scenario would produce the same kind of debate as the 2003 season did. Miami would still be No. 1 in the human polls (you can't drop when you win, you know), but USC would likely rank higher in objective ratings. If you lean toward human polls, USC gets screwed; if you lean toward objective rankings, Miami loses out despite their No. 1 ranking.

Without a real playoff system, college football will always have someone or something determining off the field which teams are No. 1 and No. 2. And so there will always be somebody (see USC, 2003) crying about getting left out.

That said, I'm not a fan of playoffs in college football. I liked the good old days when the SEC champion always went to the Sugar Bowl. It made New Year's in New Orleans a guaranteed good time.

It wasn't a great system for determing a national champion, but I could live with the inexact science of human polls in the pre-BCS days. And I think the BCS is a good blend of the inexact science of college football and the satisfaction that comes from a 1/2 national championship game.

So, BCS Lords, tweak the formula (again) if you must. Double the influence of the human polls if it makes you better. Add a fifth bowl to the mix to keep the second-rate conferences happy. But don't try to make the NCAA the NFL.

There's a lot of beauty in imperfection.

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