College Football Goes Around in Circle

The people who bring us college football aren't known as original thinkers, which makes it all the more humorous that we should frequently wonder what they're thinking. But we can credit them fo

Jerry Dowling

The people who bring us college football aren't known as original thinkers, which makes it all the more humorous that we should frequently wonder what they're thinking. But we can credit them for this: If they're worried that college football is too big, they're doing a fine job of minimizing it.

We're seeing now what pride does to the Fall, how pride comes before a fall. Did you enjoy the games last weekend? Following is the list of opponents for the coaches' poll top 10: Stanford, Houston, Rice, James Madison, Louisiana Tech and The Citadel. Average final score was 37-16.

This is the pride of football coaches and administrators at work, and it's only going to get worse, since the architects of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) simply lacked the guts or the grasp to live with the outcome of their system after it left Southern California, everyone's fair-haired boy, out of last year's championship game. In essence, the BCS mob wished it could reward Southern Cal for its relatively weak schedule, so now every power will be rewarded for weak schedules and we're going to see the end of great intersectional matchups because of it.

Enjoy the two-year series coming up between Ohio State and Texas, who will play each other in 2005 and 2006. After that, everyone's going to schedule like Kansas State unless the BCS comes to its senses.

You remember the story, but just in case: At the end of last year's regular season, including the conference championship games, the media and coaches polls put Southern Cal at the top of their rankings. But the BCS system, being more sensible than sportswriters and football coaches or their surrogates, docked USC for its weak schedule. We ended up with a championship game involving Oklahoma and Louisiana State, while USC played a real Rose Bowl against Michigan.

Not a bad sight, to one set of eyes. But everyone fell in love with USC last year, in part because head coach Pete Carroll handled it exactly the right way, accepting the outcome of the system, which ended in his title-knighting by the media voters in the Associated Press poll. The coaches in the ESPN/USA Today poll were beholden to the BCS title game, so many had to change their votes from USC to LSU so the latter could be made official.

Remarkably, the caretakers of the BCS responded to last year's controversy by eliminating one of the system's most useful features, the schedule strength component that saved us from ever having to take Kansas State seriously. Why? Because they just didn't want to believe USC didn't belong in that championship game, no matter what the facts told them. It's absolute puerility, and college football will pay the price.

College football will pay the price, but the big powers won't. Programs like Miami University, ranked sixth by the BCS last year and left out of the big bowls, will be increasingly shut out of chances for competitive and financial prosperity as the big programs make one more move to close ranks. The outcome for fans is many fewer interesting games.

Here's where the absurd co-existence of football and academia really meets the road. Much of college, for those who take it seriously, is about learning to not be a slave to intuitions, which often are just glorified prejudices. A little research tells us there's more to this world than meets the eye. Theoretical knowledge informs us of why what we see does what we see it doing. And these findings, generally, are counterintuitive.

But when the BCS quantitative analysis turned up a championship game last year that didn't involve USC, the BCS mob recoiled in horror from this counterintuition. When the math and science told them what their eyes couldn't, that USC benefitted from a weak schedule compared with Oklahoma and LSU, they just put the thumb screws to Copernicus. They killed the messenger.

They simply don't understand what they're doing, except consolidating position for the leading programs. Then again, we're not talking about the leading minds at the universities. We're talking about the football people.

The danger of growing college football too large is well known to college administrators, who are in sync with the bowls in their distaste for a national championship playoff system. The BCS is an attempt at compromise, which is compromised when the dream of a true championship game is confronted by three teams worthy of playing in it.

Three times in the past four years, the BCS has run into exactly this problem, which means one team with a case is left out of the title game, in addition to meaning the BCS mob didn't sufficiently account for the possibility despite frequent historical precedent. Well, you can't ask football people to think of everything, but you also can't ask them to satisfy every complaint. If the BCS included four teams, a fifth would gripe.

Because college football has so many teams, so few games and so much disparity from the top to the bottom within Division I-A, the process of measuring for the best two teams was going to be complicated. The BCS put together a slightly complex formula accounting for the polls, computer rankings, schedule strength and losses. In the end, the BCS has been no less controversial than the bowls and votes system it has replaced.

Now we find the football people really prefer the old system, to which the BCS has basically been reduced this year. No more schedule strength component, no more points deducted for losses. It's just the media poll, the coaches poll and the computers, one-third each. Basically, it's set up so the voters will outvote computers but the computers will break ties among voters.

It's simple, but it's not going to produce the best championship game and it's really not going to enhance the regular season when big programs won't schedule tough non-conference games. Lacking a playoff system, we can't have a simple ranking system and good football. If we must have simple rankings, we'll be stuck with bad football.

The kind of football to which fans are subjected this year might be illustrated by the contest between Texas and Rice on Sept. 25. But a little background first.

On the second Saturday of every October, Texas plays Oklahoma in Dallas, always a huge game for bragging rights and the rest. But it's turned more important than ever for Texas, which not only has lost four straight to the Sooners but can point to each of those losses, which are sometimes blowouts, as the end of their national title hopes.

Texas fans basically equate head coach Mack Brown's failure to beat Oklahoma with his failure to win the national championship. So he'd really like to beat Oklahoma.

The schedule worked out nicely this year for Texas. After beating Arkansas Sept. 11, the Longhorns faced a bye week, Rice and Baylor leading up to Oklahoma. Basically, three weeks of glorified practice before Texas and Oklahoma, each ranked in the top five of both polls, meet in Dallas. And when the Horns lined up against Rice, they played it that way.

Texas could have run over Rice all night and scored 10 touchdowns. But since the Horns need to be able to throw against Oklahoma, they spent the second half working on their passing game and couldn't even work up their fans with the big blowout power program zealots always love. Final score: 35-13. No fun.

This is the future of college football in September. Good teams will play bad games against bad opponents and not even look especially good doing it. It's almost like the days before the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which forced teams to schedule up with a strength-of-schedule component.

No, it's exactly like the days before the BCS. Six years into the BCS, we're right about where we started. That's college football.

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