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To Have and Have Not: A Primer on Football, Fairness, and the B.C.S.

The discussion provoked by my final BlogPoll ballot generated some comments which warranted detailed responses and this posting is the latest installment in a series of attempts to address issues dealing directly with the fundaments of college football in the 21st century. After offering an answer to some questions from DC Trojan, I made an initial effort at replying to a lengthy comment by BCSBusters, the pertinent portion of which reads as follows:

USC is a part of the CFA, even though the conference vote back in the mid-1980's went against their hopes and vision to align with the CFA. They still benefit like LSU did this past year. My argument today is not that USC or the PAC-10 didn't get a chance to win or play in the championship.

My point is this system of placing poll votes is highly invalid and inaccurate, no matter who conducts it, is full of social bias and flat out discrimination, and can be manipulated to benefit the elite juggernauts to satisfy the television ratings.

This system of ranking conferences ahead or below each other is a complete sham, and quite frankly, it leads to the argument we are having today, because it sways pollsters who vote in the polls, again, whether it be the Blog-Poll, AP or the BCS.

I do not reward LSU anymore for this years mythical championship anymore than I did USC's in 2004, since Auburn was undefeated as well. I just get tired of the smear campaign against the PAC-10 or the Rose Bowl. The conference tie-ins to all the bowls is the problem, it isn't specific to the Rose Bowl itself, and I'm tired of our conference getting bashed because some greedy conferences want access to the second best ratings bowl, when they do not open up their own bowl tie-ins to other teams, like Boise State, Fresno State, Utah or BYU and PAC-10 teams like Oregon, Oregon State or California as well.

BCSBusters expounded upon these themes in a subsequent comment:
USC and UCLA are a part of the CFA. At the same time, they are also penalized by being on the other side of the alliance, with their association with the PAC-10.

Think about this. USC had to win something like 30 out of 32 games in a row before they were given the opportunity to even play in the BCS championship game.

It's a bit of a catch 22, but Oregon, California, Oregon State and even Washington do not get the same adulation or credit in the eyes of the BCS, as USC does now, and it took winning 30 out of 32 games before the BCS poll finally relented and placed USC against Oklahoma in 2004.

This is but one part of 50 different subplots that formulate the riddle wrapped up inside the enigma that I talk about in the book manuscript. Some people claim that I am over-exaggerating, maybe looking to hard for a connection here.

The bottom line for me is that in 16 years of the BCS, Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition, not a single team outside of this CFA alliance has competed in the national championship game. How do you explain that, especially given the parity witnessed this decade in college football. I don't think that could happen just be accident.

This is not an attack, this is a question that I am interested in your astute response.

This, in turn, echoed a sentiment previously expressed by BCSBusters in an earlier comment:
The rift between the Big-10 and PAC-10 versus the CFA is well documented in history, and since the same people are still in power, isn't it odd we are still having these same issues today and hurling the same insults back and forth?

When a person like James Carville comes along and bashes the PAC-10, Mountain West or WAC, and even more specifically the Rose Bowl, I like you Kyle, draw the line.

I've mentioned before in this series of articles that there isn't any difference between your conference tie in with the Sugar, Capitol One or Gator Bowls than there is with the PAC-10. Georgia's situation this year in wanting to get to the Rose Bowl isn't any different than California's situation in 2004.

Nearly every team that has been snubbed by the BCS(other than Oregon in the Fiesta) has gone on to lose their bowl game, instigating the over used and over blown phrase "The BCS Got it Right.

Do you think that every person that has been passed over for a job promotion that they felt they deserved did not have trouble coming back to work and giving 100%. This is human nature.

When Texas loses two straight Holiday Bowls to Oregon and Washington State, not a word was said about the BCS got it right, but the minute California or this years version Arizona State loses, we hear, Oh, by golly, I guess the BCS was right after all.

Before I begin my response (astute or otherwise), I believe two points must be made. First of all, while BCSBusters and I see many matters differently, I cannot deny that he brings a valid perspective to the table which is worth considering. We all have ingrained biases, many of which we hold and act upon without conscious awareness of the fact, so, as irksome as it may be to us to have the spotlight shone on our preconceived notions, our intellectual integrity demands that we give due thought to this weighty subject.

Secondly, and as a result of the first point, I believe it is important that you know where I am coming from before you fairly are able to evaluate my response. As someone who believes bloggers ought to be forthright about admitting their biases, I freely admit that I am an S.E.C. homer and I openly set forth the reasons why I am a Georgia fan.

This might have had a little something to do with it.

