Making the Trains Run on Time: Destroying the Myth of the Bowl System

When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney stated that playoffs would lead to “professionalism,” I about spit vodka all over my keyboard.  When BCS Executive Direction Bill Hancock stated that his system “works” I damn near went running for the 151.

Bill Hancock — delusional!

Hancock and the BCS cadre are about as tired of the “invectives” as I and others are tired of railing against the illogical system used to determine the champion of the top tier of college football.  But I will venture into it one more time.

But I will agree with Hancock on one thing…and one thing only.  His system does work.  The BCS system is designed to draw the top two teams in its poll and place them in a game against one another.  Using their “perfect” formula — which draws on computers that hide their own formulas — the BCS is able to isolate two teams that they have determined to be worthy of playing in their championship game.

So in that respect, the BCS system does work — it does what it sets out to do.

However, if Hancock is insinuating that his system “works” in providing the clearest — or at least the most complete method possible — in determining a champion for the FBS, he is sadly mistaken.  And delusional.

The BCS will trot out any argument to support their stance that their method of “choosing” a champion is superior to all other available.  And when someone counters it, they will simple deflect and move to a different argument of support.

  • The money argument

The BCS lovers will make the claim that the BCS makes money for colleges.  Certainly the argument can be made for BCS bowl games.  For example, both TCU and Wisconsin received $21.2 million, which will be divided amongst conference members before each team receives their respective cut.  That’s awesome!

But what about other bowl games.  BYU — a member of the Mountain West; same as TCU — and UTEP each receive a whopping $750,000 for their participation in the New Mexico Bowl.  Wow!  At least that is better than what Troy and Ohio took home from the New Orleans Bowl — $325,000 each.

The average payout for all bowls is $3.58 million.  That is, however, looking at all bowls.  BCS bowls produce an average payout of $18.175 million while “lesser” bowls are only $1.56 million.  There are nine bowls that payout less than $1 million.

Oh, the agony of bowl costs!

Well, that sounds great, yeah?  Problem is that the cost of going to bowl games are not include.  For example, in 2009 each Big Ten school received approximately $2.2 million regardless of it that school had a bowl representative.  Teams that went to a bowl game also pay for traveling to the bowl game, although the conference often times provides a stipend.  However, since teams that do not “go bowling” do not have to pay for the cost of all the logistics, they actually profit by not participating in the bowl system.  Meanwhile, teams that are invited to bowls must use their “reward money” to cover costs.

Ah, but what if the stipend is not enough?  According to a USA Today report in 2000, eighteen schools actually lost money by participating in bowl games.  Have things changed?  Well, in 2008, West Virginia lost money by playing in the Fiesta Bowl.  While Nevada made some profit from their bowl game, it was actually less that what they had previously earned despite having a better record this season.

A lot of this has to do with not selling the ticket requirement set forth by the bowls.  For example, this season Connecticut was left holding approximately $2.5 million in unsold tickets.  UConn is left to cover that requirement.  After accounting for travel costs from Connecticut to Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, the Huskies are likely going to lose money just to appear in that coveted BCS bowl.

But hey, at least the heads of the various bowls are making money!  For example, the CEO of the Sugar Bowl profited $645,386 in 2008-09.  This, despite the fact that the Sugar Bowl actually lost money!  Still, the money argument will be trotted out despite the fact that bowls lose money and are, at their core, “non-profits.”  There was a reason the Ohio State “Five” were not suspended for the bowl game but were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 regular season.  Hint: it begins with “M” and rhymes with honey!  [By the way, to their credit, all five did choose to return for their senior season].

  • It’s a tradition…unlike any other?

So, the money thing seems to fall flat.  The next argument then would be something like, say, “tradition.”  And you know that nothing screams “tradition” like the friggin’ GoDaddy.com Bowl.

Now, I know by “tradition” that the argument means that bowl games have existed for as long as anyone can remember.  But what about seemingly unlimited scholarships?  Independent teams?  Leather helmets?  No instant replay?  Ties?  Remember ties…and I do not mean those god-awful pieces of cloth people wrap around their neck.  No one is clamoring for those to remain in place or return.  Those traditions have changed, so why not an archaic system that is not even profitable?

Look, when baseball made changes such as inter-league games and the wild card, people bitched about it.  “You’re messing with tradition.”  But those changes have not ruined the game of baseball – steroids have!

