Tiger by the Tail
December 4, 2007

As expected there has been much caterwauling from fans, reporters and coaches alike after the announcement of the final BCS standings.  So for the sake of argument, I thought it'd be a useful exercise to determine which teams actually belong in the championship game on January 7.  

The first order of business is to determine the proper criteria for what qualifies as a national championship contender.  The best way would be to implement a playoff system, but that is far too logical a solution and endangers too many influential people's pockets in college football.  That said, the most important aspect of determining a contender is performance against strength of schedule.  I know a lot of people love going by a team's won-loss record as the measure of their accomplishment, but that can be a fairly misleading stat.  In 1984, Brigham Young went undefeated against what was then an anemic WAC conference and even more pathetic out of conference schedule (they played no ranked teams that season), then beat a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl and was declared the national champion because they were the only team to go undefeated.  Meanwhile, University of Washington played a very tough Pac-10 schedule and had some tough out of conference games including an Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma, finished with one loss and were rewarded with a #2 right in their face.  It was because of that season that the BCS system was invented, immensely flawed that it is.  That still hasn't stopped cowardice from being rewarded in college football, but more on that in a minute. 

Another factor that should weigh heavily is how a team fared in the big games against the best competition.  Finally, great teams never take a game off, so the most deserving teams should never lose games to lousy opponents, or get blown out by quality ones.  With those criteria let's look at what we have this crazy season.

First, strength of schedule.  Only four of the top ten teams played at least five games against ranked teams: LSU, Missouri, Georgia and Virginia Tech, with Missouri and Tech getting an asterisk for playing the same team twice.  No other contenders played more than 4 of their 12 to 13 regular season games against ranked opponents.  Missouri had six games where they played a top 25 opponent.  LSU has already played eight.  I've been following college football for 30 years and I can't remember any team ever having played eight ranked opponents in a season, much less the nine they will have faced once the bowl season concludes.  Ohio State doesn't face that many ranked teams in a decade yet they are in the BCS title game.  Instead, they prefer to schedule games against teams that are only charitably called Division 1-A when it comes to athletics, like Youngstown State, Kent State and Akron.  Not only did LSU face a brutal conference schedule, but one of their non-conference games was against Virginia Tech.  Hands down, LSU played the toughest schedule of any college team this year.  

The next criteria is how teams fared in big games against the best competition.  Again, LSU was the best in the country, going 4-0 against BCS opponents.  Their counterpart in the title game, Ohio State, went 1-1.  Oklahoma had the next best record, going 3-0 against the BCS although two of those victories came against Mizzou.  Those that think USC will have an easy time with Illinois in the Rose Bowl might want to think again; Illinois went 2-0 versus BCS opponents whereas USC beat only one team in the current BCS.  Had Dennis Dixon been healthy the last several games no doubt Oregon would be ranked high enough to be part of this discussion, which would give USC two BCS opponents but a record of 1-1 against them.  I'm betting the Rose Bowl will be much closer than the sports media is bemoaning.  Virginia Tech went 2-2 versus the BCS opposition.  West Virginia and Georgia both went 2-1.  So again LSU is clearly the most qualified to be in the title game.

Losing to an awful team, the first big no-no for a championship team.  USC is eliminated for losing to a Stanford team that won just four games this season.  West Virginia also gets the boot; Pitt ain't nearly what it was when Tony Dorsett was running the ball or when Dan Marino was slinging it.  Oklahoma gets a pass for losing to a 6-6 Colorado team because it came on the road but that isn't exactly a ringing endorsement either.  

No-no #2 - getting blown out by a quality opponent.  It doesn't matter how much the fans jump up and down and scream that it was early in the season, Virginia Tech was obliterated by LSU 48-7.  Also eliminated are Georgia (jack-hammered by Tennessee 35-14) and Missouri (beaten twice by Oklahoma, the second time 38-17).  Losing twice to the same team should automatically eliminate anyone from contending for the national title because obviously at least one team is clearly better.

