Wherever I go these days, people are complaining about college football. This odd fact will make more sense if you know that I live in Texas and have recently vacationed in Southern California. Texas is, after all, the home of several prominent football teams, including the University of Texas Longhorns. Southern California is also the home of several prominent football teams, most of all the University of Southern California Trojans.
If you follow college football at all, you know that the Longhorns and the Trojans have, in recent years, regularly been in the running for the national championship. In fact, the Trojans won the title in 2004, and the Longhorns narrowly edged Trojans in 2005. This year, both Texas and USC had strong hopes of winning the national championship. But neither school will end up with this honor. However, there are lots of people, including but not limited to Trojan and Longhorn fans, who believe that one of these teams is, in fact, the best in the country. So there’s been plenty of complaining about college football and the odd way it determines a national champion. (Photo: Vince Young of Texas scores a game winning touchdown in the closing seconds of the national championship game for 2005, played in the Rose Bowl on January 4, 2006. Until this game, USC was ranked #1 and Texas #2. Note: the following is not for USC fans: a clip of Vince Young’s amazing touchdown; a clip of Texas fans losing their heads in celebration).
If you’re not familiar with how this is done, let me explain briefly. College football does not have a national tournament to determine the champion team, unlike college basketball’s March Madness. For years, the national champion in football was determined by a couple of national polls. This worked fairly well, except for years in which the polls came out with different champions, which was not that uncommon. So, beginning in 1998, college football came up with a new system, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Now, with the help of an omniscient computer, the two best teams in college football would play each other in a championship game, with a clear winner and champion to be determined on the playing field.
At least this was the plan. But, in fact, the BCS plan hasn’t worked as it had been hoped. The main problem is that, in some years, the best computer models don’t necessarily identify the best two college football teams. 2008 is exemplary. At the end of the crazy season, none of the top five teams in the BCS standings had a perfect record. Each team lost one game along the way. (Ironically, sixth-rated Utah did have a perfect record, but the BCS computer devalued this record because Utah didn’t play sufficiently difficult opponents. In the Sugar Bowl last Friday, Utah solidly defeated fourth-ranked Alabama, showing surprising strength and remaining undefeated. ) The top two teams, Oklahoma and Florida, just barely edged out Texas, the third-ranked team. USC lagged behind in fifth, after Alabama.
Now an Oklahoma vs. Florida championship game would make perfect sense, except for the tiny fact that Texas actually beat Oklahoma in 2008. On October 11 Texas won the head-to-head competition 45-35. That would seem to make Texas clearly better, right? Not necessarily. After getting beaten by Texas, Oklahoma went on to crush its opponents with a record-setting offense. In its last five games, Oklahoma scored at last sixty points and won by an average of more than thirty points. Texas, meanwhile, was cruising along just fine, until it lost a squeaker to Texas Tech on November 1 (39-33). After that victory, Tech looked like it was heading for a national title until the Red Raiders got crushed by none other than Oklahoma on November 22 (65-21).
So now you’ve got a problem. Texas beat Oklahoma comfortably early in the season. Later in the season Texas lost to Texas Tech by a little. Three weeks later Oklahoma destroyed Texas Tech. So which team is the best, Texas or Oklahoma? Not an easy choice.
One might think this choice would have been made simple because both Texas and Oklahoma are in the Big-12 Conference. Surely they would play each other in the final conference championship game. Right? Not so fast. Because the Big-12 is divided into northern and southern sections, only Texas or Oklahoma would play the clearly inferior Missouri for the Big-12 title. Oklahoma beat Missouri by the score of 62-21 on December 6. Texas, ironically, ended up third in the southern section of the Big-12 because Oklahoma was the conference champion and Texas Tech beat Texas and got second place.
So, the team that might very well be the best college football team in the country not only missed a chance to play in the national championship game by a whisker, but actually ended up in third place in its conference. Then there’s USC, which lost one game, a close on in September to Oregon State. Otherwise, USC mostly devastated its opponents with the best defense in college football. USC’s excellence was on display particular in the Rose Bowl, where it defeated highly-ranked Penn State with ease.
So, I’ve been hearing a lot of complaining about college football recently. Texans feel slighted. Southern Californians feel slighted. And both sides are not just caught up in a fit of whining. It’s not impossible to believe that the two best teams in college football are not even playing in the BCS championship game. (If Texas loses to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl tonight, this will stop some of the whining. If the Longhorns pummel the Buckeyes, no doubt folks will turn up the volume of their complaining.)
So, whatever should we do about this gross injustice? Let me offer a few observations.
First, it seems to me that some sort of college football tournament would be both more fair and more fun. If the top four (or eight) teams were to meet each other in playoff games, with a final championship game sometime in January, at least the winner would have an undisputed claim on the title. (It’s surely true, however, that sometimes the winner of the tournament isn’t really the best team, but was lucky, or unusually pumped up, or something like this.)
Second, I think this approach would mostly work without compromising the academic demands on the players. Okay, okay, I know that academic achievement isn’t generally the top priority of many college football players and programs. But it should be. I’m still rather naively idealistic about that. Yet, the fact that most colleges are on break in early January means that players could focus on football without compromising their studies.
Third, as I listen to people argue about the injustice of the BCS system, it seems as if they have completely forgotten the fact that college exists primarily for academic purposes. Moreover, the idea that football is, in the end, just a game, seems to have been consigned to the ash heap of antique ideas. I’m well aware that college football is a huge business. But, in my opinion, we have our priorities way out of whack when it comes to college football.
I say this knowing that I am offending just about everybody in my new state of Texas, as well as hundreds of my friends in Southern California. Don’t get me wrong. I think football is great. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It’s inspirational. But it is, in the end, it is not nearly as important as many other things in life. Texas and USC may well have been victims of BCS injustice this year, but the players, coaches, and fans are not being imprisoned for their faith, tortured for their political beliefs, or killed because they offended a tyrant. Arguments about college football aren’t bad, but they, like football itself, should be thought of as a game, something entertaining, but not essential.