I don’t mean to rehash old debates (who am I kidding? Of course I do. This is a blog after all), but another college football season means another post where I attempt to defend the BCS. And, of course, this weekend’s LSU-Alabama game presents a great opportunity for such a defense. Saturday’s highly anticipated SEC showdown would not be nearly as important if the BCS were replaced with the playoff that so many, including my colleague Tim, desire: A game that will likely make one team’s season while breaking another would be effectively meaningless, since both teams would make any conceivable playoff even with one loss.
This type of game is unique: It’s exciting in a way that no other mid-season game, in any sport, is ever exciting. This is a GOOD thing. It’s asinine that fans of college football want to kill the best thing about the sport, but the collective fascination with the concept of a playoff makes people say crazy things. This is the only thing that could lead someone like Dan Wolken to use the Alabama-LSU game as a way to attack the BCS.
Wolken’s piece actually makes some strong arguments against the BCS without trying to deny that this Saturday’s game benefits from the system. Instead, he raises two questions that seem to point out the flaws in the BCS, but in reality only showcase the flawed chain of logic that is necessary to attack it:
“First, is the out-of-control hype accompanying one game really worth the diminished interest in all but a handful of teams once the season reaches the second half?
And second, is it possible this game will actually undercut the BCS in its purported mission?”
You might notice that the first question is the same line of argument that Tim used to critique the NCAA’s “Every Game Counts” slogan last season. As Wolken, and so many others argue see it, the hype surrounding Alabama-LSU comes at the expense of games involving teams that have already been effectively eliminated. After all, if one loss would mean so much to the #1 or #2 team in the country, then all the teams that already have one loss are screwed, right? As such, it’s only games that involve the still-undefeated teams (and possibly a handful of one-loss teams if we’re being generous) that still “count.” As Wolken puts it,
“The BCS has made everyone else irrelevant. When Wisconsin loses on a fluke Hail Mary play on the road against Michigan State, there’s no incentive to watch them the rest of the season. When Oklahoma has a bad day against Texas Tech, the only reason to pay attention going forward is to see whether they can knock undefeated Oklahoma State out of the race in the final week. Had a single play gone wrong in overtime Saturday night against Southern California, Stanford would have been reduced to a permanent bystander in the debate.”
I read and hear arguments like this all the time, and my reaction to them is always the same: Don’t these people like college football? If so, then why do they need an excuse to watch it?
When Wolken argues that there will be “no incentive to watch” Wisconsin play the rest of the season, he is saying that the only incentive he had previously was that Wisconsin might have ended up in the National Championship game. But if you’re a fan of the Badgers, or if you just enjoy watching good teams play football, then that should be enough of an “incentive” to watch them play. I’m sure Oklahoma fans are disappointed the Sooners lost to Texas Tech, but I don’t think the only reason they’re watching the rest of the season is to see if they can beat the Cowboys. And the Stanford-USC game was just a thrilling game—if you were only watching because Stanford is undefeated, then you must hate football.
Yet this is what arguments against the BCS presuppose—that we should only care about a sporting event to the extent which it might determine who ends up being the “champion.” Real fans, though, generally watch sports because it’s fun—because the games are entertaining and exciting. The incentive is the game itself, not whatever is riding on it. The stakes matter—the high stakes are part of what makes a game like Alabama-LSU so exciting. But the idea that there is no reason to watch a game without championship implications is nonsense.
It’s also worth noting that the number of games with championship implications should go down as the season goes on. Wolken tries to make the point that marginalizing teams like South Carolina and Oregon is a flaw of the BCS, but this misses the point. As the season goes on, we should be able to narrow down the field of great teams. After all, we have more information to rank the top teams now. At this point in the season, Alabama has been better than South Carolina, so until that changes, its games should matter more to the title debate. Wolken is right to say that the hype surrounding Alabama-LSU detracts from hype around games like KSU-OSU, Oregon-Washington, and South Carolina-Arkansas, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
The next point Wolken tries to make—that the emphasis on Saturday’s game detracts from the BCS’ stated mission—is just bizarre:
“Alabama-LSU, however, could betray the notion that the two best teams will play for the championship. Just consider: What if LSU loses a close game at Alabama, as the point spread suggests, and wins the rest to finish 11-1?
The mathematics that drive the BCS formula indicate that Oklahoma State, Stanford and Boise State—in that order—would be in line to face Alabama in a championship game if they remained undefeated. And yet, under that scenario, it’s entirely possible LSU would still be widely viewed as the second-best team in the country.”
It seems to me that Wolken has it exactly wrong: If the Tigers lose this week and the BCS formula does ultimately catapult them ahead of other undefeated teams like Stanford or Boise State, then that would cause the real outrage. After all, LSU is getting its chance to beat the Crimson Tide this week. Why should it get a second chance before other teams get a first shot?
I’m not saying that a legitimate case for LSU as the second-best team in the country couldn’t be made in such a scenario, but it would seem to contradict a basic sense of fairness to catapult them above another undefeated team, particularly one from a BCS conference, like Stanford or Oklahoma State.
The BCS isn’t perfect. That much is obvious. There will never be a foolproof way to determine the best team. But the BCS is at least different. And this week’s game is unlike anything else in sports. Why would we want to get rid of that?