King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Any way you look at it, USC belongs in the national championship game. Unless "you" are the BCS.

By Salon Staff
Published December 8, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

There are a lot of logical ways to answer the question about which two of the top three teams in the country -- Oklahoma, LSU and USC -- should go to the national championship game. All of those ways result in the same answer: USC vs. LSU.

Here's the way the Bowl Championship Series computers answered it: LSU vs. Oklahoma.

That would be the same Oklahoma Sooners who were last seen, Saturday night on national TV, getting their hats handed to them by Kansas State. They got spanked 35-7, and it was one of those 35-7s where the game wasn't as close as the score would indicate. It was a cover-your-eyes butt-kicking, a mugging, a whanging on the skull with the back of a shovel. The Sooners ought to be embarrassed to play in the title game directly after being swatted so thoroughly. Nebraska should have been embarrassed two years ago when it did the same thing. Instead the Cornhuskers just got embarrassed in the title game by Miami.

Oklahoma dropped to third in both the AP and ESPN/coaches polls, which are part of the BCS formula, but stayed on top of the BCS standings. LSU jumped past USC to No. 2 based on strength of schedule.

Here's a bold prediction: This offseason, officials will announce a new rule dictating that if a team is No. 1 in both polls, it gets to play in the national championship game regardless of where it ends up in the BCS standings. We in the typing classes will dub this "the USC rule." And then next year when the BCS spits up some new problem, officials will get together and talk some more.

"Why isn't there a contingency plan that says, look, if you're the No. 1 team in both polls, forget about it, we've gotta have you?" asked Trev Alberts on the ESPN show announcing the bowl matchups. "It's never proactive, it's always reactive. 'Well, we've got a problem, we'll fix it the next year.' That's the problem. Disconnect with the fans." Alberts declared the BCS "irrelevant."

This is of course what's so great about the BCS: It's complete nonsense. It was supposedly designed to end these end-of-year arguments over who should be named the national champion by presenting a championship game between the top two teams. It does no such thing. But here's a shocking secret: That wasn't the real purpose. You mustn't tell anyone.

The BCS ought to be used in business schools as a lesson in how not to approach problem solving. The Cliffs Notes version is that the people trying to solve the problem have to have clear, attainable objectives, and they have to be free of conflicts of interest.

The professed objective of the BCS is to crown a true national champion. If that were really the goal, the plan would be to figure out a way to have a playoff system, same as they have in Divisions I-AA, II and III. Simple. But the real purpose is to crown a national champion using a system that increases profits and consolidates power for the six biggest conferences, the four biggest bowls and the TV networks, the parties that created the BCS. That's a very different thing, and an impossible one.

A playoff system is clearly the best way to solve the national championship problem. The existence of the major bowls is the only real stumbling block to a playoff system -- any system that included the major bowls would go too deep into January and put college football in direct and hopeless competition with the NFL playoffs, and any system that excluded the major bowls would doom them to unlucrative irrelevance. So a group protecting the interests of the major bowls is not going to come up with the best solution, a playoff. It's a classic conflict of interest.

This will be on the midterm.

Anyway, never mind Oklahoma, over there in the corner rubbing the knot on its collective head and wondering if anyone got the number of that truck. How about how LSU leapfrogged USC in the BCS standings and into the title game, which this year is the Sugar Bowl. That happened because Syracuse beat Notre Dame and Boise State beat Hawaii on Saturday, seemingly random scores that hurt USC's strength of schedule score in the rankings because USC beat Notre Dame and Hawaii this year.

Your strength of schedule, you see, isn't based on the strength of teams when you play them, but on their strength throughout the year. Let's say you beat a team that's 5-0 and ranked third, and the next week that team loses its quarterback, top running back and best defender for the season in an unfortunate car wreck, then loses the rest of its games. Your victory back at midseason gets less and less impressive every week, even though the team that's losing now is vastly inferior to the great team you beat. The system thinks you beat a 5-7 team.

This is an exaggeration, in the sense that it's never happened, though it could. The point is that the BCS is a system that lets the No. 3 team pass the No. 2 team while the No. 2 team is in the process of beating a 7-4 team in a major conference by three and a half touchdowns and the No. 1 team is getting beat like grandma's rug, all because of something that happened in the Boise State-Hawaii game. That's a bad system.

In other words, you can make a pretty good argument against any of the three teams in question going to the title game. Except USC, the team that's not going.

"If you're a USC fan or you're a guy out in the street you have difficulty understanding why USC's not in the game," said Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner and this year's BCS coordinator, on that ESPN announcement show.

"I'm not 'a guy off the street,'" ESPN college football expert Mark May said, pointedly, a little later. "And I don't understand."

Here's a clue, Mark:

Alberts asked Tranghese his question about why there's no contingency plan, no way to add the human element to the process, to say that if a team is the consensus No. 1 in the nation, as USC is, it should go to the title game.

"We've talked about introducing the human element," Tranghese said. "We had a long, long debate about it two years ago. In fact, we spent nearly an hour and a half just on that subject, and there just wasn't a consensus for doing it."

Can you imagine "nearly an hour and a half" being considered "a long, long debate" if they were talking about how to divide the money?

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