Getting rid of the system that is currently in place – the bowl system – is not going to “ruin” college football.  It will enhance it.  Besides, where is the “tradition” in deciding that the Fiesta Bowl should be a part of the axis of bowls for the BCS?  The Fiesta Bowl began in 1971, well after the Sun Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, Gator Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Tangerine/Florida Citrus [now Capital One] Bowl, and even the Peach [now Chick-Fil-A] Bowl.  Avoiding El Paso, Orlando and Jacksonville makes some sense, but why choose a relatively new bowl [Fiesta] over one with “tradition” [Cotton] when both are in large cities?

As a side note, ironically the Fiesta Bowl was created because strong teams from a relatively weak conference [WAC] were being shut out of the bowls.

There is no tradition there.  It is fabricated.  It is all about money.  But wait, even the money argument flops.  So, if it is not about tradition and not about money, then what is it about?

  • The regular season is a “playoff”

How about maintaining the integrity of the regular season?  This is perhaps the most laughable pro-bowl argument of all.  The argument that gets trotted out by these master debaters is that with the bowl system, the regular season “means something”; that the regular season is already “like a playoff.”

So, if the regular season is “like a playoff,” then how is it that a two-loss LSU team was playing for the BCS title?  Especially given that Kansas only had one loss and Hawai’i was undefeated (going into the bowls).  How is the regular season a “playoff” when not only can a one-loss team make the BCS game, but that the weight of that one loss varies based on when that loss occurred?

This latter notion is perhaps the most damning to the pro-bowl argument.  In 2008, the BCS game participants were Florida and Oklahoma.  But Oklahoma technically finished in a three-way tie for the Big 12 South division.  Oklahoma was chosen because their one loss occurred on 11 October; Texas’s occurred on 1 November to Texas Tech, whose lone loss occurred on 22 November [to Oklahoma].  The timing of each of these losses allowed Oklahoma to overcome their setback and get into the BCS game.

The same thing happened this year when Wisconsin, which lost to Michigan State on 2 October, was chosen for the Rose Bowl over Ohio State [16 October loss to Wisconsin] and Michigan State [30 October loss to Iowa].  All three had only one loss but Wisconsin won the Big Ten because the timing of their loss allowed them to move back up the polls, which is a tie-breaker in the Big Ten.

So the bowl system does not create a scenario where the regular season is “like a playoff.”  Well, except for non-BCS teams, at least with regards to the BCS game and the BCS axis of bowls.  For non-BCS’ers, the regular season is like a playoff because one loss does indeed eliminate them from the BCS axis.  How else could one explain how one team could loss four regular season games (Connecticut) and make a BCS game while both Boise State and Nevada are shut out from the BCS axis of bowls despite having only one loss.  I include Nevada here not because they were the team to defeat Boise State [not Virginia Tech or Oregon State], but because the timing of the loss does not apply to non-BCS’ers – Nevada’s loss was to Hawai’i on 16 October; Boise State’s loss occurred on 26 November [both on the road, for what it is worth].

  • The integrity of the regular season

When the “regular season as playoffs” argument fails, then the argument shifts to explaining how the bowl system maintains the “integrity” of the regular season.  After all, nothing screams “integrity” like eight 6-6 teams going to bowls and losing, becoming a losing [6-7] team.  [NOTE: Idaho was also 6-7 but achieve that stellar record in the regular season].  The bowl system rewards mediocrity.

It is almost a “little league” mentality where everyone receives a trophy (more on this later).  There are 35 bowl games supporting 70 teams.  For math whizzes out there, that means that nearly 60 percent of all FBS teams are “rewarded” with a bowl game!!!  A number of those “rewarded” teams have mediocre records (even by their own accounts) and yet we are made to believe that the integrity of the regular season is maintained by the bowl system.

And it is not just BCS conferences that are guilty of supporting mediocrity.  These 6-6 juggernauts were just as likely to come from the SEC (three of them, by the way) as they were to come from the Sun Belt (Middle Tennessee State, Florida International).  In total, there were 13 6-6 teams to make a bowl game, going 5-8 overall.

Mediocrity rules!

