I've been saying it for a while now - money and competition are the two main components of college football and the BCS. They have a very complex, unique relationship, one that we're going to take some time to examine from a new side here to help us understand why the chips are going to fall the way they will in the next few weeks. The default idea that we'll start with is that money & competition have a concrete relationship - the more competitive a team is, the more they win, the more money they'll make, either from ticket sales, alumni donors, etc. Is this a safe assumption? Not really. Granted, there are some teams who's fans are pretty fair-weather, paying attention in the good seasons but losing interest in the bad ones. Teams might have more interest at the tail end of a successful season or in the midst of a few good years. But overall, most teams' attendance doesn't fluctuate too much, whether they're winning or losing.
The reality is that there are some teams that have more fans and bring in money no matter what they're doing on the field, and some teams that could win big every year but still not see many fans (respectively). Two good examples are South Carolina and Boise State. Between 2002-2008, the Gamecocks were 44-41, going 8-5 in their best season; the Broncos were 70-8, going 9-4 in their worst season. But in terms of attendance, South Carolina averaged 80,000 per game while Boise State averaged just 30,000 per game. Quite the difference.
So who you think bowl executives would rather have playing in their game?
That's one of the biggest issues that people have with the whole money-competition relationship - bowl invites. The truth, which most people understand, is that bowl invites are not based on competitive performance but by which teams can sell the most, highest-priced tickets and bring in the biggest TV audience. Bowls are commercial enterprises designed to make money, and their decisions revolve around those things will will make them most viable in the market. This would seem to be a huge wall between money & competition, showing that the bond between them (at least with regards to the post-season) isn't really all that strong. But no matter how many times this fact is repeated, it still doesn't sink in with a lot of folks. People are constantly trying to tear down this wall or poke holes in it, trying to "prove" that the relationship between bowls and competitive performance is strong.
I think this is in part because that's the way they want things to be - they want to believe that if you do good you'll be rewarded. But it's also somewhat understandable because there is a loose connection between the bowls and performance. (No one is arguing that there's no relationship between them whatsoever.) You've gotta win more than half of your games to become bowl eligible, and in general, the better you do during the season the better a bowl you'll get to go to. This relationship is seemingly even more pronounced when we look at the BCS bowls because 1) they pay out the most money, by far, and 2) because their at-large spots are contingent on teams having an extremely successful season competitively (ending up in the BCS top 12, generally). Taken as a whole, these facts of the bowl situation lead to the notion, exaggerated to the point of incorrectness, that teams "earn" bowl spots, and "deserve" to go to bowl games. The way some people paint it, there is no wall.
But the truth is that in reality, deserve has nothing to do with it and the bond between bowls and competition is weak. There's a reason the SEC has nine bowl tie-ins and the MAC has three. There's a reason the Big10 is associated with bowls that pay out millions of dollars while the SunBelt's bowls pay out hundreds of thousands. Those things have nothing to do with how competitive teams are or how much they've won - it's because those BCS teams and conferences will sell lots of high-priced bowl game tickets while the smaller conferences will not. (Yes, if you want to dig another layer deeper there is an underlying, undeniable current that is based on competition - the fact that the BCS teams win 80% of their games against non-BCS teams, 91-19 this year alone. But as I mentioned at the beginning, teams and conferences might see a small increase in attendance when their teams win, but not much. This supports the idea that it's much more about money than competition.)
But even if the money-competition bond is weaker for the smaller bowls that have conference tie-ins, does that mean that the bond is weak for the BCS games too? Some people would probably claim that the bond is actually stronger in those games because of the reasons listed above. I'd argue that the bond is even weaker in the BCS games and that money is even bigger part of a consideration than in the smaller bowls. Why do you think people get so up in arms about "deserving" teams getting left out of the BCS bowls? Because more often than not, those bowls choose teams they know will bring the fans, and teams that might have comparable or even better competitive records get left out. The BCS bowls payout is more, and they make a lot more money themselves, sure, but their risk and exposure is by far greater than the other bowls - they're going to go with the sure money over "deserve" every time. That's just the way it is.
But is it fair?
