Monday, August 31, 2009

How the BCS Will Die

Now is the time of year when all of the focus goes to the upcoming season. The slates are cleaned, the stats are at zero, and everybody just can’t wait for that first kickoff. But let’s take a wide view of the landscape for a second, the way things are and the way they’re going. I think you might find what follows a new, interesting context to view this 2009 season in.

The topic, of course, is the BCS and where it stands. This past off-season provided a lot of great examples of the base arguments surrounding the BCS. For instance, it’s quite clear now that there are two conjoined aspects of the BCS’s existence: money and fair competition. The twins, the yin & yang – you can't take one without the other. Money always works in favor of the BCS, strengthening it, since it has made the conferences and their partners very rich these last few years. But fair competition usually works against the BCS, eroding money's strength and hammering away at the system overall. You know the stats and numbers – how many times has the BCS “worked” and how many times has it been a disaster? It’s failed three or four times for every time it’s worked, a success rate of around 30%. Of course, this is partly because its task – to objectively find the two best teams at the end of the regular season – is basically an impossible one unless the chips fall just right. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the only way to kill the BCS is to attack it where it is weakest – at the fair competition aspect.

But here’s a very important fact and the first major clue to how the BCS will die: it is heavily resistant to outside forces. Look at the beating it’s taken over the last ten years or so. It’s faced a nearly constant barrage of negative media, fan, and public criticism, in newspapers, online, and in congressional hearings. And yet it’s still standing firm. Every time the powers that be get together to see if any changes are needed, they almost always keep it the same, only adjusting minor points here and there. Use whatever castle/battle/shild metaphor you want – the BCS conferences are on the inside, making lots of money, secure in their ways, and knowing that there's little anybody can do to stop them. They know that while some members of congress have brought it up a lot this year, it's all just bluster and they're not really going to do anything – it's too big of a fight that just wouldn't be worth it politically. They know that the NCAA is basically toothless when it comes to the bowls and isn't going to do anything either. And they know that while sports writers and analysts might decry the BCS at every turn, their bosses are ponying up record sums just to get a piece of the action.

(One of the ideas that gets brought up when people talk about how to destroy the BCS is for fans to boycott it, but that’s just not gonna happen. College football has become way too popular. The ability to continue to pull in record revenue in a down economic climate might be the best indication of it's current strength. If the BCS dies, it won’t be because the fans didn’t show up.)

Well, what about the non-BCS conferences who don’t make much money (comparatively) and are on the outside looking in, you say? Could they overthrow the BCS and change the system? No, not really, mainly because they don’t have the power to. Nobody really cares what the MAC and the SunBelt want (harsh, yes, I know – but true). A lot of that is based on the outcomes of games – the non-BCS teams usually lose 80% of their games against BCS competition in any given year. That’s why they’re not as popular, they don’t make as much money, and they don’t have as much bargaining power. (Plus they don't have the sheer numbers – there are seven pro-BCS votes (six plus Notre Dame) and only five non-BCS votes.) No, they won’t be the death of the BCS.

The joker in the deck right now is the Mountain West conference. Everybody knows that the they have been on a quest for BCS status the past few years, and last year they did a fine job of proving they belong on the field with the BCS teams, beating the Pac10 in most of their matchups. But because they don’t bring in nearly the amount of money the other conferences do, they’re gonna have to do more than just keep up with the big boys on the field. And while the top of the conference is solid, the bottom still needs a lot of work. So the only way that the Mountain West can participate in the death of the BCS is if they both a) continue to produce stellar individual teams, and b) improve their conference as a whole by winning more BCS matchups. That would give them some real firepower to use against the system. But the bottom line is that the Mountain West, no matter how powerful they become, can't bring down the BCS on their own.

(But do they even really want the BCS dead? No – they want to be a part of it and reap more monetary benefits. They don't want to destroy the castle, they want to infiltrate it and become part of the royalty, earning as much money as the other guys do now. How they proceed and what strategies they use will depend a lot on their on-the-field successes in the next few years.)

This brings up another seemingly obvious, though important point: college football, the BCS, and the conferences themselves are made up of individual groups that consider their own survival the primary goal. Do you think the Mountain West gives a damn about the other non-BCS conferences, and how unfair the system is to them? Of course not. When all of the conference musical chairs was going on a few years ago, did any team say, "Well, we'd like to be in the ACC but only if other teams get a fair shake and get something better too"? Nope. Teams and conferences look out for themselves first and foremost. While this philosophy can be beneficial, it also has the potential to really throw a monkeywrench into the works, as we'll see.

So if outside forces can't destroy the BCS, and the conferences on the inside are hell-bent on preserving their status, then how is anything ever going to change? Well, there are two significant developments that can show us the way. The first is the rise of the conferences. As I’ve said before, college football has gone from a game that’s played regionally on Saturdays to a game that’s played nationally for four months. The season as a whole is more important than ever before – and so are conferences. Whether or not you're in a “strong” conference has a huge impact on your perception and rankings nowadays. The easiest place to see this is in the divide between BCS & non-BCS conferences. But it's not just seen in that divide between the haves and have nots. There’s become a hierarchy of conferences, and if your conference isn’t towards the top, your team isn’t going to be either. After last season, it’s pretty much a given that no non-BCS team is going to make it to the championship game, but I’d argue that it’s more because their conferences are seen as weak rather than blatant exclusion based on conference affiliation. This heirarchy can change, and conferences can rise and fall – but there's some dark clouds on that horizon...

