The conference expansion issue is dead isn’t it? The “dominoes” have fallen and the world didn’t end. Except, now Notre Dame has joined the ACC in every sport except football and hockey and the whole subject is coming around again.
Maybe it isn’t all over. Maybe it isn’t even close to being over.
I’ve spent the last couple of years projecting what I thought would happen to the world of college football. Like virtually every other analyst, prognosticator or talking head out there, I was right on some things and terribly wrong on others.
It’s an imperfect science, to say the least.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve also gotten into a lot of discussions (code for arguments) over what teams were going where, why and what the landscape of college football would ultimately look like when the dust settles.
Ultimately, I think college football will end up with four major “Super Conferences” while the leftovers fight for recognition in mid-major conferences and try to play the Boise State card. It likely won’t last forever, but that’s where I see it going.
Along with that, I think the playoffs will eventually include the champions of those four Super Conferences. It might even eventually expand to six or eight teams to allow for the Alabama’s of the world that are odds-on favorites for a shot at the ultimate prize even though they fell just a shade short of winning their conference.
At first though, it will be just the four.
Others disagree. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to effectively argue why I think that’s going to happen in the limited space allowed by Twitter? It’s like trying to suck a bucket of JELL-O through a coffee stirrer. You’ll eventually get there, but it’s never satisfying and utterly exhausting to even try.
Instead, I’m putting together a series of articles to explain why I think all of these things will come to pass and why it’s practically inevitable.
The first step is to address the inherent problem at the root of the issue:
The Quest is Impossible
We, as college football fans, are too hung up on the idea of “best.” Who is the player? Give them a Heisman Trophy. Who is the best team in America? Give them a crystal football.
The problem is, “best” is relative. It requires a clearly defined set of criteria that isn’t subject to outside variables which might muddy the evaluation. It’s the result of raw data free from emotion, beyond contestation.
But that’s not life and it certainly isn’t football.
Football is a human adventure, contrived by humans, conducted by humans, overseen by humans, officiated by humans and for the entertainment of humans. It’s a highly physical sport that threatens a massive change of fortune with every play called, every pass thrown and every flag dropped to the turf.
It’s subject to human error. It’s fueled by human emotion. It ebbs and flows with every unavoidable injury, rolls with every unpredictable breakout performance and thunders right along with the roar of the crowds with every major upset.
It’s gladiatorial poetry in motion.
Nothing about it fits in the “best box” because it can’t be so easily defined. Not the teams and not the sport itself. There are more variables than can be accounted for, no matter how complex the mathematical algorithms.
It is always open to debate; always subject to various analyses.
It is gloriously imperfect.
For its part, the BCS attempted to address the deepest concerns of the masses. The computer rankings attempt to pinpoint the top teams by factoring their record with the records of the teams they’ve played and carrying it at least one level deeper by factoring in the records of the teams their opponents played.
They attempt to factor in what we would normally call “intangibles” such as home field advantage by assigning different values for wins that occur on the road versus on the home turf, or designating a different value for a victory over a team from a lesser league (such as FCS) versus a victory over a team from the same league as the team in question.
The same holds true for losses.
Realizing that computers can’t account for everything, the BCS added purely human polls to attempt to account for things like a team that consistently plays fundamentally sound football versus a team that has a knack for making big breaks and getting big wins despite playing somewhat sloppy ball.
There are factors that just can’t be adequately quantified.
Still, the BCS failed. It failed because it is virtually impossible to factor in every variable. It failed because it attempted to quantify things that aren’t quantifiable.
Take for example the “Boise State argument.”
In 2009, the Broncos were a perfect 14-0. They defeated No.11 Oregon and No.6 TCU. They won six times on the road and their average margin of victory was 42.2 to 17.1. Yet they didn’t get a shot at the BCS Championship. They didn’t even break the top three, finishing the season ranked No.4.
The argument was simply that they didn’t play a tough enough schedule. It’s always been the argument against Boise State. Hailing from the WAC (at that time), the bulk of their schedule was against competition that was routinely obliterated by schools hailing from BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences.
In addition, the argument continued that, had Boise State been given a shot at the title and won, it would have been tainted because “anyone can get up for one big game when they have a month to prepare for it.”
