Monday, November 29, 2010

Fixing the BCS

This past week, Gordon Gee of Ohio State said publicly that Boise State and Texas Christian have no business playing in the BCS title game.  Gee's complaint is that neither Boise nor TCU play the kind of "murder's row" schedule that the Big 10 and SEC member schools play.  This would seem to be a rather peculiar argument to make at this point in the season, when Ohio State's strength of schedule (SOS) is, according to the Sagarin rankings, somewhere between Boise's and TCU's.  It seems even more peculiar in a year when the Big East, one of the conferences whose champion gets an automatic BCS bid, has only one team in the top 25, West Virginia currently at #24.

The BCS system was set up by the big conferences (and Notre Dame) in order to ensure that they got teams into the big-money bowls.  And it worked well for a considerable time, since teams outside of the anointed groups seldom made it into the upper reaches of the rankings on a consistent basis.  The system could handle the infrequent interloper, buying them off with a big payday as an at-large team.  The possibility that an outside team would achieve sustained success seemed remote.  The "strength of schedule" argument is the last line of defense in that case.  The outside teams only seem to be doing consistently well, the argument says, since they don't have to play a difficult conference schedule during the stretch run of the season.

Oddly enough, the situation has become a matter of proposed public policy.  Each year of late there are numerous outcries for Congress to force the NCAA and the BCS schools to do something different.  The most common suggestion is a playoff system similar to that used by the other NCAA divisions.  Such proposals would appear to ignore the important role that the bowl system, with the big games scheduled in a short period of time between semesters or quarters, play in the overall big-time college football picture.  The bowls provide the conferences with additional money (and revenue sharing means that even the poorer schools in the big conferences get a cut).  The bowls are a major recruiting opportunity.  The long lead time for the major bowls give fans time to plan a vacation trip around their team's game.

The problem is, in my mind, not so much that the BCS arrangement with the conferences is a largely closed arrangement, it is that the conferences themselves are closed.  This past summer demonstrated that changing conference membership is quite possible: Nebraska went to the Big 10, Colorado and Utah went to the Pac 10, Boise State went to Mountain West.  The last two make an interesting contrast.  Utah will no longer have to listen to complaints that they didn't play in one of the "tough" conferences.  Boise still will, even though it's pretty easy to make the case that the Mountain West will be superior to the Big East as far as the caliber of its football.

The obvious answer is to make the conferences "open" in the same way that the English Premier soccer league is.  Each year, drop the team with the worst record from the conference (at least for football purposes).  Replace the dropped teams with the highest ranked teams from outside the BCS conferences.  With such an arrangement in place, Gordon Gee's argument would be moot: Boise and TCU would have been added to the big conferences in place of teams like Indiana and Vanderbilt some years ago.  Complaints that such changes would break up tradition are silly.  Teams play four non-conference games each year, and the traditional rivalries could easily be scheduled in those slots.

The post-season part of the BCS system isn't broken.  It serves both the schools and the fans well.  The real problem is that the conference system is broken.  Open the conferences up and let the rising new teams have an opportunity to compete on the "equal" playing field.

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