If bowl games are supposed to reward “good seasons,” then why was a 6-6 Georgia team in a bowl game while an 8-4 Temple team remained at home?  Sure, someone will state that Georgia plays in a better conference [attempting to explain a 6-6 record], but I guarantee that a large portion of the UGA fan base holds a 6-6 (now 6-7) record as “disappointing” while Temple fans see 8-4 as a “good season.”

Again, shifting will occur.  It is the BCS axis of bowls that validates the regular season.  Oh…again, what of the Big East and the ACC, which have [since 2001] sent to the BCS teams with three or more losses five times (1-4 in those games) and are a combined 6-14 in that timeframe (the ACC is 1-9 over the last ten years; their lone win was a 9-4 Virginia Tech team defeating Big East representative Cincinnati).  The other four conferences have only sent a team with three or more losses three times (1-2), one of those being an at large bid (Illinois in the 2007 season).  Still, over the past ten years there have been eight teams with three or more losses in the BCS axis of bowls.

So, maybe the BCS game is the only game that “legitimates” the regular season as a playoff.  Well, I have already mentioned that there has been a two-loss team in the BCS game.  Furthermore, there was discussion that if Oregon or Auburn lost their final game that maybe a one-loss Stanford or Wisconsin team would leap frog [no pun intended] TCU, or worse that Auburn or Oregon would not fall below the Horned Frogs!

But, those points aside, if you want to argue that the BCS game – and that game alone – converts the FBS regular season into a “playoff,” then that should be the only post-season game played at the FBS tier!  Eliminate all other postseason games in the FBS!  Too radical?  Of course, because then the pro-bowlers will shift back to the arguments of “tradition” and “money.”

  • COUNTERPOINT 1: too many champions!
Eastern Washington — the real national champs!

Instead of narrowing it down to its most basic (and most logical in terms of maintaining the current method of deciding a “champion”), we are left with 35 national champions at the FBS tier!  What!?  You read correctly.  The bowl system is set up in a way that there are technically 35 national champions.  This is in no way an attempt to delegitimate Auburn’s BCS championship, but the fact remains that the Division 1 national champion is the Eastern Washington Eagles, just like Villanova was last season’s Division 1 champion.  The NCAA will recognize EWU as such, not Auburn [and not Alabama last season].

In essence, due to the ambiguous method through which a champion is crowned at the FBS tier, every bowl game is a “championship.”  And there is no arguing that the winner of a given bowl game is that bowl’s “champion.”  Troy is the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Champion; no other team can make that claim this season!  Tulsa is the Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl Champion; no other team can make that claim this season.  And Auburn is the BCS Champion; no other team can make that claim this season.

Thus we are left with 35 undisputed champions.  The dispute, however, occurs when attempting to discern the national champion.  Sure, most will dub the winner of the BCS game the “national champion,” but controversy still remains.  Much like last season with Boise State, this season left us with two undefeated teams – Auburn and TCU.  Some have argued that TCU never received a fair shot at the assigned national champs.  And yet, had TCU played Auburn instead of Oregon, there would have been a similar argument made about Oregon’s omission.

Therefore, there is no undisputed national champion at the FBS tier.  We are left with 35 undisputed “champions.”  While one may be hard-pressed to find a feasible argument to assign BYU the national champion, one could very easily make an argument that TCU is a “national champion.”  The AP poll (three first place votes) and the coaches’ poll (one first place vote) thought enough to dispute the champion; the former poll even saw Division 1 champ Eastern Washington receive one (regular) vote.

  • COUNTERPOINT 2: arbitrary nature of bowl selection

The reason why Auburn’s claim as “national champion” can be deemed disputed rests on the arbitrary nature of bowl selections.  Yes, there are bowl tie-ins and yes the BCS axis of bowls uses a “formula” and polls.  But the polls are illogical due to the unequal weight given to the timing of losses and the false perception of team strength based preseason “analysis” and conference stereotypes.

To illustrate the arbitrary nature of general bowl selection, in 2006 Maryland and Boston College finished the ACC with identical 5-3 conference records.  Maryland finished the regular season 8-4 while Boston College ended with a 9-3 mark.  BC also defeated the Terrapins 38-16 in the regular season.  Despite the fact that the Golden Eagles defeated Maryland and had a better overall record, it was Maryland that was invited to the more lucrative Champs Sports Bowl while BC was relegated to the less prestigious Meineke Car Care Bowl.  The unstated reason?  Boston College has a reputation of not traveling well, unlike Maryland.  Hence, the choice was arbitrary – and certainly within the rights of the respective bowls – and lacking of any true logic.  The main concern was, as always, money.  Hence, how can one deem one team the national champ over another when the entire basis through which the games are determine lack logic and the decisions are arbitrary?

