Friday, January 13, 2012

Six (un)disputed in a row

First and foremost let me admit this openly. The SEC is good. Real Good. I get it. Six national championships in a row speak for themselves. If the WAC or Mountain West or any conference containing a school I attended or had family attend or even lived within 5 hours of at some point in my life had won that many consecutive BCS titles, well I would be tooting my conference's horn as well.
The problem with these titles is that they're not really indisputable. College football is the only sport where teams get into the championship off perceived greatness. Imagine if the Packers were placed in this year's Super Bowl based of their record alone. Who would they play? New England, San Francisco and New Orleans all finished 13-3. I guess we could just have about half the league's coaches vote along with some media people and former players and mix in a computer formula to figure out who is 2nd best. The two teams that get left out might get to play each other in a consolation bowl, but one of them might end up playing the Jets instead, because hey, they didn't have a losing record, and they're a big market team that will bring in lots of revenue.
Now granted, it's absurd to compare the NFL directly with College Football because of the sheer amount of teams. But while the NFL lacks some of the traditions and rivalries that make College Football so great, the pros trump the amateurs by giving us a champion that has to prove it when it matters most. A champion that shows guts and moxie by beating at least three elite teams consecutively. A champion that regardless of how well they did in their own division during the season, had to beat out the top teams from other conferences to get there.
Interestingly enough, when the SEC began their run there was another top dog in town, the Big 10. Tressel's boys at Ohio State had pranced through an undefeated season and no one was good enough to beat them. Except maybe Michigan, that Wolverines team that had lost just one game, on the road, to the number one team in the nation, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
A rematch made too much sense, the first game was high scoring and exciting, and home field in the loud arenas of the Big 10 is worth at least 3 points. What would happen if these two were pitted on a neutral field? But in a controversial move the voters decided that the Wolverines had their chance, if a one-loss team who couldn't win their conference lost to the Buckeyes, why not give a shot to another one-loss team who did win their conference? So while Michigan sat idle, the Florida Gators won the SEC Championship game against one-loss Arkansas and jumped to #2 in the standings.
They proceeded to blow out Ohio State and a new era began for the SEC. Meanwhile Michigan, still regarded by many as 2nd best in the nation went to the Rose Bowl where they were ABSOLUTELY DESTROYED by the USC Trojans, a team who blew their shot at the National Championship when they lost their rivalry game to UCLA weeks earlier. But what if the Big 10 was left out of the equation? What if USC got to play Florida in the championship? What would've happened? We don't know, we'll never know.
The next year LSU was selected as the best two-loss team that got to go blow out one-loss Ohio State and the SEC suddenly had two BCS titles in a row. And maybe LSU was the best two-loss team that year, although West Virginia put up a very strong performance against a solid Oklahoma team in the Fiesta Bowl that year. I wouldn't have minded seeing what they could've done against the Tigers.
In 2009 we saw Florida score beat Sam Bradford's record-setting Oklahoma Sooners by a touchdown for the National Title. They got there after squeaking by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship. It should be noted that Alabama was undefeated going into that game and had been number one in the polls for most of the season. A case could be made that they were 2nd best in the land and a rematch was in order, but OU was simply too good to be denied that year, and Alabama then got their jocks handed to them by the only undefeated team in the nation, the Utah Utes. Florida had some impressive wins that year, but Utah had actually beat four or five top-25 ranked teams over the course of the season. Were they good enough to beat Florida? Probably not, but then again, they weren't good enough to beat 'Bama either, and they put the hurt on them in a way that the Gators weren't able to.
In 2010 Alabama laid claim to their own BCS title getting past a Texas team that had the winningest quarterback in college history leave with an injury in the first half. Colt McCoy had started every game for the Longhorns in the four years since Vince Young left town, the man who backed him up was never good enough to secure the starting gig for himself after McCoy went pro, and the team still hung with the Crimson Tide until the very end. Different game if Colt doesn't go down? Probably? But we can't say who would win because what happened is what happened.

Last year Auburn War Eagled Oregon by three points to make it five straight for the SEC. Meanwhile the undefeated TCU Horned Frogs beat a Wisconsin team that rolled through their Big 10 "gauntlet" of a schedule conference teams by 60 points. Some say TCU's four year starter Andy Dalton wouldn't have played as well against Nick Fairley and an SEC defense. I say he seemed to do ok this year against the Steelers and the Ravens defenses despite being a rookie who had no off-season to learn a new offense and adjust to a completely different cast of teammates. Would the Horned Frogs have been able to stop Cam Newton's magic just enough? Again, we'll never know.
This year we had the same old controversy. We think Alabama is probably the best team in the country, they sure looked like it. But why didn't Oklahoma State at least get a shot? Because it's the system that we have.
Imagine if there were a plus-one system. All other bowls could be the same, but every other year you would have the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl be semi-final games, and the next year it would be true of the Orange and Fiesta Bowls. The national championship would still rotate between the four sites each year.
The three highest ranked conference champions get in as well as one wild card. If the four highest ranked teams are conference champions then they all get in, but if a team doesn't win it's conference but still manages to finish 2nd or 3rd in the nation they get a shot as well. That way the polls still matter, but so does winning your conference.
For example this year we would've seen LSU (SEC champ), Oklahoma State (Big 12 champ), Oregon (Pac 12 champ) and Alabama (wild card) in the playoff. Stanford would feel slighted and so would Wisconsin, but hey, you should've won your conference Stanford, you lost to one of the two ranked teams you played and it wasn't even close. And Wisconsin you lost to two teams not even ranked in the top 10, the margin for error isn't that great, EVERY GAME MATTERS.
Now we'd lose a lot with this formula as well. The Fiesta Bowl between OSU and Stanford this year was probably the best game of the bowl season. The Rose Bowl between Oregon and Wisconsin was epic in it's own right. Had this been in place in the past we may not have seen Boise State's thrilling upset of Oklahoma years ago and Utah may not have had the chance to prove themselves against Alabama.
For the little guys it would be clear, one excellent year playing a weaker schedule in a weaker conference wouldn't be enough to get you in the playoff, but two or three great years if you established yourself could be. If Boise State's kicker could make an extra point or a chip shot field goal, we would've seen four undefeated conference champs at the top of the standings and Auburn, Oregon, Boise State and TCU all would've made the playoff. In years previous winning the WAC or Mountain West wouldn't had been enough, but after years of strong BCS performances it could have happened last year.
Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. Instead we have schools and conferences doing everything they can to make more money and assure themselves automatic BCS bids. The Texas rivalry between the Longhorns and Aggies is dead. The epic battles between BYU and Utah to end their respective seasons are over. The backyard brawl between West Virgina and Pitt will cease to exist and we will have Boise State and San Diego State playing in the Big East instead of the Mountain West continuing to make a case as it's top teams stood head and shoulders above the champions of the ACC, Big East, and sometimes even the Big 10.
The problem is, if all the rivalries lose their importance, if tradition is thrown out the window and super conferences consume what's left, will the consumers still pay big for this watered down product? Are we the fans still going to get excited every Fall? Yes we are. Which means the BCS and the NCAA can do pretty much whatever they want.