Some final thoughts on this year's BCS debacle and a possible solution to all our problems

In case you missed it, the University of Alabama defeated LSU last night, winning the BCS national championship best-of-two series by a 1-1 margin. Congrats to the Tide.

Yep, the BS BCS fails again. Which it always does. But not everyone hates it. I mean, all the corrupt people who profit from it love the system. But there are regular fans who defend it, as well. I have a friend, for instance – let’s call him Bob – who staunchly believes that a tournament to determine the D1 national football champion wouldn’t be any better than the BCS. I think he’s nuts, but he’s a very smart guy. He points to the flaws in playoff systems (for instance, for those who hated last night’s rematch, he notes that the most recent NY Giant Super Bowl win was a rematch and that the Patriots had won the first meeting). And we can sit Old Chicago with fine microbrew and argue for hours, I’m sure. 

But the more I think about the issue, the more I’ve wondered about the underlying assumptions and premises of Bob’s argument. My line of thought is a tad wonky – sorry, I can’t help myself – but I think if you examine some logical conclusions you can quickly get to the core of what’s wrong with his position.

So, let’s get on with it. I do not believe you can hold Bob’s opinion unless the following three statements are true in your head.

  1. The best team doesn’t always win.
  2. On the whole, expert opinions can be as valid as the results on the field (perhaps even more valid) when it comes to identifying the best team.
  3. The champion should be the best team.

Personally, I agree with #1. Anybody who knows anything at all about sports agrees with #1. I mean, Villanova over Georgetown? NC State over Phi Slamma Jamma? The Miracle on Ice? (Play that game 100 times and the Russians win 99 of them.) And how many times out of 100 does Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson, do you think? Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III? Chaminade over UVa? The list goes on and on. So I don’t think there’s anything controversial about posit #1.

If #1 is true, then you might argue that #2 follows logically. The previous paragraph, I think, illustrates the point neatly. Still, that word “best” is a thicket of warring subjectivities, and this whole process requires us to make peace with a definition of “best” that includes “the team that lost.”

The assumptions above, taken together, play out into a series of implications and logical conclusions, chiefly this one: champions should be the best and “best” can only be reliably decided by experts. Ergo, while the BCS may not have it 100% right, they’re on the right track philosophically. The uncomfortable piece of this model is that the final score is, at most, only one criterion among many to be considered.

It gets iffier. There is no rational reason why this principle should apply only to the context of a season. On the contrary, outlying results are far more likely in one-offs than over the course of several games. There are plenty of cases where a clearly inferior team jumps up and bites a heavy favorite, but excellence asserts itself as more games are played. Earlier this season the St. Louis Rams took out the New Orleans Saints. Then the Kansas City Chiefs ended Green Bay’s unbeaten run. Anybody arguing that the Chefs and the Lambs are the better teams? Anybody? Bueller?

So if the goal is to identify and reward the best team at the end of the season, then aren’t we obliged to apply the same criteria throughout the season? Shouldn’t regular season results employ some mechanism that mitigates against the misleading impact of single-game upsets? How much cleaner would the conclusion of the 2011-12 season have been if a panel of judges in Ames, Iowa, on November 18, been empowered to take into account previous performance, the unusually amped up environment of a national TV, Friday night road trap game, and the fact that two members of the OSU athletic department had been tragically killed just a day earlier? The panel could have declared the Cowboys the winners and then we’d have the BCS final match-up that we should have had.

In other words, the problem isn’t that the BCS doesn’t work. It’s that it’s hamstrung because it’s only being used halfway. In order to really maximize the system you have to go all-in.

Your initial reaction is probably that this is all absolutely ridiculous. And I agree. But it’s a logical implication of the philosophy used to justify the BCS.

Put another way, instead of relying on scores to tell us who was best, college football needs to be more aggressive in instituting the kind of system used in Olympic Ice Dancing.

Either that, or we let go of the eternally subjective rat’s nest that is “best” and implement a system that emphasizes “winning.”


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