  • COUNTERPOINT 3: ending the dispute?

Now, certainly debates exist in playoff-based championships.  Some may argue, for example, that Duke had a relatively easy road to the NCAA men’s basketball championship last season, or that the San Francisco Giants were not the “best overall” team in baseball last season.  However, few if any dispute that the Blue Devils or Giants are champions of their respective sport.  Short of discovering that a championship team cheats, no one legitimately disputes the results of a tournament.

I mean, this year’s Super Bowl sees a sixth-seeded Green Bay team taking on the second-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers.  Will anyone dispute that the winner is the champion of the NFL?

This is not an advocation that the playoff system is a flawless method for deciding a champion.  Playoffs have their own flaws – where to cut off the number of invites; seeding; automatic bids and conference parity; etc.  But playoff systems at least produce a more legitimate and less disputed champion than the bowl system.  Even the system used to determine a champion in many European soccer leagues – everyone plays everyone – is more legitimate than the bowl system (although admittedly not feasible with college football).

And, given the fact that 6-6 teams are rewarded by the bowl system for mediocre seasons, a playoff system would better maintain the integrity of the regular season that the current system.  Certainly due to automatic bids (Coastal Carolina at 6-5) and perceived conference powers (Northern Iowa, Georgia Southern, New Hampshire and Villanova all received at-large bids from power conferences despite having four losses), teams with questionable records to make it to the tournament.  Yet, home field advantage is the larger reward for a good season; something that is lacking in the bowl system (save LSU playing in the Sugar Bowl or Southern California playing in the Rose Bowl).

Additionally, in its history, the Division 1 champion has had three or more losses eight times (in 31 seasons).  But no one questions the legitimacy of that champion because they ran the gauntlet of a “real” playoff.  However, people do question the legitimacy of a team with three or more losses being “rewarded” a BCS bowl; something that again has occurred eight times over the last ten years!

Nevertheless, while based on the final regular season BCS poll a 9-3 Alabama would have been in a 16-team tournament, they would have been on the road at…Auburn.  If you wanted to include all conference champions automatically – something that even the FCS does not do – then the Sun Belt champion (Troy, which played in the New Orleans Bowl over FIU) would travel to Auburn [interesting matchup, by the way].  And including all conference champions would exclude Alabama, Nevada (if Boise State is chosen over the Wolf Pack), Oklahoma State and Missouri.  AND, the dilemma of only allowing three teams from the same conference into the BCS axis of bowls would be avoided IF the polls are the measure for at-large teams.  Therefore, the season still matters.

  • Conclusion

Look, at this point it should be obvious.  The arguments supporting the bowl system, in particular the BCS system, all collapse on themselves.  The only way the pro-side can move the argument forward is by jumping from one argument to the next in order to avoid revealing the chosen argument as being flawed.

Playoffs are not going to erode the mythical “tradition” of college football anymore than instant replay, conference championship games, and overtime, if at all.  Playoffs are not going to destroy the “integrity” of the regular season.  Playoffs are not going to lead to the professionalization of college football – big time television deals and multi-million dollar endorsement deals have already began the push down that road (see A.J. Green or the Ohio State “Five”).  And it is not going to stop the amount of money made – and spent – on college football, as the new ESPN-University of Texas television deal suggests.

What a playoff will destroy is the dispute over who is the “national champion.”  Sure BCS head Bill Hancock is accurate when he states that the BCS “works,” but only because it designed in a way to arbitrarily “determine” the top two teams based off an illogical poll.

Even Mussolini made the trains run on time.  But that, like the BCS being a valid method of determining a “national champion,” is a myth.  But it is a myth that lives on in an effort to convince college football fans that their system “works,” despite the crumbling of their pillars of “truths.”

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One thought on “Making the Trains Run on Time: Destroying the Myth of the Bowl System

  1. Pingback: Alabama Slammer: How the BCS Can “Get It Right” with a Rematch « UNCLE POPOV's Drunken Sports Rant

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