As a supporter of restoring the traditional pre-B.C.S. bowl tie-ins, I have defended Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen's defense of the Rose Bowl, even though I believe the best scenario is for the Granddaddy of 'Em All to give a guaranteed berth to the Pac-10 champion but not to the Big Ten champion. After tracing the history of bowl games, I proposed the following reform:

Automatic tie-ins between conferences and bowl games must be strengthened at the top and eliminated below. Since non-B.C.S. conferences are gaining in prestige and influence, it is unfair to disadvantage rising programs in what sometimes are called "mid-major" leagues by eradicating the bowl games that historically have hosted such squads while leaving in place guaranteed bids for six-win teams from the middle of a major conference pack.

Suppose, for instance, that a 10-2 Oklahoma team qualifies for an invitation to the Cotton Bowl and the Dallas-based game's arrangement with the S.E.C. requires that the other bid go to a 10-2 L.S.U. squad . . . which does not seem at all an unlikely scenario. Now assume, as well, that T.C.U. goes 12-0, which also is plausible. It might well be that the Bayou Bengals are more deserving of the Cotton Bowl berth than the Horned Frogs . . . but, then again, they might not be.

Cotton Bowl organizers might prefer to match Texas Christian with the Sooners, figuring that television viewers would tune in for a rematch of 2005's most surprising season-opener at the conclusion of the 2006 campaign and that attendance would be improved by the presence of a Lone Star State squad with a former Southwest Conference pedigree. Reasonable fans might argue over which team was the more deserving, but that argument ought at least to be possible and consequential. Weakening or abolishing conference tie-ins would create a wider range of options for intriguing match-ups in a truncated postseason.

At the same time, the integrity of the system demands that historic connections to major bowl games be respected to the extent possible. While I didn't much care for the Rose Bowl's whining at the end of the 2002 season---when neither Big Ten co-champion wound up in Pasadena---the organizers of the Granddaddy of 'Em All had a point. The addition of the fifth B.C.S. contest as the designated national championship game should help in this regard, but it needs to be set in stone: the top teams in the major conferences who are not bound for the title game must go to their traditional host bowls, period.

In a similar vein, I later took the time to show how giving the Mountain West champion a Cotton Bowl or Gator Bowl berth likely would produce some competitive New Year's Day games. In last year's radical realignment proposal, I likewise devised an elaborate series of balanced bowl tie-ins.

Surely none of those ideas would have turned out any worse than giving Hawaii a Sugar Bowl bid did.

Moreover, while I believe I have given as good as I have gotten whenever the S.E.C. has been maligned or mischaracterized (as evidenced by the earlier and more heated portions of BCSBusters's and my exchange), I also have been willing to criticize my conference when the need arises.

While I take great pride in Georgia's football heritage, and particularly in Georgia's 50-year tradition of national scheduling that arose after Georgia stopped playing high school teams, I have no qualms about offering such constructive criticisms as these:

There are those who will scoff at Pac-10 football, sneering that Cal could afford to play better non-conference opponents than Georgia because, after all, the S.E.C. is better than its West Coast counterpart. If that is so, though, why is it that, since 1966, Pac-10 teams have won or shared seven national championships, very nearly equaling the nine earned by the S.E.C.? Yes, I know . . . S.E.C. teams beat up on each other. Well, guess what: Pac-10 teams do, too. . . .

S.E.C. scheduling has improved, but it hasn't improved enough. We're either a nationally prominent program or we're not. We're either the best conference in the country or we're not. We're either willing to prove it on the field or we're not. I don't know about you, but I'm ready for some football . . . anytime, anywhere, against anybody.

For what it's worth, Georgia is 7-0 against Pac-10 teams in games played in the Empire State of the South and 1-4-1 against Pac-10 teams in games played in the rest of the country. I'm ready to change that. Aren't you?

As someone who tries to promote good relations between conferences, I genuinely have trouble comprehending why there is so much feuding between leagues and I have taken the pledge not to engage in the conference wars.

I'm still on the fence about participating in the Clone Wars, though.

All that having been said, I see BCSBusters's points, but I also see some problems with them. I simply don't buy the premise that a team has any business grousing about a B.C.S. bowl snub if that squad subsequently comes up short in a lesser postseason outing. Nearly a year ago, I wrote the following in support of the proposition that, if you lose, you no longer get to complain:

Jeff Tedford would have gone to a B.C.S. bowl game, had it not been for Mack Brown's lobbying. Yes, Texas "two-stepped" around Cal . . . but can we all agree that it is sheer unmitigated nonsense to say that Cal should have gone to the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2004 season? . . .

Boise State fans get to gripe that they deserved a shot at the national title in 2006, because the Broncos went undefeated.