They were valid arguments. I don’t discount the argument that the Broncos may not have looked so good had they been forced to play the likes of Alabama, LSU and Georgia in the same year, or had they been forced to take on Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Insert any top teams from any “major” conference and the argument is the same.
And, had the Broncos won the championship there would have been some calling for an asterisk next to their name on the record books.
Yeah they won, but…
Still, the fact that the arguments are valid doesn’t diminish the argument that they may well have been “the best team in America” that year. They played fundamentally very sound football. They consistently dominated the lesser opponents in front of them.
I’ve read a plethora of fans commenting that Boise State “would have been mid-tier in any other conference” and while that opinion is worthy of consideration, it’s also unfounded. How do you know? How do you really know?
You don’t. You may think you know, but you don’t, and even if Boise State – who is now in the MWC and is set to head to the Big East next year – ends up mid-tier in their new conference(s), it’s not the same. This isn’t the same Boise State team in 2012 that took the field in 2009, or even in 2011.
This Boise State team might only be good enough to be mid-tier in a bigger league. The one from 2009 might have been good enough to win the Big Ten, Big 12, (then) Pac-10, ACC or even (gulp) the SEC. We don’t really know. We can’t know. It’s unknowable.
We can believe and we can support our beliefs with solid facts, but we can’t know.
The system failed because it was faced with an unwinnable situation. It couldn’t account for the possibility Boise State presented, countered by the very real doubt they embodied.
Further, let’s look at last year. Oklahoma State finished the regular season with a 12-1 record – the same record eventual-champion Alabama held. Yet Alabama got the nod for the BCS Championship Bowl despite having already lost at home to LSU – their opponent in the bowl game.
The simple answer is, Oklahoma State’s one loss looked a lot worse. It was a triple-overtime loss to Iowa State, who finished the regular season with a mediocre 7-5 record. That’s a far cry from losing to the only remaining undefeated team in America by a mere field goal.
However, does that automatically mean that Oklahoma State wasn’t as good as Alabama?
The system doesn’t take into account single-game performances. Iowa State played the game of their lives in that upset…on their home turf…in front of a home audience. It wasn’t perfect, but they went toe-to-toe with one of the most prolific offenses in the country and held their own.
Also, it doesn’t take into account that some teams – like Iowa State – have a knack for putting together one really great, signature win every season or two. They play well beyond their normal ability for one game, when it seems to matter most.
As mentioned earlier, it is the argument made against Boise State. Such games can happen, yet it doesn’t seem to completely diminish the teams that lose such games. That is, unless making that argument works in favor of the team you really want to see in the BCS title game, as happened to Oklahoma State.
So, for one afternoon a 7-5 caliber team played like an 11-1 team. Yet, Oklahoma State was punished because the humans only really looked at the end result of Iowa State’s season and not the performance they put up in that one game.
Oklahoma State was punished because the humans didn’t buy the computer numbers that said Alabama’s schedule wasn’t all that tough by comparison to those they were being compared with.
And after all, how do you really measure that one performance anyway? Did Oklahoma State’s defense really play that poorly or did Iowa State’s offense find the key to unlocking the door to victory?
Sometimes the game plan is more important than the average talent of a team.
Following the 2009 season, Iowa wasn’t supposed to beat Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The Hawkeyes were a typical, slow Big Ten team that played an outdated version of football. There was no way they could handle the heralded triple-option attack of the Yellowjackets.
Yet, Iowa manhandled Tech at the lines of scrimmage, played fundamentally sound assignment football and made that triple-option look about as dangerous as Yorkshire Terrier – it could scratch and bite, but it wasn’t about to maul anyone.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeye offense wasn’t supposed to be able to handle that ACC speed. So, Iowa just played straight-forward, smash-mouth football. They opened up holes in the line and the running backs took the defenders head-on, eliminating their speed by making it secondary to the ability to take and deliver hits.
Iowa won that bowl game because the game plan they put in place eliminated any technical advantage Georgia Tech may have had. They executed it flawlessly and overpowered their opponent.
Nick Saban does the same exact thing year in and year out at Alabama – only with far better talent. His defenses aren’t the fastest in the SEC, but they’re fundamentally sound, technically proficient, hard-hitting and disciplined. They can adjust to any style attack successfully and relatively easily.
