BCS Is Bad, but It's Others Who Are Revolting

A score by Kennard Burton of Troy against Oklahoma State is one of several instances in which smaller programs have succeeded against bigger ones.
A score by Kennard Burton of Troy against Oklahoma State is one of several instances in which smaller programs have succeeded against bigger ones. (By Dave Martin -- Associated Press)
By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Bowl Championship Series can perpetrate such sickening injustices that you need gin, bromides and face packs to get over it. But it's become apparent that the splendidly democratic game of college football will survive the BCS, and in fact, the BCS is being driven toward its inevitable doom. You get the sensation, observing the unease of the so-called power conferences as they try to hold off the upstart hordes, that we're watching old European royalty try to hide their jewels from the mob coming down the street.

Just a quarter of the season has been played, but there is already an obvious shake-up in the old order. If the upsets and near-upsets continue, this has a chance to be a boldly memorable year, far more entertaining than some of the puppet jerks the BCS has arranged for us in the past. It may even force the NCAA, at last, to seriously consider a playoff system. The BCS is simply not built to accommodate the proliferation of so many good teams; it has always been a piece of staged chicanery, but now it's been shown up as badly outmoded, too.

For years, the six major conferences -- the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-10, Atlantic Coast, Big East, plus Notre Dame -- have controlled the elite tier of postseason bowls with their massive cash prizes and made them virtually inaccessible to the lesser NCAA football schools. The richest top half of the division I-A teams, that closed circle of power brokers, reserved the bowl berths and the biggest financial shares for themselves, despite scathing criticism, fists pounding at the door and threat of Congressional intervention. Last season, the BCS finally added a fifth bowl game and loosened its structure so that an outsider might get in the door. Boise State immediately kicked it all the way open, with its smart shocker of a victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

That game was merely the most fun The People have had in years. The action of the past month has proved that Boise State was no aberration. The People have picked up right where they left off. Appalachian State's upset of Michigan wasn't just a matter of littles vs. bigs, it was a matter of the have-nots toppling the haves and proof that the wretched excess and size of the school don't ensure victory. One of the older rationales behind the BCS is that smaller schools can't and shouldn't try to compete with those immense football powers that invest the most money in their programs. Appy State put the lie to that one. Its athletic budget is $9.5 million. Michigan's is $74.5 million.

Each week, there is another bolt from the blue on the scoreboard: tiny Troy thumping Oklahoma State, Utah pounding UCLA, Fresno State taking Texas A&M to triple overtime, UAB actually making a game of it with Florida State, Marshall leading West Virginia at halftime.

A simple nagging truth is undermining the BCS: It's bad for the game. The system actually inhibits the dramatic and competitive possibilities. It's a system that was designed to tilt the economic field in favor of the super conferences, rather than foster the broadest and most level playing field.

The rich excitement of college football (and therefore commercial appeal) lies in its seemingly infinite variety -- each week there are rivalrous clashes between teams from different regions, with endlessly differing values, styles, strategies, all singing different fight songs and wearing a dizzying array of colors. One of the more fascinating collisions is that between traditional football schools and the come latelys. You can wander through the past with Notre Dame, or celebrate the arrival of South Florida on the scene. Since 1992, 14 new schools have swelled the ranks of the NCAA's division I-A. Among them are some of the teams responsible for this season's thrills: Marshall, Boise State, South Florida, UAB and Central Florida.

In the face of such growth, the BCS is inert, a rigged and confined stage for lumbering stereotypes. You have to go back to the Gilded Age to find another era in college football so closed and anti-expansion. In 1873, Harvard declined to join with Yale and Princeton in a rules convention, because, as it said haughtily, "Harvard stands entirely distinctly by herself in the game of football."

By 1876, Harvard relented and formed the Intercollegiate Football Association with Princeton and Yale and Columbia, but they allowed two more schools, Wesleyan and Penn, to compete with them until 1894. Author Mike Oriard, in his cultural history of the college game, "Reading Football," observes, "Fewer than a dozen young men, all representing elite universities and relatively privileged classes, controlled the game during these crucial years of its early development." The BCS smacks of the same thing.

There is simply no rationale left for a system that locks out certain schools or obstructs their upward mobility. Five years ago, BCS supporters could argue the differences between the bigs and littles were too great, and that some separation between them was necessary to prevent mismatches. Even third-place teams in the major conferences, it was said, were better than the top teams of small conferences.

But no longer. Minnesota has lost to Florida Atlantic and Bowling Green. Iowa State has lost to Kent State and Northern Iowa. Every Saturday, another ACC team loses to some relative no-name from Conference USA.

The BCS has survived thus far by forestalling its critics with elaborate formulaic tweaks and discreet whitewashings. But hopefully this is its death knell. A college season ought to be a test of stamina to see who can survive the delirium, not a predetermined check-cutting ceremony. It may well be that 2007 will end with a predictable No.1 vs. No.2 confrontation between the super powers of Southern Cal and LSU. But it's the switchbacks on the way there that are meaningful. The best seasons are those that keep us guessing until the end.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company