As much as it pains me to admit it, Auburn fans get to gripe that they deserved a shot at the national title in 2004, because the Plainsmen went undefeated.

Oregon fans get to gripe that they deserved a shot at the national title in 2001, because they went to a major bowl game and beat the Colorado team that beat the Nebraska team that took what would have been the Ducks' spot in the big game.

Georgia fans do not get to gripe about the illegitimacy of the Big East as a conference, because the Bulldogs went to the Sugar Bowl and lost to the Mountaineers.

Michigan fans do not get to gripe about the 2006 national championship, because Florida beat the Ohio State team that beat the Wolverines, who then turned right around and lost the Rose Bowl. . . .

Dislike the process if you like. Complain about the unseemliness of political machinations intruding upon a process decided by persuasion and voting if you will. Cal's unworthiness was proven on the field.

Plenty of teams have preferred a postseason pairing superior to the one they received yet still displayed the character and craftsmanship to claim victory over the opponent before them. Rutgers went 10-2 during the 2006 regular season, only to wind up in a pre-New Year's Eve bowl game against a seven-win Kansas State squad. The Scarlet Knights responded by blasting the Wildcats in a 37-10 thrashing. Bulldog Nation really wanted a Rose Bowl berth, but that didn't prevent Georgia from destroying Hawaii in the Superdome.

As I previously noted, any griping on behalf of Cal or any similarly situated team "is the equivalent of saying, 'Team A was a No. 5 N.C.A.A. tournament seed that got bounced in the first round by a No. 12 seed . . . but Team A really deserved a No. 3 seed!'" That argument will never make even the slightest headway with me. Head coaches are compensated handsomely to get their teams prepared and properly motivated. If the desire to silence the doubters isn't sufficient incentive for a team to play well enough to win against an inferior opponent, that's a point in the column of the doubters.

If you want to disprove the conventional wisdom of the polls, winning will serve you better than whining.

I likewise consider dubious the assertion that U.S.C. somehow was a victim of the system left on the outside looking in on the party to which the Trojans were not invited. Prior to Pete Carroll's arrival in the City of Angels, Southern California's pedigree included five national championships and four Heisman Trophy winners. As BCSBusters says, the Men of Troy did not receive a bid to the B.C.S. championship game until they finished the 2004 regular season with a 12-0 record and had won 31 outings in a 32-game span. Even before that, though, U.S.C. produced a Heisman Trophy recipient in 2002 and captured a share of the national title in 2003, despite not having appeared in the designated championship bowl game.

Even if the Trojans were given short shrift in that instance, though, they were far from alone. Georgia began the 2007 campaign as the winningest program in the S.E.C. over the course of the previous decade and the previous half-decade. No other team in the league had won nine games in each of the preceding five seasons and Mark Richt had established himself as just the fifth coach in Southeastern Conference history to have posted four straight ten-win seasons. Coach Richt's current career ledger of 72-19 not only makes him the best coach Georgia has ever had, it puts him not terribly far behind Coach Carroll, who has gone 76-14 over the same span (2001-2007).

The Bulldogs have won 64 of their last 79 games . . . yet, despite being as good a program as any in the S.E.C. (so much so that the Red and Black appear on the verge of becoming Southern Cal with a Southern accent), still we must contend with this sort of specious nonsense:

By any quantitative standard, Georgia has been a far better program than Penn State for some time now. Heck, the Nittany Lions have had four losing seasons this decade, while the Dawgs haven't won less than eight games in a season. And yet, I would tell you without a moment's hesitation that Penn State is a national power while Georgia is not.

So I suppose this raises a question: What exactly constitutes a "national power?" To be honest, I don't have a specific answer. Obviously, a history of on-field success (national championships, major bowls) is the key component, but the program must also continue to maintain relevance -- after all, Minnesota has a bunch of national titles on its mantle, but no one views the Gophers as a national power.

No, it's something more than wins and losses. It's a certain cachet or aura. It's the way a program is perceived by the public. Let me put it to you this way:

Suppose we went to, say, Montana. And suppose we found 100 "average" college football fans (not necessarily message-board crazies, but not twice-a-year viewers, either) and put them in a room. If I held up a Michigan helmet, my guess is all 100 would know exactly what it was. If I held up a picture of the USC song girls, all 100 would know who they were. If I happened to bring Joe Paterno along with me, all 100 would say, "Hey, look, it's Joe Paterno!"

But if I held up a Georgia "G" helmet, how many of them do you think would be able to identify it off the top of their head? And with all due respect to Mark Richt, if we secretly inserted him into a police lineup, how many of them would actually say, "Hey, look, it's Mark Richt!"