That's been the big question for a while, and there's two ways to look at it, both of them fair. There are those who want the bond between competition and money to be strong, the type of people who like to say that undefeated teams from the non-BCS conferences "deserve" to be in a BCS bowl game. But what exactly do they deserve? To play a better opponent, or to earn a bigger payday? There's a biiiiiig difference between the two. Maybe it's the cynic in me, but I'd guess that most of the people who take this view would much rather have the money than fair competition. If you offered them one or the other, either a shot at the national championship or the $18,000,000 that just playing in the game would bring, I'd bet most of them would go for the money. Is is fair that non-BCS teams don't have a shot at the title? No, decidedly not - nobody is going to argue that. But the real question is if it's fair that they don't get a bigger share of the BCS money? That's a trickier one, isn't it? People are always going to justify why they should get more money, but the group of people on the other side who want the bond between competition and money to remain weak have a pretty good argument too: since the BCS teams are the ones who bring the majority of the money in, so what's "fair" is that they keep the majority of it.
So is there a right answer to this problem? Nope. Even though the bond between money & competition might be weak, especially with regard to the bowls, as always you cannot take one without the other - they're inseparable. Whatever happens to the college football postseason, whatever format it morphs into or whatever system eventually replaces the BCS, you can be assured that it will have to address both the monetary and competition needs of all parties involved. I think we will eventually get to a point where the non-BCS teams are getting a fairer shake of things competition-wise, though how long it'll take to get there who knows.
So where does that leave us this year, 2009? Interestingly, even though I'm preparing myself for the onslaught of negative articles on December 6th screaming about how the BCS failed yet again, there's another angle which is worth considering. It is extremely possible that the BCS will not work perfectly this year and yet still entrench itself further into college football, strengthening its position as the system of choice. (The choice of the conferences, not the people - we all know the people don't prefer it.) How could this happen?
First, even though Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State might finish undefeated, Texas vs the SEC Champ in the title game is going to produce the least amount of controversy since the 2005 Texas vs USC dream matchup. And second, it doesn't look like there's going to be any controversies about teams getting left out of the other BCS bowls. The only way that'll happen is if either Texas or Cincinnati gets upset in their last game. More and more, it's looking like both TCU and Boise State are going to be going to big money games, which should make the Mountain West and the WAC extremely happy. Even though the BCS commissioners didn't plan for it or do it purposely, I'm sure they're grinning that things worked out that way and they can look good by seeming charitable. "See, you non-BCS guys have a seat at the table! You got two of the ten spots this year!"
But doesn't this go against the whole "the bowls only care about money" argument I was making? Not really, mainly because it doesn't look like there will be any alternative slam-dunk at-large teams. In the past, whenever it's seemed like teams have gotten screwed out of a BCS spot, there were always bigger, more marketable teams that the bowls wanted instead. That's not the case this year. If things hold steady, it's possible that all ten of the BCS bowl participants will finish in the top 12 of the standings, which is basically unheard of. The reason for that is because all of the BCS conference champions should end up in the top ten, something that has only happened twice in the eleven years of the BCS. Here's what we're looking at for the final BCS standings, approximately, assuming no major upsets in the last three weeks:
SEC champ: #1 Florida/Alabama winner
Big12 champ: #2 Texas
at-large: #3 TCU
BigEast champ: #4 Cincinnati/Pitt winner
at-large: #5 Florida/Alabama loser
at-large: #6 Boise State
ACC champ: #7 Georgia Tech
OUT: #8 LSU (SEC already has two)
Big10 champ: #9 Ohio State
Pac10 champ: #10 Oregon
Remember, only the top 14 (maybe 18, depending) are in consideration for an at-large spot. So choose one more from...
#11 Oklahoma St (2 losses)
#12 Iowa (2 losses)
#13 Penn State (2 losses)
#14 Pittsburgh (2 losses)/Cincinnati (1 loss)
#15 Virginia Tech (3 losses)
#16 Wisconsin (2 losses)
Both the Fiesta & Sugar bowls have taken non-BCS teams in the last few years and ended up with classic games, so it wouldn't be that much of a stretch for them to do it again. Would they prefer a huge matchup? Sure, but they're not as concerned with that because they're most likely going to charge big prices and sell out anyway. The Sugar Bowl is going to sell out because the SEC runner-up will be there, and the Fiesta should be able to draw a crowd from either TCU or Boise State because of geography and whichever well-traveling at-large team they match them up with. So yes, money is still of the utmost concern, and yes, the BCS bowls are still going to be making a ton of it - that's not gonna change. If anything the Orange Bowl might have a problem with the ACC vs the BigEast, but that's nothing new.
Things could change in the next few weeks, we could have some upsets that throw everything out of whack and turn the bowl picture upside down. If that happens, I'll re-evaluate. But if things keep going along the path they're on, just keep in mind that even though a lot of people might be yelling and screaming about the BCS and how it's failed yet again and how teams are getting screwed out of a championship... the teams themselves, the commissioners, and the bowls are probably going to be smiling - all the way to the bank.