King Kaufman's Sports Daily

America held hostage, Day 5: The college football championship crisis. The readers write.

By Salon Staff
Published December 11, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Our national crisis over how the collegiate football championship ought to be decided continues, with readers flooding this column's in box with suggestions on how to fix the Bowl Championship Series or do away with it or expand it or replace it.

To me the most curious letters have been the fair multitude -- OK, maybe a half dozen -- that have asked some variation on the question "Who cares about any of this stuff?" I'll let Ken Erfourth represent this line of thinking because he used my favorite schtick and he gave me permission to use his name before I asked:

"Who the heck™ cares whether we have a national champion college team? When did this become important in the context of college football? College football is about winning one for the Gipper, the Army-Navy game, or anybody beating Michigan. Screw the national champion crap. I'm sick of sports being dumbed down to success for one and failure for everyone else. I'm tired of one winner and a the rest being relegated to first, second, third, etc. losers."

The answer to the who cares question is, of course, millions of people. The BCS is incredibly lucrative, after all, because the public clamored for the crowning of a single national champion and has been willing to generate huge amounts of money by watching that crowning.

I happen to agree with the sentiment behind most "who cares" letters -- I think controversy over who is national champion is a perfectly legitimate and entertaining aspect of college football, one of the good things about it, and I liked the traditional bowl system better for various reasons, though it too was imperfect.

But the idea that that view is anything like a majority, or even a large minority, is, I think, off-base.

A lot of letter writers took issue with my statement that "there are a lot of logical ways to answer the question about which two of the top three teams in the country should go to the national championship game [and] all of those ways result in the same answer: USC vs. LSU." I'm just going to go ahead and admit that, caught up as I was in the heat of the day, I overstated a bit, but I stand behind my opinion that Oklahoma shouldn't be in the title game.

Here's what I think is a representative sampling of the best arguments against that opinion:

"Not only did USC play the easiest schedule of the title contenders, but they also lost to the worst team ... It's a lot easier to lose to a good team than a bad team, and you shouldn't be punished as severely for losing to an 11-3 team as for losing to a 7-6 team." (Nick Rollins)

"The difference is that USC lost to Cal in September and LSU lost [to Florida] in October. Why should it matter when the teams lost? The important thing is that they all have identical records but that OU clearly lost the toughest game [to Kansas State] of all three." (Gavin Fritton)

"The point of computer and strength-of-schedule rankings is to encourage teams to play the toughest schedules possible, as part of positioning themselves to play for a title. Teams like Oklahoma, OSU and Florida, which played grueling schedules, have set themselves up to get the benefit of the doubt. Other teams haven't done that. If USC had played an even slightly tougher schedule, they could have picked up the 17 hundredths of a point they needed to surpass LSU." (Andrew Norris)

I should have made my argument against Oklahoma clear Monday. I thought it was so obvious that I made the mistake of omitting it from the column. Here it is:

Oklahoma didn't win its conference. If winning the conference championship game can launch a team into the BCS when it otherwise wouldn't have been in, then losing that game should have the opposite consequence. A conference shouldn't be able to simply add a team to the mix by having it win an added-on game. It's true that USC didn't have to take the risk of playing a conference championship game, but Oklahoma did take that risk -- one that's rewarded with great gobs of revenue, win or lose. As a conference, you collect your money, you takes your chances.

If you don't win your conference, you're a second-class citizen. That's how it is pretty much everywhere in American sports, and that's a good thing. Otherwise, what are the conferences for?

As for the strength of schedule, if the point of those rankings is to encourage teams to play a tougher schedule -- and I think Norris is correct that it is -- then USC should be rewarded, not LSU or even Oklahoma. Look at their non-conference schedules. LSU played a bunch of patsies. Louisiana-Monroe? Western Illinois? What, were no eight-man high school teams available? I know, Western Illinois was a late replacement for Marshall, but still. Even if they'd played Marshall, if the Tigers' schedule was a "grueling" one, I'd hate to see an easy one. Oklahoma played a tougher non-conference schedule after starting with a ritual battering of North Texas.

I don't mean to be an apologist for USC here, because really I don't care who plays in the Sugar Bowl. I just like to argue. But Southern Cal played only teams that are either traditionally good or were expected to be good -- Auburn, BYU, Hawaii and Notre Dame. It's not the Trojans' fault that those teams tanked to a 24-25 record. How could USC have predicted or prevented that? The Trojans did what the schedule rankings asked them to do by scheduling tough teams. What it comes down to is that LSU passed USC because Boise State beat Hawaii on the last weekend. That's just absurd. That didn't make USC's schedule any easier. It had nothing to do with any of the top teams.

Sure, the Big 12 and SEC were stronger top to bottom than the Pac-10, but again, I don't see how USC could have helped that, and it's beside the point of the strength of schedule rankings' purpose, which is to encourage teams to fill out their non-conference schedule with tough games.

I don't have room -- the Congressional Record wouldn't have room -- to describe the various schemes for crowning a national champion that readers sent in by the dozens. They range from the popular idea of simply adding a game if there's a dispute following the major bowls to the radical plan proposed by a reader named Michelle, who posits a 64-team tournament with the first two rounds decided by 30-minute games. It would never fly, but it's such a crazy idea I can't help loving it, and it lets me point out that I actually have at least one female reader who is not my mother.

I'm thinking of collecting all these schemes together into a long e-mail that I'll send out to anyone who's interested. I'm serious. Let me know.

Finally, reader Greg Padgett makes an interesting point I hadn't thought about. "What puzzles me the most about this whole issue is that we're still stuck with the idea that the computer rankings are mysterious, whimsical, and pseudo-random (Jeff Sagarin has Miami-Ohio fourth!)," he writes. "At a time in which the significant advances in baseball analysis are mostly open-source and peer-reviewed (e.g., Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, etc.), the BCS computer rankings are still completely opaque, even to the most educated followers of college football. Why should the BCS make the public blindly trust the capability of the computer formulas? Why are they any more accurate than the similarly flawed polls? Why the need for seven different methodologies?"

He's right. I can attest from my in box that there is a nation of millions out there thinking about this. Surely the great collective can come up with a better system than whoever came up with the BCS formulas.

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