That was Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel at work, at least before he tried to leap on board the Georgia bandwagon and I booted him unceremoniously back off. It sounds to me like the 'Dawgs are in much the same boat that the Trojans were before ESPN declared them the greatest team of all time.

This brings us to the much-maligned College Football Association (C.F.A.), which has been defunct for more than a decade because it devolved into the sort of cartel it sought to replace, but which served its purposes well during its heyday. As recounted in John Sayle Watterson's College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, the C.F.A. came into being in response to the explosive growth of Division I to nearly 250 participating schools (some of which did not field football teams) and the extreme revenue-sharing proposals made by Stephen Horn, the grandstanding populist president of California State University-Long Beach who used the publicity he garnered from his quixotic efforts at playing Robin Hood to springboard a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Horn's radical reforms, which Michigan athletic director Don Canham derided as "socialism," would have divided up the television revenue pie in a manner that may have kept some failing programs like Long Beach's afloat but would have done so at the expense of schools like Northwestern and Rice, which played in major conferences but rarely appeared on television. The C.F.A., led by former Big Eight commissioner Chuck Neinas and University of Georgia president Fred Davison, had a better idea: bake a bigger pie.

N.C.A.A. executive director Walter Byers represented all institutions in the association in contract negotiations with television networks. A percentage of the revenues went to the purportedly non-profit N.C.A.A. in the form of a "football assessment," in exchange for which Byers made arrangements with A.B.C.'s Roone Arledge for the broadcast rights to college football games. Unfortunately, Byers took the shortsighted view that college football contests should be aired only sparingly, to avoid the risk of cheapening the coin through overexposure.

Admittedly, some folks really would do well to take the fear of overexposure to heart.

Byers's approach was particularly poorly timed, coming as it did when the N.F.L. was seizing an increasingly larger share of the football-hungry viewing audience. (Arledge himself had helped to perpetuate this trend, as he had created "Monday Night Football.") When Byers negotiated a deal with Arledge for A.B.C. to pay $29 million for the exclusive broadcast rights to N.C.A.A. football games for the 1978 and 1979 seasons, the C.F.A. (which consisted of the major independents, including Notre Dame, and the major conferences other than the Big Ten and the Pac-10) assigned Neinas, who previously had worked under Byers in N.C.A.A. television, the task of finding a better deal elsewhere.

Neinas succeeded spectacularly at his job. By the summer of 1981, the former conference commissioner had hammered out a deal with N.B.C. whereby the Peacock Network would pay $180 million for three years' worth of broadcast rights to C.F.A. members' games. This forced Byers's hand, necessitating that he arrange contracts worth $285 million over a four-year period between the N.C.A.A. and A.B.C., C.B.S., and T.B.S.

However, as Watterson notes, even the more lucrative N.C.A.A. deal "still kept a lid on the telecasts of big games." The C.F.A. wanted to move in the direction the future would confirm was the correct one---namely, cable television---but the foundation for Byers's entire strategy was to limit the number of contests that would be broadcast. The myopic mindset adopted by the N.C.A.A.'s chief negotiator remained unchanged until C.F.A. members such as the University of Georgia successfully mounted the legal challenge in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the several schools had an ownership interest in the broadcast rights to their own games.

At a time when the costs of intercollegiate athletics were spiraling out of control, leaving smaller schools especially susceptible to being driven out of the sports arena by too high a price tag, the C.F.A. tapped the sources of revenue the N.C.A.A. refused to pursue, thereby opening up the market and causing the popularity of college football to grow explosively. While the C.F.A. acted for the immediate benefit of the powerhouse programs and what we now call B.C.S. conferences, the benefits have accrued to every team in Division I-A, not equally but not inequitably. By the time the C.F.A. closed its doors in 1997, the success of the organization's court battle had produced not only the famous T.V. contracts between the S.E.C. and C.B.S. and between Notre Dame and N.B.C., but also, in the immediate aftermath of the 1984 Supreme Court decision, a four-year deal between C.B.S. and the non-C.F.A. Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences worth $10 million, as well as a $1 million deal for public television to air the games of the Division I-AA Ivy League.

Darn those greedy big-time football factories!

As evidenced by Dave's complaints about Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, the C.F.A. was right about broadening college football's broadcast partnerships in order to televise more games and bring the sport into viewers' homes through the new medium of cable. College football's wider array of affrays offered over the airwaves has led to the scheduling of higher-profile inter-conference contests such as those pitting Georgia against Oklahoma State and Colorado against West Virginia, as well as providing college football options on Thursdays, Fridays, and other weeknights, for which even critics of the Worldwide Leader are grateful.

