Defending the BCS (Again) [Yes, Again]

Like a snake eating its own tail, of course I have to respond to Tim’s response to my response to Dan Wolken’s response to the standard defense of the BCS. In his reply, Tim accused me of conflating his argument with “poorly conceived” arguments from “low-hanging fruit.” This time, therefore, I’ve decided to confine my response to Tim’s own words.

The main point Tim makes is this: “People dislike the BCS not because it’s different, but because it’s unfair.” As Tim says, I myself have admitted that it’s unfair. This is true, but Tim’s dilemma is false: People dislike the BCS both because it is unfair and because it is different. The essence of my point is that, because the BCS is different, it seems more unfair than it really is.

Yes, the BCS is, as Tim says, “systemically unfair,” but every system for determining a championship is unfair to someone. It’s unfair that the AL East is harder to win than the AL West. It’s unfair that the Selection Committee seems to shift its criteria slightly every year.* But because playoffs are the generally accepted way to determine a champion, we simply accept these injustices as part of the system: “Yeah, it sucks for this team right now, but someone has to draw the short end of the stick. It all evens out in the end, anyway.”

*Usually at Virginia Tech’s expense.

But since the BCS is unique among championships, its idiosyncrasies look less like unfortunate but inevitable realities and more like grave injustices. Every criticism of the BCS boils down to a complaint that it isn’t more like a playoff, as if playoffs’ sheer ubiquity makes them sacrosanct. I’ll quote Tim again: “Seriously, what does Boise State have to do to play for a national championship?”

The answer to that question is easy: It has to have one of the two best regular seasons in the country, which it has never done. Yes, Boise State got a great win over Virginia Tech last season, but Oregon and Auburn each finished undefeated against tougher schedules. It seems virtually impossible to argue that Boise State’s 2010 season was better than either Oregon’s or Auburn’s.

Tim, of course, refers to the “systemic” unfairness that faces Boise State, since even if the Broncos had beaten Nevada and finished undefeated last season, it likely would have still missed out on the title game, as an undefeated Utah did in 2008. But why is it unfair to value one team’s undefeated season higher than another’s?

But playoffs have conditioned fans to believe that a win is a win, and that if a team hits a certain benchmark, it ought to be able play for the national championship. Anything else is, as Tim says, “un-American.” Indeed, Tim refers a lot to the inherent limitations on some teams, and teams that have “the best season [they] can possibly have,” as if a self-actualized team is the same as the best team. But not all 12-0 seasons are identical, and I see no reason why we ought to treat them as such.

Tim claims that, “Too many college football teams have been relegated to this status where they are given either no chance (in the literal, absolute-zero sense) or virtually no chance to win a championship.” I don’t buy that any team is given an “absolute-zero” chance to win a championship, and the fact that many teams have “virtually no chance” does not really distinguish college football from other sports—what do Cal State Bakersfield’s odds look like for this year’s NCAA Tournament? Furthermore, the fact that so many teams have virtually no chance is not a flaw of the BCS—it is by design. Unlike playoff systems, the BCS does not permit fluke champions, but that is the point. In order to play for the championship, a team has to be demonstrably better than everyone else, not just as good as it can reasonably be.

Finally, Tim resorts to a feckless personal attack, claiming that my entire argument is invalidated because I’ve never actively rooted for a college football team:

Yeah, the BCS makes for an interesting season if college football occupies a secondary place in your sports fandom. When it’s the only sport you really care about—as is the case in large swaths of the country—it’s a lot more disheartening when your team doesn’t have a chance.

I don’t buy this one bit. It’s passive fans (which I admit I am for college football), national writers, and guests on ESPN panel shows that like to turn every conversation about a sport into a conversation about the championship picture: How does the Patriots-Giants game affect the AFC East? Does the Lakers loss make the Spurs the favorite in the West? Will the currently #1 Huskies even get a 1-seed come March? These are the questions that fuel PTI and Around the Horn, and they are certainly on the mind of passionate fans, but a die-hard LSU fan cares about one thing most of all: Will the Tigers win this week? Stakes certainly matter—higher stakes generally elevate the level play, and can make great games like last year’s Iron Bowl or last week’s LSU-Alabama showdown more memorable—but fans mostly want to win, all the time, no matter what.

Tim specifically mentions Stanford as a fan base that should be “disheartened” by the obstacles the BCS presents, but I feel like this is probably the best year ever to be a Cardinal fan: They’ve had the best player in football, they won perhaps the most exciting game of the year, and they know that the stakes for every game are paramount. If we replaced the BCS with a playoff, then the victory at USC seems less epic, and their showdown with Oregon this week isn’t nearly as important, since they’d likely make the playoff with one-loss anyway. The entire season would feel less special also, since they’d likely be coming off a playoff appearance as well.

Will it be disappointing if Stanford goes undefeated and has to watch LSU and Oklahoma State play for the championship? Of course, but disappointment is a part of sports. And Stanford will get its own bowl game.

Which brings me to my final point in defense of the BCS and the bowl system, which may sound a bit naïve: In every other sport, only one team ends the season happily. Every team that doesn’t win the championship ends with a disappointment, because every season that doesn’t end with a championship is a failure. But the BCS allows for successful seasons outside the context of the championship.

The most important question Tim asks is, “How does a person who has followed Stanford football his whole life feel when it has the best season it has ever had, when it has the best season it can possibly have, and it doesn’t make the championship?”

The answer: He should be happy! His team just had its best season ever! A team that has the best season it can possibly have might not be the best team in the country—and hence not the champion—but it’s certainly a successful one. It’s only other sports that have conditioned us to believe that the only viable success in sports is a championship, since a team like this year’s St. Louis Cardinals or UConn Huskies can sweep in and win it without having the best season.

I know I’m in the minority, but I truly don’t care that Boise State’s victory in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl wasn’t for the championship. The BCS Championship that year was boring, anticlimactic, and so forgettable I had to Google it to make sure I was thinking of the right year. The Fiesta Bowl was one of the two best games of the decade, and its legacy is enhanced by it being the final moment of the team’s season. It truly was a fairy tale ending. We love sports for those happy endings, and the BCS helps make more of them.

One response to this post.

  1. […] of film criticism, and candy. We’ve chatted about college basketball, the World Series, and the BCS (oh so much about the BCS). We’ve reviewed all kinds of television, from reality shows on MTV […]


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