Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Here we go again.

As I’ve watched the college sports media lobbying machine go into full gear already, I can’t help but think –

Here we go again.

College football is my favorite sport by a large margin, as I imagine it is for anyone reading these words. For a sport with so much excitement, tradition and pageantry, the system of crowing an overall “national champion” is unworthy of the season that precedes it.

I still don’t think a “national champion” exists for division I-A football, placing me in somewhat of a minority. Moreover, I don’t think college football even needs a “national champion”, which likely puts me among the slimmest group of college fans.

The sports press, however, talks as if a “national champion” is a factual occurrence, especially when referring to the past, never minding that their own narrative is so contradictory on the issue (who is the 2003 national champion? LSU? USC?).

You don’t see the types of discussions that occur in the college football media in any other sport. For instance, gushing praise of a certain NFL program can’t propel that program to the Super Bowl - only on field performance can achieve that goal. However, since in college football the media influence can have a demonstrative effect on the outcome (who actually makes the BCS title game), the sports media in college football is more than an observer – it is a participant.

In that way, the two teams that get to play for the so called “national title” aren’t much different than who wins the Heisman. It is a pure and simple popularity contest.

In this last season, already seemingly forgotten is how close Florida was to not playing (and destroying) Ohio State. But for the scrappiness of a UCLA team, USC was all but penciled in to play the Buckeyes. And, but for the last minuite changes in the polls that allowed Florida to “leap” Michigan, we would have had an all Big 10 match up.

However, the UCLA win, and especially the Michigan-Florida debate, obscures the real issue.

That issue is the presumptive mantel of BCS challenger the media had placed upon USC, a designation that was flawed and manipulated, at best. Looking at the week 13 coaches’ poll, we find the following (points in brackets) –

1. Ohio State 12-0 (1,575)
2. USC 10-1 (1,491)
3. Michigan 11-1 (1,445)
4. Florida 11-1 (1,405)
5. LSU 10-2 (1,255)
6. Wisconsin 11-1 (1,221)
7. Louisville 10-1 (1,169)
8. Arkansas 10-2 (1,042)
9. Boise State 12-0 (1,018)
10. Oklahoma 10-2 (994)

Now, Ohio State had finished its season, as was “penciled in” for the BCS title game as an undefeated major conference team. Boise State, though undefeated, had no chance at the other BCS slot (an issue for another time). Likewise, the 2 loss teams of LSU, Arkansas and Oklahoma would not be going to Glendale.

Which leaves the one loss teams USC, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Louisville. USC, a full 46 points ahead of Michigan, was a shoe-in for the other BCS slot if they beat UCLA. However, the question remains – why? Look at the losses of the 1 loss teams –

USC lost 33-31 at Oregon State (unranked in week 13)
Michigan lost 42-39 at Ohio State (ranked #1 in week 13)
Florida lost 27-17 at Auburn (ranked #11 in week 13)
Wisconsin lost 27-13 at Michigan (ranked #3 in week 13)
Louisville lost 28-25 at Rutgers (ranked #13 in week 13)

Virtually every above loss was a close game, and all were non-home games. However, with the exception of only USC, the losses were also against ranked teams that constitute credible opponents. Only USC had lost to a team unranked at that point.

One of the major critisims the Gators received during the media lobbying phase of late November was their “close wins”, such as South Carolina. Seemingly forgotten was USC’s close wins over unranked Washington State (28-22), Washington (26-20) and Arizona State (28-21).

You could make a credible, objective argument in the 13th week of the past season that every 1 loss team but USC deserved a shot at Ohio State. However, USC was going to get the nod based apparently on –

1. They were USC and the media loves them and,
2. They were high ranked pre-season

Following the second point, the preseason Coaches and AP Polls last year had the 1 loss teams (and OSU) ranked as follows –


1. Ohio State
3. USC
7. Florida
12. Louisille
13. Michigan

Wisconsin was unranked


1. Ohio State
3. USC
7. Florida
10. Michigan
13. Louisville

Wisconsin was unranked

Since preseason #2 Texas had lost 3 games, what you had essentially in the presumed Ohio State versus USC Title game match up was a game determined before the season was actually played.

Don’t think so? Then try to recall who were the most and least relevant teams as potential Ohio State opponents. Wisconsin, which was barely mentioned in the discussion, was unranked preseason, a position they apparently couldn’t overcome.

What happened last year happens regularly. (see Auburn 2004). When teams are equal in record, the preseason standings decide the issue.

And, in all likelihood, it will happen again this year.

Looking at the preseason coaches’ poll –

1. USC (45) 0-0 1,481
2. LSU (4) 0-0 1,372
3. Florida (9) 0-0 1,278
4. Texas 0-0 1,231
5. Michigan (2) 0-0 1,218
6. West Virginia 0-0 1,205
7. Wisconsin 0-0 1,114
8. Oklahoma 0-0 1,026
9. Virginia Tech 0-0 1,005
10. Ohio State 0-0 919
11. Louisville 0-0 836
12. California 0-0 763
13. Georgia 0-0 604
14. Auburn 0-0 595
15. Tennessee 0-0 583
16. Rutgers 0-0 466
17. UCLA 0-0 454
18. Penn State 0-0 440
19. Nebraska 0-0 388
20. Arkansas 0-0 360
21. Florida State 0-0 301
22. TCU 0-0 233
23. Boise State 0-0 222
24. Hawaii 0-0 214
25. Texas A&M 0-0 209

Now, try to imagine that, among those top 10 teams what their possible records will be in 2007. I think it is easy to imagine USC winning its entire regular schedule, and Texas, Michigan or West Virginia challenging for the same. Or, say that simply USC goes undefeated, and like last year we have several 1 loss teams in the top 10.

What that means, effectively, is that Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, Penn State, Nebraska, FSU, and anyone else not ranked in the top 12 or so has virtually no chance of winning the BCS title next year.

No shot at all. If that is your dream FSU fan, get over it.

Because, based on your preseason ranking, you won’t get to play for it.

Under the current absurd system, much of a team’s “national title” fate is decided before they take the field.

That’s why, in my mind, there is no national championship.


Henry Gomez said...

Great work as usual. I think everyone kind of accepts the idea that the only way to move up is to have teams ahead of you lose. The question is how far back should a team drop when they do lose? I think that's one of the flaws. Does a team that loses to an unranked opponent deserve to remain in the hunt for an MNC? I don't think so. USC should have been punished for being tripped up my an inferior opponent and wasn't because of what you said: media hype and bias. Additionally, it's not good enough to see which team had the better loss but which team had the better wins. The point is that college football is unfortunately a judged sport like figure skating or boxing and thus there will always be controversy as long this continues to be the case.

Senator Blutarsky said...

Good post.

According to USA Today, the national champion has come from outside the preseason top 10 three times, all since the BCS began. Oklahoma started 20th in 2000, the lowest ever for an eventual title team. Ohio State was 12th in 2002, and LSU was 15th in 2003.

That's a pretty stacked deck in my mind.