Clearly, the C.F.A.'s approach to television contracts has allowed the rich to get richer. This, however, has not caused the poor to get poorer. My brother-in-law likes to use golf as an economic analogy: if, over the course of the next year, he shaves three strokes per round off of his golf game, and if, over the course of that same year, Tiger Woods shaves four strokes per round off of his golf game, Tiger Woods will still be a significantly better golfer than my brother-in-law, and the gap between their respective golf games will have widened, but they'll both be better golfers.

In a classic example of self-interested actors working to everyone's economic advantage through the invisible hand, the C.F.A. heightened the popularity and marketability of college football, which boosted everyone's exposure and revenue, for the have nots as well as for the haves. Anyone who doubts that proposition needs to stand in front of the mirror and ask himself this question: "Are Boise State's, West Virginia's, and, heck, Georgia Tech's football programs better off or worse off because ESPN televises Thursday night games?" These W.A.C., Big East, and A.C.C. teams are not a part of the B.C.S. "Oligarchic" Super Division, but they are beneficiaries (however unintended) of the C.F.A.'s efforts. John F. Kennedy was right that a rising tide lifts all boats.

As a staunch supporter of polls and bowls, I have no problem with the notion of allowing voters spread throughout the country to cast ballots to determine the top 25 teams in the land. As I explained at my old weblog:

While the mainstream news media (and the coaches) may be as biased, uninformed, territorial, and driven by ulterior motives as any other group of voters, reporters and sports information directors aren't any more susceptible to human frailty than the rest of us. In the A.P. poll, as in the BlogPoll, there are competing interests, but that is inherent in any system that involves the free exercise of the franchise, with the result to be determined by the will of the majority.

It isn't as if this is anything new. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote: "The latent causes of faction are . . . sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. . . . So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts." That's as good an explanation as any for why I hate Auburn.

The Father of the Constitution went on to note: "If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote." That's how Texas Tech gets bumped from the top 25 after a loss or two.

"It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society," continued Madison, "but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution." I'm pretty sure that's why The Lawgiver makes us post our BlogPoll ballots on-line.

Finally, Madison asserted: "The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State." In other words, republican form of government, si; Division I-A college football playoff, no!

With the voters in the coaches' poll, the Associated Press poll, and the BlogPoll distributed throughout the country, their local biases will cancel each other out in choosing the national champion in the same manner that these selfsame factors operate in the selection of the president of the United States (and with a much better track record of producing satisfactory outcomes, perhaps because college football polls do not afford disproportionate weight to the bizarre whims of Iowans and New Hampsters). If a voter in Savannah ranks the Bulldogs No. 1 on his ballot---or, for that matter, a voter in Fort Wayne or Los Angeles---that will be noted parenthetically, but it will not prevent the result from following the popular will.

It seems to me, therefore, that the system presently extant in college football is fundamentally American in character, both as to its aspiration and as to its execution. Entrenched parochial interests offset one another and newcomers have the opportunity to rise by virtue of effort and talent, even if the process of self-improvement is not as rapid and unhindered as we would like in sports any more than it is in life. Nevertheless, for all its imperfections, it is a system that reminds us what a great country this truly is . . . not just here on the East Coast, but from sea to shining sea.

God bless America. (Lest anyone complain about the fact that I didn't go with the Jessica Simpson picture, I should point out that Big Blue View has you covered.)

That, at any rate, is how it appears to me from my vantage point. Due to the importance of the issues in play here, I invite and even encourage feedback in the comments below, from BCSBusters specifically and from any other readers wishing to share their thoughts. With respect to my final BlogPoll ballot---which was the catalyst that began this worthwhile discussion in the first place---I would like your assessment of how these perspectives and preconceptions play out where the rubber meets the road.

I ranked or gave serious consideration to ranking five teams from the A.C.C. (Boston College, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest), four from the Big East (Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida, and West Virginia), five from the Big Ten (Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin), five from the Big 12 (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech), two from Conference USA (Central Florida and Tulsa), four from the Mountain West (Air Force, B.Y.U., New Mexico, and Utah), four from the Pac-10 (Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, and U.S.C.), five from the S.E.C. (Auburn, Florida, Georgia, L.S.U., and Tennessee), and three from the W.A.C. (Boise State, Fresno State, and Hawaii). Who's overrated? Who's underrated? Who's been overlooked altogether? I am open to having my blind spots illuminated, as enlightenment is more than merely one of my favorite "Doctor Who" episodes.

Go 'Dawgs!