Last night, as Virginia Tech was turning Boise State’s 17-0 lead into a game that would come down to the final minute, ESPN put up a graphic of the current AP top ten. “If the Hokies come back,” Brent Musberger said, “then TCU becomes the new darling of the anti-BCS crowd.”
This is the conventional wisdom—that college football fans who hate the BCS and want to see a playoff (in other words, pretty much every college football fan) should root for underdogs like Boise State and TCU in order to undermine the BCS’ legitimacy.
But this is wrong. People who want to see the end of the BCS should have been rooting against the Broncos last night. After their win, there is a more-than-decent chance that the Broncos will go undefeated—of their remaining opponents, only Oregon State is ranked in the Top 25, and they are already in danger of falling out. And if Boise State goes undefeated, then there is a more-than-decent chance that the team makes the National Championship.
And this would be a nightmare for the anti-BCS contingent. If Boise State makes the title game under the current rules, then it will undercut the primary argument against the BCS, that it prevents teams like Boise State from getting a fair shot at the championship. BCS apologists would be able to point to the Broncos as the counterexample any time someone accused the BCS of being biased towards the main six conferences: “Well, if Boise State can make it, then anyone can make it.”
This, of course, doesn’t make the BCS any less unfair, but it does make the BCS easier to accept. The biggest obstacle toward changing an ineffective system is when that system accidentally yields a fair result. We can see the same problem when the Twins and A’s make the MLB playoffs (or, for that matter, when the winner of popular vote also wins the electoral college): it undercuts the arguments of those who insist payroll disparities upset competitive balance, even though small-market successes are the exception and not the rule.
The best circumstance for getting rid of the BCS would not involve Boise State making the championship: The best argument for trashing the BCS would have been for Boise State to have one loss (a nail-biter with another top ten team), but still finish out of the National Championship because two other one-loss teams happened to start the season higher in the polls (in this case, Alabama and Ohio State). In that case, it would be all but impossible to deny that the Broncos had been victimized by an unjust system.
So even though Boise State is a great Cinderella story, and we all want to see another bowl game with two critical trick plays, the best outcome in the long run is actually the worst outcome in the short run: If we want to get rid a system that hurts David, then we’d better hope Goliath wins.