The second development is more of an entrenchment: the fact that an undefeated BCS team has never been passed over for the title game by a one-loss team. It’s no coincidence that an undefeated season adds a huge amount of weight to the BCS discussion. The seasons when an undefeated team was denied a spot in the championship game (Utah 2008, Auburn 2004, etc.) are the times when the BCS came under the heaviest fire for being unfair and a flawed system. That's when the cracks really showed and the BCS took its harshest beatings. But on the flip side, and the reason that fair competition only usually works against the BCS, are the seasons when the only two undefeated teams met in the title game (2002, 2005), the times when the BCS is said to have worked. In these years, the BCS was strengthened a ton because it actually did what people expected it to do. So undefeated seasons are extremely powerful weapons that can be used to either break down or reinforce the BCS.

Do you see where we're headed yet? All of these factors combine to paint the following picture:

It's worth mentioning that there's no guarantee that the BCS will die. It's just as likely to keep chugging along. Anytime the system works by matching up two teams that stand head & shoulders above the rest, the BCS will grow stronger. But even when this doesn't happen, it can remain strong by avoiding situations that are too unfair for the interested parties to accept. Situations such as an undefeated, non-BCS team being passed over for the title game by a one-loss BCS team are harmful, sure, but they're not the tipping point. The crossroads will come when a team from a "weak" BCS conference goes undefeated and there's two or less undefeated BCS teams. In this situation, one of two things will happen, both negative for the BCS: either A) that undefeated weak-conference BCS team will be passed over for the title game by a one-loss team from a strong BCS conference, or B) that undefeated team will still make it to the title game, throwing back the curtain once and for all on the system-wide bias against the non-BCS teams.

Think about it: the Big East and the ACC are at the bottom of the BCS heirarchy right now – what if Cincinnati or North Carolina go undefeated this season? If there are two or less undefeated BCS teams this year, should they automatically be in the title game? If so, what do you tell Utah or Boise State who were passed over playing schedules that were comparable? If not, how do you explain to the Big East and the ACC why their teams were passed over? Such a situation would shake the foundations of the BCS like nothing we've seen before. And there's a good chance it'll happen too. Schedules are getting easier and easier with the addition of more cupcake games, and it's just a matter of time before another team runs the table.

What would the Big East or ACC do in such a case? Would the keep their mouths shut and be happy with the millions of dollars they still got? Or would they pitch a fit about fairness and start working against the BCS from the inside? When the conference heirarchy shifts and the SEC drops down a few spots during a rough season, what happens when their top team is passed over for a title game spot by a team from another conference? Those on top usually don't take demotion too well...

So if you're hoping for a playoff, or at least for the BCS to just go away, don't hope for the ubiquitous and generic "chaos" that we always hear so much about. The BCS can handle chaos - it's what it does best. Make no mistake, the BCS is a strong, resiliant system that has endured a lot of different types of attacks, some of them brought on by it's own strange results and pairings. But it does have its weak points, spots that current trends are exposing more and more. If you want it gone, hope that a team from a weak BCS conference goes undefeated, preferably against a weak schedule. That'll be the dagger in its fair competition underbelly that starts to bring down the beast. The way things are going, chances are pretty good that the system will work and we'll see two deserving, undefeated teams in the title game again soon - we're about due for that. But chances are just as good that the BCS will get to this undefeated weak team crossroads soon too. Once it does, if its member conferences stick together and accept what they've agreed to, they might survive. But if they get greedy, start to splinter, and protect themselves above the system as a whole, it could all come crashing down. That's how it'll happen, if it does.


Amos said...

Love the post, but I disagree with the final conclusion. I don't think an undefeated team from a 'weak' BCS conference being passed over by a one-loss team is what we need.

I think the only thing that will change anything around is for the Big 10 or Pac 10 (possibily both) to get left out Auburn '04 style. I think if those conferences stopped pushing tradition over essentially everything else, we'd have a far better chance of seeing a +1 or something similar.

Also for those who think that USC '03 was in fact left out, remember that they might've been left out of the BCSNC game, but they still were given the AP National Championship, and the formulas got a major overhaul right after it happened.

Ed Gunther said...

Thanks, Amos. I agree that if the Big10 or Pac10 stopped being so concerned with tradition that it would really shake things up and jump-start the system towards something else. But I just don't see that happening, mainly because of the connections those two have with the Rose Bowl. If there's one thing in college football that is the epitome of tradition, it's that game, and neither one of those two conferences is going to do anything to jeopardize their relationship with it.

In a way, it's kinda like a safety net for them as well - if they do get passed over for the national championship game, they still get to go to the Rose Bowl, ala USC the last few years. As much as they might wish they were in the title game, going to the Granddaddy with its big payout and huge, national TV audience isn't too far of a drop.

But both the Big10 and Pac10, while not seen as strong as the SEC, are still definitely seen as two of the stronger conferences (relatively speaking) - there's no way an undefeated team from either of them would get passed over by a 1-loss team. Auburn 2004 was just before conference strength became a huge deal, and they were passed by two undefeated teams, not a 1-loss team. Even this year, with the Big12 down and the BigEast up, the Big10 and Pac10's positions are relatively solid.

So while an undefeated Big10 or Pac10 team getting passed by a 1-loss team would be devestating for the BCS, I don't think there's much chance of it happening. And with non-BCS conference teams being passed up frequently, the only option left is for a weaker BCS conference team to run the table and ruin the party. said...

well this is true an unfortunately that is gonna happened some day

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