BCS Has Something Right: Teams Shouldn't Need To Win Their Conferences

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 26: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide yells to his defense against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

For all the BCS' faults (and there are plenty), it does have one thing right: A team should not need to win its conference in order to play for the national championship. In his first piece for SB Nation, Bomani Jones explains why.

Before we get to a weekend of college football that will, invariably, infuriate what seems like everyone, ask yourself a question before you ultimately look foolish.

Does the BCS make more sense than you do?

If that's the case, it's not your fault. As college football fans, we've tried futilely to balance the historical machinations of polls with good sense. We come up with answers. But by the time we do, there's a chance we've forgotten what the question was in the first place.


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In the end, for once, it's those three crooked letters that have it right. Or, at least, as right as anything can be in something where sense is in short supply.

It sounds like a copout, but it's true: the Bowl Championship Series is designed to do little more than pit what it deems the top two teams in the country in a national championship game. As shady as this enterprise is, that part is crystal clear.

There's no systematic way to do this, but the pollsters and computers give it the college try every year. It's all for show. It gets people screaming on television. That's fun and all, but not enough to obscure this transparent money grab for the major conferences, and the plan is clearly to grab all the money without sharing. But for all its flaws, the creation of the BCS did something never done before: it guaranteed a game each team knew would determine the national championship.

That's the deal everyone involved in the quantitative portion of the program - the "coaches" who vote in their poll, the hundreds of Harris Poll voters and number crunchers - signed up for. Say whom they think is No. 1 and No. 2, then go back to whatever they're doing.

The problem, of course, is people really, really care about who should or shouldn't play for a pretty crystal football. With so much to overlook to enjoy college sports without feeling greasy, the lack of a "true champion" is one injustice too many to swallow. That's the only explanation for the uprising of 2006, when Michigan spent a month and a half ranked No. 2 and wound up shut out of the national championship game. That was the year Florida beat Arkansas in the SEC Championship and Michigan, its regular season over after losing 42-39 on the road to No. 1 Ohio State, woke up the following Monday trying to figure out how they got worse when no one was looking.

Did Urban Meyer really prove something by outwitting Houston Nutt with a more talented roster?

The question we heard then is the same as the one we're hearing this season: how can a team play for the national championship if it didn't win its own conference?

The answer: what is this, 1974?

That was the last year the NCAA Tournament included conference champions only. After years of seeing highly-ranked teams left out of the Big Dance year after year, the field had to expand, even if it diminished the significance of conference tournaments. Consider what a financial boon those weekends were before the age of massive television contracts, it was a pretty staggering statement on how ridiculous the single-bid tournament was. And if the NCAA thinks something is ridiculous, it's gotta be dumber than a sack of hammers.

What's truly the big deal about winning a conference? Or, more importantly, what's so bad about losing it to the best team in the country?

That was the question I had five years ago, and it's the same one I have now, as Alabama heads into the final weekend of the season ranked No. 2 with no one to play. Their chances of making the title game are better than Michigan's were in 2006, if only because finishing second in the SEC West carries more weight than second in the Big Ten.

But the mere fact this question comes up at all illustrates the most annoying thing about the annual hand-wringing over determining a national champion in college football: we don't even know what the hell we're trying to figure out. Should the most accomplished teams play for the title? The ones most likely to win head-to-head matchups against any given team? These are the same questions that make preseason polls irrelevant, yet they persist through the only polls and indices that matter: the final ones.

The correct answer is the most amorphous: the best two, which is exactly what the polls and computers are designed to determine. They don't need to be tinkered with to generate a desired outcome. The BCS, like it or not, decides who plays for the championship. The pollsters are there to vote for the best teams, and being the best has little to do with winning a conference.

If it did, then why isn't Alabama ranked behind Oklahoma State? Or even division champions like Georgia and the juggernaut that is UCLA?

Winning a conference is a shiny item on a checklist, and it might have something to do with being the best team in the country. But it has nothing to do with being second, especially if the best unit is in a team's division.

If it all sounds confusing, then I understand why a playoff would sound good to you. Its virtue is its simplicity. Set it up, name the stakes, and the thinking is done. A tournament bracket isn't much more scientific than using polls to decide who's best. But it's easier to understand, and all its terms are agreed upon in advance. Win and advance. Lose and go home. At the end, there will be a championship game. In that simple bargain, there's no room for argument.

There's also no guarantee you'll get the best team. That detail would matter more if people actually cared about that, though. If a team wins six games, or four series, or comes out of the loser's bracket, that team has got to be pretty good. Even if it's not the best, it's good enough to honor and revere. And the method for determining this champion is satisfying. Who could ever argue with winning?

Plenty could, actually. But if we've learned anything from Tim Tebow, trying to do so will only leave you frustrated.

But other than LSU and Houston, Alabama has won as much as anyone, and looked more impressive in the process than everyone but LSU. But since they won't get to clobber Georgia in the SEC Championship, conceived for television rather than competition, they're not No. 2?

Would you also like to slash the field of the NCAA Tournament? Because that's what it sounds like.

This is not a defense of the BCS, nor is it in opposition of the playoff (we'll get to that another day). No sane person believes eyeball tests are sufficient to determine which of three 11-1 teams is superior to the other. What is asked of everyone involved in the BCS is nearly impossible, and it's hard to believe in something bereft of any logical or principled foundation. That's a big reason so many see the BCS as a scourge on college athletics. That's like saying the flu caught a cold, but that's neither here nor there.

Now in its 14th season, the BCS has unequivocally given us a matchup of the two best teams in America four times. When results seemed strange, like Florida State making the 2000 title game over the Miami team who defeated it, the formula changed in hopes that, if only for a moment, people would stop complaining. It's on-the-fly planning at its worst, which does nothing for the infinitesimal credibility the BCS has. The last thing it needs is voting in that same vein.

But one thing that hasn't changed about the BCS, even after the embarrassments of having Nebraska in the 2001 title game and Oklahoma in the 2003 contest: there is no requirement that a team win its conference to play for the national title.

Bad PR won't make the BCS disappear, but it has always motivated it to enact rules that will spare them from going through that embarrassment again, whatever that embarrassment was. But even after being shamed twice by Big 12 "also-rans" on its biggest stage, even after seeing its process hijacked in 2006, there remains a good chance of an LSU-Bama rematch in New Orleans.

Why? Because there's no good reason to stop the rematch from happening. And if the friggin' BCS can figure that out, then what's so hard to figure out?

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