Just Drop the "C"
December 28, 2006

Last year I was a little uncomfortable with the way Les Miles directed his LSU Tigers in the second half of the Peach Bowl against Miami.  With a 30-point lead, he faked a punt to keep a drive going, a move that could easily be seen as rubbing the victory salt into the wounds and attempting to run up the score.  But if he does the same thing in this year's Sugar Bowl versus Notre Dame, he has my blessing.  Even if the Tigers are up by 50 points, I would say go ahead and pile on.  I have nothing against Notre Dame.  My problem is with the BCS and how ridiculous it is. 

After the top two teams, Ohio State and Florida, play in the championship game (which by the way they got right, but more on that in a minute) the best of the rest of the games should pit the teams next in the polls against each other - #3 versus #4,  #5 versus #6, etc.  But for some reason, they abandoned that strategy this year.  Before the BCS, Pac-10 champ USC would get an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl and in the BCS rankings they are ranked #5
(somewhat inexplicably), so there is an argument that they are a good fit to face #3 Michigan.  But in the human polls they are ranked #7 or #8 after having lost two games against teams not ranked in the top 20.  So the only real reason the Trojans should be in the Rose Bowl this year is to expose just how ordinary the Big Ten is.

The Big Ten features three teams in the top ten, which is a pretty nice accomplishment.  But those three teams - Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin - are the only teams in the conference with more than 8 wins, and two of those teams - Ohio State and Wisonsin - didn't play each other.  Of the other major conferences (ACC, Big-12, SEC, Big East, Pac-10) only the Pac-10 and Big East have no more than three 9-win teams.  Yes, even the ACC has more than the Big Ten.  Ohio State has played two decent teams this year: a three-loss Texas team in rebuilding mode and Michigan.  Michigan has played a highly over-rated Notre Dame team that still can't play defense, and Ohio State.  They also played Wisconsin, who is currently ranked in the top 10, but their ranking is a complete joke.  Their bowl appearance versus Arkansas will be their second game against a top 25 team this season, along with their home loss to Michigan.  The rest of their schedule is filled with the likes of a one-win Illinois team and such non-factors as Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State and Buffalo. 

USC likewise has played in a weak conference but at least they had the testicular fortitude to make-up for it with at least a somewhat respectable out of conference schedule that included Arkansas (albeit without a healthy Darren McFadden), Nebraska and Notre Dame.

But the team that should be facing Michigan in the Rose Bowl is 4th ranked LSU.  They played in the only conference that boasted four 10-win teams (and another that won 9).  For most of the season the SEC placed six teams in the top 25; they still have five in the top 20.  The only conference that has as many as four teams in the top 20 is the Big 12 and they have just one team in the top 10.  The SEC has three top 10 teams and every one of their top 20 teams faced at least four top 20 opponents.  Going undefeated facing such a schedule would be akin to an NFL team going undefeated.  Most teams that threaten to have a perfect season in pro football play a fairly weak schedule with only four or five games that truly pose a threat.  This year's Chicago Bears are a fine example.  The fact that the Florida Gators lost only once is a testament to just how good they are.  Who cares if they didn't blow everyone out by 30 points; at least they played some decent teams and they beat all but one.  Had Ohio State played the Gators' schedule, they might not have been in the BCS picture at all.  Wisconsin certainly would not. 

LSU faced four top 10 teams this season, all on the road.  They were one terrible officiating call from going 3-1 against that schedule.  I haven't completed my research on this but I have not found one team ever playing four top 20 opponents on the road in one season.  And had that referee in the Auburn game not lost his mind overturning the interference penalty, there's no question that LSU would have beaten Auburn.  First off, how do you overturn a penalty on instant replay? ...and still blow the call.  Can we expect to see offensive holding calls overturned after further review in the future?  That "call" came on fourth down and would have given LSU a first down near the goal line, making it a near certainty that LSU would have come away with at least a field goal.  Those three points would have allowed them to kicked a field goal from the Auburn 24-yard line on the final play of the game instead of having to go for the end zone.  LSU, not Arkansas, could have been playing for the SEC title against Florida and a chance at the national title.

But now they get stuck facing a Notre Dame team that has been routed twice this season, once by Michigan and once by USC.  In neither game were they really a factor by the end of the third quarter.  So what does LSU possibly have to gain by playing them?   If they merely win the game, it will be a disappointment because they are expected, like Michigan and USC, to thrash them.  In order for them to make any claim for being one of the best teams in the country, they will have to beat the Irish by a greater margin that what the Wolverines and Trojans administered. 
The big difference is that Charlie Weis and crew have had more than a month to prepare for LSU while they only had a week to prepare for the other two.  How is that a fair test?  Why have rankings at all?  The whole reason for the polls is to eventually pit the highest ranked teams against each other to determine which one is the best.  Because of those two blow-outs, Notre Dame is not even ranked in the top 10.  Why are they even given this opportunity?  They played four decent teams this season and got stomped by half of them.  How bad does Notre Dame have to be to not get invited to a significant bowl?  LSU deserves to face a much higher ranked opponent. 

