Of bowls and polls

College football's weird champion-choosing process has taken the arguments -- and the fun -- out of New Year's Day.

Topics: Football, Polling,

There is no major sport whose method of choosing a champion is as confusing as college football’s, and with good reason. The confusion exists because somewhere along the line people forgot that the whole system was set up not to resolve controversy, but to cause it. Listen to former Associated Press editor in chief Alan J. Gould, interviewed in 1985 on the 50th anniversary of the Associated Press college football poll:

“It was a case of thinking up ideas to develop interest and controversy between football Saturdays. Papers wanted material to fill space between games. That’s all I had in mind, something to keep the pot boiling. Sports then was living off controversy, opinion, whatever. This was just another exercise in hoopla. Making it a top 10 was an arbitrary decision. It seemed logical to confine it to that number. It was tough enough to pick a top 10 in those days, let alone 15 or 20.”

So there you have it. There never really was an “official” champion of college football, and the whole purpose of the polls was simply to start the pot boiling. When the AP and, later, the UPI poll (launched in 1950) began waiting till after the bowl games were played, they merely put another log on the fire. It was always understood that the bowl games, with their regional associations and conference tie-ins, weren’t created to accommodate a college national championship game. They were intended to be post-season awards for teams who deserved a prize for regular season play. In other words, the bowls were supposed to be anticlimactic. (In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that both wire service polls made a permanent decision to wait until after the bowls to vote for a national champion.)

All that changed, or started to change, in 1966, 36 years ago this coming Saturday, when No. 1 ranked Notre Dame (8-0) played No. 2 ranked Michigan State (9-0). No college football game up to that time had been so eagerly anticipated, and none had drawn such enormous TV ratings. (In fact, it outdrew the first Super Bowl two months later.) The game is remembered today largely because Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian chose to run out the clock on Notre Dame’s final possession and preserve a 10-10 tie rather than risk an interception that might have lost everything, but it should also be remembered that MSU coach Duffy Dougherty had chosen to punt away his team’s chance to win just a minute earlier.

In any event, what Parseghian counted on (as it turned out, correctly) was that Notre Dame had superior voting power in the polls and would end up winning the No. 1 slot despite the tie. (Which is why critics of the system invariably referred to the AP and UPI votes derisively as “popularity polls.”) No. 3 Alabama went on to win the Sugar Bowl and finished 11-0 but stayed No. 3, which was highly unusual since most No. 1 votes typically went to the team that simply had the best won-lost record.

Back then, the race for No. 1 was an issue to be settled on a college football field during the college season. The 1966 season proved that college football had become such big business that all pretensions to amateurism were an illusion: The game no longer existed for its own sake but as an appendage of the NFL. Within a few years, the wire service polls had decided to wait till after the bowl games to vote for a national champion, and Notre Dame, which had always shunned post-season games (except for a trip to the Rose Bowl in 1927), realized it would have to play on New Year’s Day to be No. 1 again. From there, it was inevitable that sooner or later we would have to have an “official” national champion and that the bowl games would have to change their archaic rules to accommodate the new realities.

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Finally, in 1998, a rough beast called the Bowl Championship Series was born. In theory, it’s supposed to settle the issue of the national championship of college football by matching the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. How does it do this? By what BCS officials call “a four-component system, which takes into consideration computer rankings, strength of schedule, team won-lost record, and subjective polls of the writers and coaches.”

In practice, the BCS structure has solved nothing. It has simply preserved the worst part of the old system — or at least what many said was the worst part of the old system, namely, that it seldom offered the most deserving teams a shot at the national title — while eliminating what was best about it, namely the wonderful and endless debates over who really deserved to be No. 1. The problem lies in the so-called four-component system, which includes strength of schedule and won-lost record. Of course those are very good things to consider when evaluating teams, but computers have already been doing that for years. What the BCS is asking of the writers and coaches who vote in the poll is that they also consider won-lost record and strength of schedule. In other words, any voter is free to disregard the objective evidence of the computers and vote on the basis of his subjective evaluation of schedule strength and won-lost record. And since every coach wants to be rewarded for a gaudy won-lost record regardless of how strong a scheduled he’s played, guess which category draws the most votes.

College football fans used to wake up on New Year’s Day, watch two or three big bowls and then argue about who was the most deserving and speculate about how the voting was going to go. Now, only fans of particular teams watch the games on New Year’s Day while waiting for the so-called College Super Bowl on Jan. 2. Almost no one likes the fact that the big game is played after the holidays are over, but if it was played on New Year’s Eve it would underline the relative unimportance of the New Year’s Day games, and if played on New Year’s Day, it would be competing with at least two other bowl games. And so, another hallowed sports tradition goes out the window in pursuit of TV prime-time dollars.

This season, possibly because Notre Dame has returned to prominence but largely because there is no heavy favorite for No. 1, there has been more interest in the polls than we’ve seen for years. But despite all this talk on ESPN and in USA Today and the New York Times about more objective methods and strength of schedule and margin of victory, what’s going to happen on Jan. 2 is exactly what would have happened 20 or 30 years ago: The two teams with the gaudiest won-lost records, Miami (currently 9-0) and Ohio State (currently 12-0) will play for the national title.

No one has any particular feeling that they are the best teams in the country; if Oklahoma (9-1), Georgia (10-1) or even Southern Cal (8-2) took the field against either Miami or Ohio State (especially Ohio State) they’d probably be favored to beat them. So after decades of debate and a complex system designed by a committee, we’re right back where we always were: The race for No. 1 is a popularity poll, but as the declining TV ratings suggest, a popularity poll in a game that is declining in popularity.

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A couple of weeks ago my colleague King Kaufman gave a very thoughtful argument in defense of college football’s overtime rules. I’m in agreement with him on most points: I think the NFL rule is silly for not guaranteeing both teams an offensive possession, and I really don’t think that overtime skews statistics all that much, since you only have 25 yards to work with between the line of scrimmage and the end zone.

But that’s really beside the point. My objection to the college football practice of settling ties by giving each team the ball on their opponent’s 25 yard line is really an indication that what you’ve been watching for the previous 60 minutes wasn’t good enough, that all that punting and playing for field position was just filler and that the only thing that really matters in football is scoring. Why is starting from your opponent’s 25 yard line a good method for settling overtime but not for playing the entire game? Because we want to hurry and get this thing over with? Did we really find the game so boring that we had to think of a faster-moving way of ending it? I think soccer makes a concession to how its rules suppress offense when they end their ties with penalty kicks. But is American football really that offensively challenged?

Actually, there’s one more reason I have for not liking the college overtime rule, and to me it’s even more compelling. The very existence of an overtime period changes the way a game is played in the final period. The real reason that college football never had overtime was because it forced coaches into making important decisions such as “Do we take the easy way out with the tie, or do we risk losing everything by going for the win?” In professional sports, you have to have a champion, so, in playoff games at least, you have to have a tie-breaking apparatus. But you don’t need them in college football, at least during the regular season. The whole idea is supposed to be that you’re forced to make what amounts to, in the context of sport, a moral choice, or what used to be called “the old college try.” Now what you’ve got in key situations is a pair of coaches spending the last seven or eight minutes — what should be the most exciting time of a game — sitting on their butts and jockeying for punting room, trying to force the other guy into taking a chance. And when the other guys refuses to take that chance, they can fall back on a tie-breaking system that looks like it came out of arena football.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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