Butler nearly toppled Goliath; now Boise State can finish the job
Some football analysts used Butler's NCAA run as stump to decry BCS
But history, odds suggest Boise will play for 2010 title if undefeated
Goliath can't go on winning forever; Boise can finish what Butler started
INDIANAPOLIS -- The laws of physics barely kept Butler guard Gordon Hayward from sinking a paradigm-shifting shot on Monday night. Hit it, and the little guy would have been emboldened. The schools that can't afford to spend millions on a practice gym or an athletic dorm would have been inspired to dream bigger than ever before.
Don't fret, America. Goliath can't go on winning forever. What Hayward and the Bulldogs started, quarterback Kellen Moore and the Boise State football team can finish on Jan. 10, 2011.
Otherwise reasonable minds such as Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News used Butler's run as a stump to decry the BCS, to suggest that the system is rigged in such a way that a team from outside the six-conference BCS power structure can never gain entry to the BCS championship game. "College basketball gives Butler that chance," Scarbinsky wrote. "College football gives Boise State no chance."
With all due respect to Burwell and Scarbinsky, smart guys who are two of the best in the business, that simply isn't the case this year. History and the odds suggest that if Boise State goes undefeated this season, the Broncos will take the field in the same stadium where, four years and nine days earlier, they ran the Statue of Liberty and shocked the college football world.
Before we go any further, and before any BCS lackey decides to link this column as an example of how the BCS gets it correct, let's get two things straight:
The BCS remains a hive of iniquity designed to enrich six conferences. If it wasn't, it would split the money evenly between all 11 conferences.
The BCS remains a popularity contest that denies the participants of the nation's second most popular sport (behind the NFL) an opportunity to decide a national champion by playing a tournament -- something every other major college and professional team sport does.
But for once, the fact that the BCS is a popularity contest will work in Boise State's favor. Boise State is popular. The Broncos will start next season ranked in the top five of most major polls. Boise State is a brand, and that's half the battle right there.
Why is that so important? Just ask college basketball's mid-major darlings. Gonzaga was a cute little story when Casey Calvary tipped the Bulldogs into the Elite Eight in 1999. Now, the Bulldogs are one of the most powerful brands in college hoops. If another West Coast Conference program went 26-6 and lost in the conference tournament final, as Gonzaga did this season, players might have to sweat on Selection Sunday. Not Gonzaga. We expect to see the Zags in the tournament almost every year. The same applies to Butler and Xavier.
In football, we feel the same way about Boise State, TCU and Utah. The Utes will start this season ranked too low, but the Horned Frogs probably will garner a high enough preseason ranking that if they run through their schedule undefeated, they'll also be in the conversation for the title game.
There are a few reasons for this. Though it is human nature to believe the most recent thing that happened is the only thing that ever happened, the chances of five teams finishing the regular season undefeated again are slim. In the past 10 seasons, only two (2004 and 2009) have featured more than three undefeated teams after championship game weekend.
The average number of undefeated teams following the regular season in the past 10 years is 2.1. So if Boise State goes undefeated, the odds suggest it will be one of two teams to do so.
Remember also that where a team starts in the rankings sometimes means more than its conference affiliation. Just ask Auburn. In 2004, the Tigers went undefeated, but because they started the season ranked No. 18 and fellow undefeateds USC and Oklahoma started the season ranked higher, the Trojans and Sooners played for the national title. Though the conference didn't have the same cachet it enjoys now, no one could argue that the SEC lacked for respect in 2004.
Realistically, the only teams that would jump an undefeated Boise State are undefeated champs from the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC or Pac-10. In other words, two of those four conferences must produce undefeated champs to lock out the Broncos.
Also, the news that the Duke-Butler final produced the highest overnight rating in 11 years for an NCAA title game suggests that none of the powerful folks on the fringes of the BCS would object to Boise State in the title game. In fact, for ESPN's first year as the sole BCS rightsholder, a title game matching David (the Broncos) against Goliath (Alabama or Ohio State, for example) would be a ratings bonanza.
Another fact to consider is that while the system most certainly is designed to protect the power conferences, the lords of the BCS aren't completely unfair. Remember, it was the conference commissioners who pressured the American Football Coaches Association into promising to keep the final coaches poll ballots public. Coaches have to deal with enough nonsense. If Boise State is ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the Associated Press and Harris Interactive polls, the coaches won't invite added scrutiny by jobbing the Broncos. Harris Poll voters, meanwhile, probably will follow the template provided by the AP Poll voters (full disclosure: I'm an AP poll voter), whose votes don't directly affect the BCS rankings.
Add those factors together, and the idea of Boise State earning the opportunity to pull a Butler doesn't seem so far-fetched. Especially considering the fact that Boise State's road to the BCS title game would be far easier than Butler's road to the NCAA final. To reach Monday night, the Bulldogs had to face Clemson and Ohio State in the regular season and then beat a No. 1 seed (Syracuse) and a No. 2 seed (Kansas State) in the NCAA tournament.
The leaders of the power conferences rigged the system in football, but Boise State figured out exactly how to exploit that system. Beat one or two respectable non-conference opponents, crush inferior conference competition and let everyone else slug it out until they fall. Let's imagine we live in a perfect world and college football uses a 16-team playoff to decide a champion. Boise State's only good out-of-conference opponents (Virginia Tech and Oregon State) would be the football equivalents of a No. 3 and a No. 4 seed, respectively. Most of Boise State's WAC colleagues would get smoked by power-conference doormats, and the Broncos don't face the uncertainty of a conference tournament.
So take heart, David fans. The kid hasn't set down his sling just yet. Hayward's shot didn't fall Monday, but it set Goliath on his heels. The Broncos can knock him out in January.
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