Q: When is a conference championship really just a exhibition game?
A: When the BCS “system,” whatever that happens to be in a given year, gets its maladroit hands on it.
LSU faces Georgia for the SEC title Saturday at the Georgia Dome. If LSU wins, it will play for the BCS title. If LSU loses, it figures to play for the BCS title anyway.
This is college football, where we’re told Every Game Counts. This year another big fat asterisk gets attached: Every game counts except the SEC championship, which lately has counted the most. And that’s not the worst part.
On Sunday I was speaking with Falcons center Todd McClure, who has a figurative dog in this fight. (He played at LSU.) When I mentioned that I’d rather be Alabama, which is guaranteed not to lose another game before the final BCS standings are announced, than the Tigers, he said: “Do you think that’s fair?”
No, I don’t think it’s fair. The BCS is never fair. Occasionally there comes a year in which the outcry is minimal, and invariably some talking head will say, “The BCS worked this time.” Reality check: The BCS never works. The best the BCS ever can hope is to get lucky.
Case study in inconsistency: In 2007 Georgia was ranked No. 4 in the next-to-last BCS standings. The teams ranked first and second — Missouri and West Virginia — lost on the regular season’s final weekend. Georgia didn’t play. It finished atop the SEC East but was shaded by Tennessee on a tiebreaker. LSU, which had lost its final regular-season game to Arkansas, beat the Vols for the SEC title, and the Tigers got to play for the BCS title.
LSU moved from No. 7 to No. 2. Georgia didn’t play a game and slid to No. 5. Why? Because LSU coach Les Miles kept making the point that his team had “won its conference” and because the many talking heads on ESPN took up the cry. (As we know, what’s said on ESPN has an outsize effect on college football, the only sport in which opinions matter.)
Some of the same voices who’d lobbied for an Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the 2006 BCS title game dismissed Georgia a year later because It Hadn’t Won Its Conference. Never mind that winning your conference isn’t a criterion for BCS title inclusion. Never mind that Michigan hadn’t won the Big Ten the year before. This just seemed like the thing to say at that moment in time, and by golly those ESPN chatterers kept saying it until it became reality.
Georgia wasn’t passed just by LSU but also by Oklahoma and Virginia Tech; see, the Sooners and Hokies had won their conferences. After that season, the BCS considered making a conference title a prerequisite for a berth in the BCS title game but decided against it, which is a good thing if you’re Alabama but another pie in the face if you’re a fan of consistent thought.
If you’re a BCS hater — and who isn’t? — you have to root for Georgia to beat LSU and render this ongoing farce even more farcical. Picture the incongruity: The Bulldogs hoist the SEC championship trophy on Saturday night and trot off to the Sugar Bowl to play this year’s version of Hawaii, and 24 hours later not one but two SEC non-champions get invited to the game that’s supposed to reveal the nation’s best team.
And now you’re asking: Don’t LSU and Alabama look like the nation’s top two teams? LSU has been the absolute best team from start to finish, but the Tigers still have a game to play. The Tide lost its biggest game on its home field and has beaten two teams ranked in the BCS Top 25. If Oklahoma State, which is ranked No. 3 to Alabama’s No. 2, beats Oklahoma on Saturday, the Cowboys will have beaten five Top 25 teams and will be the Big 12 champ. Should Alabama get that nod just because it plays in the almighty SEC and is, you know, Alabama?
The problem with the BCS is that it can tweak its “system” until the cows come home and never be prepared for the vagaries of a given season. And with conferences expanding to elephantine size and schedules growing more imbalanced, this will only get worse. Four years ago Georgia was penalized for not playing in the SEC title game; this time Alabama could be handed a de facto semifinal bye.
Do I think the BCS is fair? Yes indeed. A fairly Big Crock of Sludge.
By Mark Bradley