So who is left?  LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State.  Ohio State played a feeble schedule, facing only two teams in the top 20 all season, and Wisconsin's ranking is highly dubious.  They escaped against UNLV and had all they could handle from the Citadel and a one-win Minnesota team.  The only quality team the Buckeyes played all season was Illinois and they lost to them at home.  Oklahoma lost to Colorado and Texas Tech but the latter was in part due to their starting QB getting injured early in the game.  Some of the pollsters expressed their alarm that the Red Raiders were able to move the ball so easily against the Sooners but Texas Tech can score with the best of them, having tallied at least 34 points in all but two of their games and topping 40 seven times.  There was no shame in simply getting outscored in that one, especially with a key cog missing.  LSU's two losses came against teams that will be playing New Year's Bowl games, led by Heisman-contending players having career days and who will one day soon be making big money in the NFL.  That's not just my opinion - Ohio State All-America linebacker James Laurenitis said the same thing in a recent interview.  I don't think it's getting the credibility it should but each of the losses came in triple-overtime, which is about as close as a game gets.  Speaking of Darren McFadden, does anyone else think his style and ability are eerily similar to that of vintage OJ Simpson?  I'm sure the similarities will be confined to what happens on the playing field.  Anyway...

What we are left with is that LSU is the only team that played a truly challenging schedule, they beat the best teams they faced, didn't lose to any terrible teams nor did they ever get blown out.  Oklahoma comes in second in those categories with the Colorado loss being bad but mitigated by circumstances.  So all of those who are saying that the BCS system only got half of the match-up right in the title game, you are exactly right... but it is Ohio State that does not belong in that game, not LSU.  Logic and reason indicate that this year's big game should be a rematch of the two teams that faced off for the 2004 BCS championship.  

Regardless, I expect that LSU will be favored in the game, and rightly so.  Last year, Ohio State got hammered - I'm not sure hammered is a strong enough term when your Heisman trophy-winning quarterback is held to 35 yards passing and your team's only highlight took place in the first 16 seconds of the game.  Suffice it to say that there have been few championship games that were more lopsided.  There were a couple in the mid-90's - Nebraska beating Florida in 1996, 62-24, then Florida crushing Florida State the following year, 52-20.  Before that you have to go back to Nebraska squashing Alabama in the 1972 Orange Bowl, 38-6.  Anyway, the reason the Buckeyes got their collective hats handed to them was not because Florida had special offensive and defensive schemes (as many Buckeye boosters claim).  You don't get thoroughly spanked because the other team figured out a loophole on offense.  No, it was because Florida had so many far superior athletes.  The Gators had a better athlete at every position on both sides of the ball except for one wide reciever, Ted Ginn.  Once the Gator ball-carriers got into space, the Buckeye defenders simply couldn't stop them.  Nor could they contain the Gator defense because of the same physical mismatches.  Ohio State had the same problem against Illinois this year, a game they lost at home.  LSU has the same advantage, arguably as much as Florida had last year.    

And let's not forget Les Miles' bowl resume:
2007 Sugar Bowl: LSU 41, Notre Dame, 14.
2006 Peach Bowl: LSU 40, Miami 3

Two bowls is not much to go on, but as far as indicators go, this one is pretty clear: Les Miles' teams come well-prepared for the big game.  

So, what to do about the BCS?  Again, the obvious solution is to go to a playoff system but that doesn't seem close to happening.  The other solution would be to greatly reduce the influence of the media polls.  It is because of their myopia that we get to watch the Big Ten get kicked in the pants in major bowls year after year.  The Big Ten should be treated like the WAC, Conference USA or any other secondary conference: they should have to play their way into the BCS.  They, as well as the Pac-10, should also be forced to hold a conference championship game like every other major conference if they want an automatic BCS bid.  A team should earn it's way into a championship opportunity by playing as many quality teams as possible, not by letting the media do the heavy lifting for them.  Some might suggest that it was the media poll that saved LSU's title hopes by jumping them to #2 in the final week, but I would counter that the media polls did LSU a disservice by dropping them as far as they did after their triple-overtime loss the week before.  Had they done their job right in the first place by ranking the team based on their quality, there would not have been any controversy the following week.

Second, the computer rankings should take into greater account a team's ranking at the time they played.  The current system places more emphasis on the current rankings, which means retroactively ranking the opposition.  This is quite flawed because injuries change the complexion of a team.  Look how much more vulnerable two of the most talented teams in the country (Oregon and Oklahoma) were after their starting quaterbacks went down.  That shouldn't count against the teams that faced them when they were healthy earlier in the season but with the current system it does.  I almost hate to bring it up again, but this makes LSU's season all the more impressive in that they played most of it with key players on offense and defense missing or limited because of injuries, including winning the SEC championship game without their starting quarterback playing at all. 

Only once in the last five years has the BCS system picked the two best teams to play in the championship game.  As long as the Big Ten and the Pac-10 are allowed to take the coward's route and not play a conference championship game, that will continue to be one of several major problems.  Fortunately, the other team that made it to this year's big game deserves to be there.

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