Meanwhile, the offense – while not exactly sexy – is balanced and proficient. The line is powerful. The running backs typically have a nice marriage of speed and run-you-over power. The receivers run clean routes and aren’t afraid to go up after the ball.
And the quarterbacks are at least good enough to put the ball in places their teammates can make plays. It isn’t necessarily high-octane. It isn’t “all the rage”. It’s classic, fundamental football at its best and it works.
Nick Saban hasn’t won BCS titles at two different schools out of sheer luck. He knows what he’s doing.
So, when Alabama throttled LSU in the Championship game, there was vindication for those who argued in favor of the Tide over the Cowboys. It seemed all was right with the world. The anointed kings of football had retained their crown in the biggest game and everyone could mark up the previous gaff to the Tigers as just that – a simple mistake against a very, very good opponent.
That is, those that watched could do that. The rest of the nation didn’t care, but that’s for another part of the series.
None of that diminishes the argument that Alabama may not have been the best choice to play in that game at all. The fact that they won comfortably does virtually nothing to demonstrate what Oklahoma State would have done in that game given the chance.
For that matter, it does nothing to demonstrate what Oklahoma State would have done against Alabama had they had the opportunity to settle the issue on the field for the right to play in the big game.
Armchair quarterbacks across the nation can argue it all they want and the talking heads in the media certainly took their 15 minutes discussing the issue. It’s all blather; it means nothing. No matter how many stats you quote and no matter how many times you scream “they lost to Iowa State”; there’s no way to accurately determine what would have happened if Oklahoma State would have had the opportunity to play their way into the game.
Beyond the simple argument of who the best is, there’s a very large lack of discussion in regards to who is the best at the appropriate time.
Proponents of the current system routinely argue that the best team finds ways to win consistently, all season long. Any letdown is a knock unless everyone else has a letdown somewhere too. Perfection trumps all, unless your schedule is so weak the record means nothing.
Yet a lot of those same proponents claim to want to see the best possible match-up for the title.
So, what of the team that had a slow start and dropped a couple of early games before they got their act together? What of the team that suffered a couple of losses because a few key players suffered injuries, but got back on track as they returned to action?
Per the system, they’re unworthy. Per the system, they’re not “the best.” But what if they are? What if – under normal conditions – they are every bit as good as the undefeated or one-loss teams in the hunt?
Wouldn’t it be just as entertaining to watch them have their shot or is it really about the aura of near-perfection that lures fans even if the two teams aren’t necessarily as strong as other options?
Has the public really gotten so brain-washed as to believe “best” can be equated directly to record? Mohammed Ali is widely considered the greatest boxer of his era (if not all-time) yet he wasn’t undefeated. Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, yet was the undisputed heavyweight champ of his era.
Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player to ever play the game, but the Bulls were never undefeated. The Yankees with Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio weren’t perfect.
Sometimes greatness is seen in the ability to learn from your mistakes, grow from them and to become the “best” at what you do because of them.
If great football is the goal, and looked at objectively, it should be clear that “best” is far more complicated than records, polls or computer rankings. It’s deeper than the average “eye test” (which is often flawed by preconceived perceptions and unintentional bias) and more difficult to identify than a needle in a wheat field.
So, what does any of this have to do with four-team playoffs, Super Conferences or the future of college football?
It’s painfully obvious that a playoff is needed. The BCS system – as honorable as the intentions behind its creation may have truly been (regardless of what cynics think) – is flawed. For all the jabber by those saying “they get it right most of the time”, I’d beg to differ. We don’t really know if they get it right even a portion of the time, or half-right all the time, or partially right some of the time, or…
It’s that uncertainty that has finally brought us to the point where the BCS has caved and is offering at least a version of a playoff. Fans want it settled on the field. The fans deserve to see it settled on the field.
It is my belief that people are waking up to the idea that the “best” teams don’t always play in the traditionally strong conferences. The “best” teams at the end of the year aren’t necessarily the “best” teams in September or October.
Most importantly, the incessant arguing isn’t helping college football. Debate is good for any entertainment venue, but not when the subject of that debate causes the kind of discontent that the BCS has caused.
The current movement toward a Super Conference, true playoff system started with a need. This is that need.
Next segment will discuss the upcoming playoffs and how they’ll feed into Super Conference movement. Until next time, Happy Bowl Hunting!