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The BCS & Elitism in College Football: A Critical Perspective

Who actually likes the BCS, anyway?

Everyone realizes what a broken system college football’s Bowl Championship Series actually is, for a plethora of reasons. Yet, alternatives – like a playoff system – are dismissed, and fall by the wayside. For the love of God, our own president has called for an overhaul to how college football crowns a national champion, and even that has fallen on deaf ears. I have even shot down arguments that have actually been made to defend this disgusting system.

But, while books like Death to The BCS can make much more compelling cases than I about why the BCS must be torn down, I want to turn your attention to something much more troubling – a particular part of the BCS rankings, and a much-overlooked side effect that mirrors a disturbing aspect of Americana. It provides further evidence as to why college football needs a playoff, while simultaneously providing a vehicle for inequality in our society.

In a nutshell, the Bowl Championship Series was created in order to better determine a national champion in college football. Before the BCS, national championships were determined by coaches’ and writers’ polls, at the end of the regular season. No ultimate matchups occurred on the field to crown a champion; it was simply given to the team people deemed the best. The BCS was meant to change that, by applying a highly-complex formula to the best teams in the nation. The two highest BCS scores at the end of the regular season would play for the National Championship.

Despite their Cinderella-like success in the BCS, Boise State could realistically never play for a National Championship.

However, especially in recent years, the BCS has had a knack for leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of millions of college football fans. With the rise of mid-major college football programs like TCU, Boise State and Utah, the championship debates were no longer limited to big-name, “automatic qualifier” (AQ) conferences like the SEC, the Big 12, the Big 10 and the Pac-10. While big programs faltered over the years, it was those mid-majors that kept a tradition of winning. Regardless of their impressive, sometimes undefeated, seasons, these mid-major, non-AQ teams went without a shot for the national championship.

Despite these developments, AQ conferences were quick to defend their place atop the college football food chain. E. Gordon Gee, president of Big-10 football power, Ohio State University, said in an interview in November, among other things, that schools in non-AQ conferences, like Boise State and TCU, don’t deserve to play for the national championship:

“Well, I don’t know enough about the Xs and Os of college football. I do know, having been both a Southeastern Conference president and a Big Ten president, that it’s like murderer’s row every week for these schools. We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor. We play very fine schools on any given day. So I think until a university runs through that gauntlet that there’s some reason to believe that they not be the best teams to [be] in the big ballgame.”

To be clear, Gee is referring to the competition that teams like Boise State and TCU play on a regular basis; namely, teams in their own conferences – the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and Mountain West Conference (MWC), respectively. Historically, teams in these conferences are considered to have much less talent than those in the big-name conferences. And Gee is not the only one who shares these sentiments. Arguments against teams like Boise State and TCU playing for the title game have been lobbed by college football analysts and sports pundits for years: they don’t play good enough competition, so they don’t deserve to play in the big game.

The TCU Horned Frogs went 12-0 in the regular season for the second year in a row. Their reward? Not a BCS Title shot.

The BCS provides a perfect illustration of this sentiment. Pundits who actually understood the BCS were quick to say at the start of the season that, no matter what Boise State did in the 2010 regular season, their chances of competing in a national championship game were slim to none. This was despite the fact that they were ranked #4 in the nation to begin the season, and were ranked as high as #3. This was despite the fact that they had gone undefeated the previous season, and beat an equally impressive TCU team in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. Why? Because the BCS formula was already biased against the Broncos, based on their strength of schedule – based on who they played.

Now, I can’t argue that what they say has some truth to it. I mean, no one will ever mistake Louisiana State (from the SEC) with Louisiana Tech (from the WAC). In terms of quality, yes – teams from the SEC or the Big 12 are far more challenging to play, on average, than teams from the MWC or the WAC. There is no refuting that.

What I am saying is that it shouldn’t matter. After all, good teams don’t control what conferences they play in. Boise State had dominated the WAC for years. Since their inception to the WAC in 2001, the Broncos have gone an incredible 113-16, not losing more than 4 games in any given season. Under current head coach Chris Petersen, they have gone 60-5, going undefeated three times in his tenure. Furthermore, TCU, under current head coach Gary Patterson, has gone an impressive 85-28 in a ten-year span, in a fairly competitive Mountain West.

On top of all that, Boise State has proven time and time again that they belong in the national championship discussion year in and year out, beating teams like Oklahoma (2007), Virginia Tech (2010) and the aforementioned TCU (2003, 2009). Yet, because they happen to play in the Western Athletic Conference, they would need a miracle in any given year to even be considered.

The bottom line is that Boise State is more heavily scrutinized, with every win and loss they take, than AQ schools like Auburn, Alabama, Oklahoma or Ohio State. For instance, defending National Champion Alabama was upset handily in midseason by a South Carolina squad ranked 19th in the country, 35-21. However, until they lost their second game to LSU four weeks later, they were still more heavily considered by the BCS to play for the national championship than undefeated Boise State or TCU.

Conversely, Boise State was upset late in the season by 19th-ranked Nevada in overtime, 34-31. Their fall was much worse, and the implications meant that their chances of playing for the title went from “slim” to “none”. As for TCU? They went undefeated in 2010. Their reward? A BCS Bowl … against Wisconsin, in the Rose Bowl, in lieu of a championship appearance.

The system is already stacked against non-AQ schools, like a virtual “Keep Out” sign for schools like Boise and TCU. No matter what they did on the field, it was never going to be good enough for the BCS, because it already made up its mind about the “inferior” non-AQ conferences. And this reflects back on the AQ conferences that benefit from the system. Go back and read Gee’s statement about non-AQ schools: it sure does sound elitist, doesn’t it?

It’s statements like Gee’s, perpetuating this fallacious belief that certain schools are not – and couldn’t possibly be – good enough simply because they play in an “inferior” conference. It’s as if they use a version of the “guilt by association” argument – “TCU can’t possibly be that good. I mean, come on – look where they play.” It is a de facto, hegemonic belief that turns college football into a social portrait of “haves” and “have-nots”.

This takes, perhaps, the Bowl Championship Series’ greatest arguing point – that “debate is good for college football” – and turns it on its head. When it is obvious that the debates will never end without a satisfactory resolution, under a BCS system, it is foolish to think that debates about the BCS will end in nothing but utter frustration. If anything, this is further evidence that a playoff system needs to be enacted. How are we going to have a best possible finish to a college football season without a legitimate way to decide a champion – without a way to end the arguments?

Furthermore, when the argument for and against non-AQ schools playing for the championship becomes reliant on the fact that the BCS inherently keeps out non-AQ schools, it cannot be seen as a fair system. Therefore, it is inherently an elitist system that promotes inequality among college football’s most impressive programs. Even when broken down to its very core, the BCS represents every bureaucratic ideal the general public tends to loathe in society.

So, why, exactly, do we allow this system to exist?

1 Comment on The BCS & Elitism in College Football: A Critical Perspective

  1. I really enjoyed the article. I’ve just published a fresh take on a college football playoff to replace the BCS (actually, it creates two playoffs. Check out the website at: http://savingthespirit.com/

    Get the proposal at:
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005CW5EZ2

    Based on what you’ve said here, this is definitely worth your time.

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