By John Feinstein
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
This column is going to written in a very calm tone. There will be no calling the BCS presidents liars because their veracity really isn't a relevant issue at this point. There will be no calls for a congressional investigation or even for President Obama to follow up on his comments of a year ago calling for a college football playoff.
The president has other issues on the table and, to be honest, short of threatening the tax-exempt status of the big-bucks schools, even his presence probably won't force the heads of the 66 BCS schools in question to end their hypocrisy.
Let us look factually at the college football landscape with five weeks to go before BCS bids are handed out.
At this moment there are seven teams in the college football bowl subdivision -- as it is now called by those nice people at the NCAA -- with undefeated records. Five of those teams -- Florida, Texas, Alabama, Iowa and Cincinnati -- play in conferences where the champion receives an automatic bid to a BCS bowl, regardless of record. The other two, TCU and Boise State, play in non-BCS conferences where it is possible to go undefeated and not play in a BCS bowl and impossible to play for the national championship under any circumstances.
Let's be clear on this: If TCU and Boise State both finish undefeated and all five of the BCS schools lose at least one game, neither one is going to play in the national title game in Pasadena. That's not an opinion, that's a fact.
Here's another fact: Only one of the undefeated non-BCS schools will get a BCS bid. There is now a likely scenario whereby Boise State, which beat Oregon soundly the first week of the season, will not play in a BCS game while USC -- which just lost to Oregon by 27 points -- might. Ohio State, which lost to USC and a horrible Purdue team, might also play in a BCS bowl. Iowa might lose to Ohio State and still get a BCS bid, and Penn State, which already lost to Iowa, could, too.
But Boise State almost certainly won't -- unless TCU loses a game and Boise State wins out.
Now, the BCS defenders will almost certainly say this: "The Boise State-Oregon game was in September." They are correct. Let's put aside the fact that on the very rare occasions when a BCS school plays a non-BCS power, it is almost always in September. Here's what the BCS defenders also say a lot: "What's great about the BCS is that the regular season is so meaningful."
If they believe that -- and who among us would question their sincerity? -- then surely Boise State's win should matter regardless of when in the regular season the game was played. Except it won't. Some might call that, well, a contradiction.
Through the years, the BCS defenders have come up with a number of arguments to back up their case for the continued existence of their system rather than the type of playoff or tournament that exists in every other sport at every other level of college athletics. (If that sounds somewhat cynical, apologies are in order). They often told us about their concerns for the welfare of the "student-athletes," and how a playoff might affect their academic standing.
Sadly, the fact that the university presidents have voted in favor of adding a 12th and often a 13th game to the regular season seems to have made some people skeptical about that argument. There's also the issue of the calendar: A playoff would fall almost entirely during a period when the student-athletes aren't in school, as opposed to, say, the NCAA basketball tournament, which takes place at one of the most hectic times on the academic calendar each year.
Perhaps, sometime soon, the presidents will opt to give up their $11 billion TV contract with CBS to protect the student-athletes. Perhaps none of us should sit by the phone waiting to get the call telling us that has happened.
Since that argument seems to be, let's call it a little bit problematic, they have also tried the argument mentioned above about how meaningful the college football regular season is thanks to the BCS. Hmmm. Are they saying the basketball season, where every game played the last three weeks of the season seems to change the tournament bracket and its seedings, has no meaning? Or that the regular season in the college football championship (interesting word, no?) subdivision (formerly I-AA) has no meaning when teams are fighting for automatic bids and at-large bids to the 16 team tournament?
That one also seems to be having trouble holding water even though some ESPN anchor tried to tell us recently that the playoffs have already begun in college football. Really? Exactly when does TCU get its playoff shot at Florida, Alabama or Texas? When is that quarterfinal game between Boise State and Penn State? Those will be fun, won't they? Oh wait, they're not on the schedule.
There's also this one: TCU or Boise State would finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-10. Maybe, maybe not. How would Utah have done in the SEC last year? The point is those schools deserve the chance to prove their worth. Sort of like George Mason, Gonzaga and Davidson in men's basketball, to name a few. Notice you don't hear too many people claiming lately that those schools wouldn't do well in the ACC, Big East or Big Ten.
The most recent strategy appears to be this: admit the BCS isn't perfect (which some might say is sort of like saying the economy hasn't been robust recently) but then go on about how no system is perfect. What's more, the BCS strategists -- who recently announced that they believe their biggest problem is that they haven't defended the BCS eloquently enough and want to pay someone to specifically do just that -- are now trying to bring new voices to that mix.
This past weekend Larry Scott, the new commissioner of the Pac-10 conference, was making just that argument. Scott is a bright and articulate guy. He went to Harvard. He sounds very smart. He told his interviewers that while the BCS might not be perfect, there would be problems with a playoff or tournament. Teams would be left out and would be unhappy. There would be the whole question about how to divide the money.
He's right, of course. Every year several schools are upset about being left out of the basketball tournament. Others don't like their seeding. And yet, remarkably, there isn't a more enjoyable -- for players and fans, but really what do they matter? -- sports event in this country, year in and year out.
What's more, this may be just a guess, but the chances are probably pretty good that all those BCS types and their good friends at the NCAA would somehow figure a way to divide the money (which, coincidentally would probably double if a playoff ever happened) among themselves.
That said, Scott really did sound good. He'll probably be out front defending the BCS in the future. Certainly an eloquent defense of the BCS is something the world needs right now.
All of us will wait to hear the next set of excuses -- sorry, reasons -- why a playoff simply can't happen. We will wait very calmly because the question isn't if those reasons will be forthcoming but when they will be forthcoming. And from whom. Because you can be sure there's someone standing in line right behind Larry Scott.
For more from the author, visit his Web site, http://www.feinsteinonthebrink.com