But back to the Rose Bowl for a minute... Michigan has yet to face a defense with as much speed as LSUs and JaMarcus Russell has improved considerably since his struggles against Florida in the Swamp.  Not that I buy into everything he says but ESPN's Lee Corso said this week that when Russell is on his game, no team can beat LSU.   I assume he was including the two teams in the national title game in that set, too.  Ohio State showed the Michigan corners can't keep up with speedy play makers.  The Buckeyes had three scoring plays of 39 or more yards and three recievers with plays of at least 25 yards.  Buckeye Ted Ginn is probably one of the fastest players in all of college football, but LSU's compliment of Early Doucet, Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe can all turn on the afterburners for long plays as well.  That troika posted at least 11 plays of 20 yards or more in those four games against top 10 teams and the Tigers have five recievers with scoring plays of at least 40 yards this season.  Michigan has only two such recievers; Ohio State just one (Ginn).  LSU's pass defense is ranked 3rd in the country in yards per game, Ohio State's is ranked 30th.  LSU is ranked higher than Ohio State in rushing defense too.  On offense, the only top 5 team that gains more yards than LSU is Ohio State and the margin is only about five yards per game.   In scoring offense, the margin is just three points in favor of Ohio State but their stats were accumulated against a nothing schedule; LSU's numbers were put up against top 10 teams.  A match-up between LSU and Michigan would be the same for Michigan as facing Ohio State except with a tougher defense and more team speed to deal with.  The only reason the Ohio State/Michigan game was close was because OSU QB Troy Smith mishandled two snaps that resulted in fumbles.  The game wasn't nearly as close as the score.  With bragging rights and a possible #2 finish in the polls at stake, we could have finally seen just how good this LSU team is and just how over-rated the Big Ten is. 

In a playoff system, the Big Ten would do in football exactly what it does just about every year in the NCAA basketball tournament - bow out early.  Every year they send seven or eight teams into March Madness only to have almost all of them sitting at home by the end of the second round.  Since 1990, the Big Ten has won one national title in basketball (Michigan State in 2000).  Compare that to the SEC (four titles), ACC (six), Pac-10 (two) and Big East (three).  They haven't boasted a College World Series champ since 1966, and have won just two national titles in football in the last twenty years.  If you exclude Penn State's championships when they were an independent, you have to go back to 1968 before you find another football champ from the Big Ten.  They are clearly the weakest athletic conference in the major college sports (except in hockey) yet they continue to get the same respect as conferences that actually do produce something other than disappointment. 

Whoever ends up winning the Rose Bowl will have little to boast about.  If the Wolverines win, they will have beaten a USC team that looked very ordinary in losing to a mediocre UCLA squad (who by the way got thrashed by the worst Florida State team in 25 years) in their final regular season game.  If USC wins, they will have beaten the second best team from a lousy conference.  Whoopdeedoo.  An LSU-Michigan match-up might have at least been worthy of bragging rights and also would have given a second gauge for conference strength along with the title game.  In the Orange Bowl #8 USC should have faced #5 Louisville.  Wisconsin at #6 should have been playing #9 Boise State in the Fiesta (to further expose just how ordinary the Big Ten is) with #7 Oklahoma facing #10 Auburn in the Cotton.  I could even see Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl versus Louisville after they, like LSU, got reemed by terrible officiating in a game against top 20 Oregon.  Had Adrian Peterson not been injured, they could have made a case for the top 5.  And I'm not convinced Wisconsin should even be in the running for the top 10 since they have only played one decent opponent.  Their ranking is pretty hollow.  Maybe Rutgers or West Virginia or Wake Forest should be playing Boise State in the Fiesta.  Notre Dame... they should not have even been in the prime time bowl picture.  Instead they deserved to have been placed Outback against #17 Tennessee. 

But the BCS is not about making logical choices: it's not about making the best match-ups to determine the top ten or twenty teams in the country.  After determining the national title contenders, it's only about distributing bowl money to the universities that already have plenty, which is pretty much the opposite purpose of what the NCAA and amateur athletics is supposed to be about.

(follow-up: the Big Ten has gone 2-4 in the bowl games so far, with Penn State and Wisconsin recording the conference's only wins.  However, it should be noted that in Wisconsin's win Arkansas was penalized a school record 12 times for 123 yards, including two phantom pass interference calls that kept drives alive and a flagrant face mask call on the long snapper on a 4th quarter punt that would have pinned the Badgers at their own 10-yard line.  The officiating was nearly as one-sided in this game as it was in Iowa's Hail Mary victory against LSU two years ago in the same Capital One Bowl.  At the end of that game, replays clearly showed two Iowa receivers tackling LSU defenders while the ball was in flight before a third Iowa player caught the winning TD.  Apparently, it's ok to tackle a defender going for the ball but illegal to even touch a receiver en route.)