Price of parity
Could more even teams lead to lackluster title game?
Posted: Wednesday October 10, 2007 11:10AM; Updated: Thursday October 11, 2007 2:11AM
The 2007 season had barely begun, and already I was scurrying around Manhattan in a mad scramble to find a sports bar showing a potential upset-for-the-ages (Michigan-Appalachian State) in the making. Looking back now, those first few hours of that first Saturday in September wound up setting the tone for the season to date.
I would never have guessed just five weeks later I'd be sitting in the press box at the most anticipated game of the season, Florida-LSU, clamoring for play-by-play updates during Stanford's game-winning drive against USC. Or that I'd be voting South Florida in my top 10 that night and Cincinnati in my top 15.
As is obvious by now, we are in the midst of a college football season unlike any before it, one in which no team -- not even the mighty Trojans -- is immune from defeat on any given week and where the national landscape changes drastically from one week to the next. In fact, this is the first time I can remember being this far into a season and having no idea who will play for the national championship.
Last year at this time, you could already pencil in the Ohio State-Michigan winner on one side. The year before, USC and Texas each started No. 1 and 2 and, with the exception of one last-minute comeback apiece (the Trojans at Notre Dame, the 'Horns at Ohio State), both basically glided into their predicted Rose Bowl matchup. This year, it's looking like LSU against ... ??? And even the Tigers are no sure thing -- they face two more top 20 foes in the next two weeks alone.
In the future, such unprecedented volatility is likely to become more the rule than the exception thanks to everyone's favorite, ubiquitous word: parity. Some of you are beginning to wonder, however, whether that's a good thing.
Is the age of parity good for college football? Would you really be excited to see USF play Kentucky for the national championship [Note: This e-mail was submitted prior to the Wildcats' loss to South Carolina.] Parity has ruined MLB (did you watch San Diego play Colorado?) and the NFL (NFC championship rematch Saints-Bears ... thrilling). College football was the last venue where two great teams could be matched up (see USC-Texas two years ago). Say what you want about the BCS, but it eliminates average teams from winning the national championship.
I know it's early in the season, but with all the shakeups at the top of the polls, should the BCS be worried about a reduced interest in the championship game? With all due respect to teams like Cal and USF, one Cinderella is interesting (the world loves an underdog), but two at the same time could spell trouble.
I find these e-mails fascinating because they cast a legitimate shadow of doubt over the one basic assumption that's always driven college football's resistance toward a playoff -- that is, that the regular season is a playoff, and that the cream of the crop ultimately emerge by being strong enough to survive it unscathed.
Current BCS coordinator Mike Slive would tell you the BCS has only enhanced the regular season by providing added drama (like last year's late-season Big East showdowns and the OSU-Michigan de facto semifinal), and I don't disagree. As much as you may revile it, it's the BCS that caused a stadium full of people in Baton Rouge, La., to go bonkers over the announcement of the Stanford-USC score last Saturday night. Twenty years ago, that same score would have elicited little more than some mild surprise and curiosity outside of the West Coast.
That said, there's always been an inherent assumption that at least two truly elite teams would emerge come the end of the regular season. While the BCS hasn't always generated the correct two teams, I don't think anyone would describe even the most errant choices (2001 Nebraska, 2003 Oklahoma) as "average," nor do I think that description will apply to the top two teams this year.
What they could be, however, is "indistinguishable." Just two in a bunch of similarly talented teams that happened to wind up on top.