The BCS may never be perfect, but college football can improve
Posted: Friday October 17, 2003 12:22PM; Updated: Friday October 17, 2003 12:24PM
In the spring of 1997, I was one of 16 people asked to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the antitrust and competitive issues in what was then known as the college football Bowl Alliance and has since morphed into the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series. The hearing was created primarily through the efforts of senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Mike DeWine of Ohio, although those with the most to gain were members of secondary Division I-A conferences who were trying to get a piece of the alliance -- now BCS -- money.
I'll spare you the details, except to say that the wheels of government turn quite slowly, and three months after the hearing, I sat in Joe Paterno's office in State College, Pa., and was greeted by the following words, "So, Tim, have you testified in Congress lately?" JoePa watches C-SPAN. Who knew? It all seemed a little silly at the time, Congress getting involved in college football, as if it had nothing better to do. And while there's little doubt that the bowl system -- under any name -- flouts antitrust laws, it seemed that the government needn't worry about it.
Yet now the government is worrying about it again, and the BCS conferences met this week to consider taking pre-emptive action. Again, the principal issue is the accessibility of the BCS system -- and, let's be honest, the BCS money -- to more than just the six major conferences who created it. Others want in. They want to play in the big games. They want a chunk of the cash.
A step backward here: The Bowl Championship Series is essentially a house game run by the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big East (for now), Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern Conferences, along with Notre Dame. These 63 colleges have a set up whereby they control the championship system and its incumbent revenue. Nobody outside these conferences is welcome, and piddling provisions to the contrary are just window dressing. (Technically, if a team from outside the Mighty 63 finishes in the top 12 in the BCS rankings, it is eligible for an at-large bid in a BCS bowl, but several dominoes must fall for that to actually happen.)
Each year the BCS is tweaked, usually something involving the arcane ratings system. Now, with the government being pushed by the likes of Conference USA to widen access to BCS bowls, there is good reason to tweak more aggressively.
Understand this: A playoff is not on the horizon. The current BCS contract is good through the 2005-06 season. University presidents do not want to be seen as soft on academics by building a month-long playoff, bowls do not want to effectively be run out of business and BCS conferences do not want to share postseason money with lesser lights. None of this will change in my lifetime. (I've always been anti-playoff. I love college football's high-stakes regular season. Last year I softened my stance. The parity creeping into college football makes me think that getting knocked off once in October shouldn't kill your championship chances).
The BCS needs to address two issues: First, there must be better access for teams outside The 63. Every year there are a couple of intriguing outsiders who deserve a chance to play on the big stage in January. This year it looks like those interlopers are Northern Illinois and TCU. I spent three days in DeKalb, Ill. two weeks ago writing about NIU for Sports Illustrated. The Huskies have beaten three mediocre BCS conference teams (OK, two bad ones -- Alabama and Iowa State -- and Maryland), and might run the MAC table. For this, they get to play in the Motor City Bowl. They deserve better. They have made chicken salad out of chicken bleep. Now, they have some key injures and might get beat somewhere in the conference, but wouldn't fans love to see this team get a shot at some elite power on Jan. 2? This is just the type of matchup that makes the NCAA basketball tournament such a unique and popular event.
At present, BCS bylaws provide for outsiders to be considered for a major bowl if they are ranked in the top 12 and if -- big if -- there is an at-large slot available. Usually there is not. I say if a conference champion is undefeated and makes the top 10 in the BCS, that team gets a spot, even if it means a once-beaten Florida State (or the like) gets bounced. Sure, the chamber of commerce in Tempe is going to blanch at bringing in a small-time program, but it would be shocked at how well some of these schools would travel, given one chance to dance.
Issue No. 2: It's only a matter of time until the BCS gets burned. Every year the stars align to leave two teams standing right before the national title game or one team standing after it. The system's good fortune has been breathtaking. That luck could continue this year. Oklahoma looks too good to lose. The winner of Miami-Virginia Tech looks too good to lose, too (but not as too good as Oklahoma). But that's today. Watch Missouri knock off Oklahoma. Or, more likely, watch Miami and/or Virginia Tech get beat multiple times. Watch for upsets in the conference title games. Sooner or later it's going to get ugly, and the BCS keepers have to know it.
They need another layer of safety. The most obvious solution is a title game after the BCS bowls. Two teams, one game. One extra week. College football will not soon have a perfect system, but the sport must take a hard look at getting closer.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.