Nobody ever said the BCS made sense, and this year it makes less sense than … well, can you make less sense than zero? Alabama did not win its division and did not win its conference but could well be the national champion in a sport where we’re told Every Game Counts.
Actually, what this year’s serving of BCS glop tells us is that it’s good to have an aura. Nick Saban has an aura, albeit one of fire and brimstone, which means Alabama has an aura, which means Alabama got a nod it didn’t deserve.
Bama played its two toughest conference games — LSU and Arkansas — at home. It didn’t play either Georgia or South Carolina, the best teams in the SEC East. It played five teams that finished with a winning record, and one was Georgia Southern. The Tide beat three teams that finished the Top 25 of the BCS standings.
Oklahoma State played four such teams and won all four games. It played seven teams that finished with winning records. The Cowboys did, for mavens of minutiae, win their conference title. The knock on them is that they lost to unranked Iowa State. But they did lose on the road, and in overtime.
Alabama, the counter-argument goes, only lost in OT to the nation’s No. 1 team. But Alabama lost at home. Alabama was favored that night and couldn’t win. But because Alabama is coached by the dark lord Saban and because Alabama is from the SEC, which is the feeder league for BCS titlists, the Tide gets a second chance.
And this time the talking heads on ESPN, who make less sense with every week, had no problem with the concept of a rematch or the reality of a non-conference champion playing for the BCS crown. (Oddly enough, some of those same voices hooted down Georgia’s credentials in 2007. “Can’t consider a team that didn’t win its conference,” the ESPN choir harrumphed.) And Saturday night, moments after Oklahoma State finished routing Oklahoma, which entered the season ranked No. 1, some ESPN boys leaped at the chance to say, “Ah, that doesn’t really matter.”
“SportsCenter” opened with the highlights of the SEC title game and then Oklahoma State’s dismissal of its bitter rival. Then the Bristol anchors tossed, as they say in TV, to Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit. Musburger, who had famously lobbied for Georgia Tech to be promoted above Colorado to No. 1 when calling Tech’s victory in the Citrus Bowl in January 1991, started with a little joke. What’s wrong with a rematch, he asked, and cited the extremely appropriate case study of Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed.
Then Herbstreit dismissed Oklahoma State by saying the Cowboys had lost in Ames, Iowa, and, more to the point, didn’t pass “the eyeball test.” Which made you wonder: How could Kirk Herbstreit know just how Oklahoma State had looked against Oklahoma? He (and Musburger) had been sitting in a booth in Charlotte, N.C., calling the ACC title game.
Because big-time college football has no playoff grid, ephemeral stuff like “the eyeball test” and someone’s opinion — yours, mine and especially Kirk Herbstreit’s — are allowed to hold disproportionate sway. Alabama won’t be playing for the (exceedingly mythical) national championship because it had a better season than Oklahoma State but because its has the stronger brand. It’s Alabama. It plays in the SEC. It’s coached by Saban. Good enough for me! Give that team a second chance!
And that’s what big-time college football has become — a game of brands, not reality. Is it mere coincidence that ESPN has a 15-year contract to carry SEC games? (ESPN also has a contract with the Big 12, Oklahoma State’s diminishing league, but the bigger Big 12 package is with Fox Sports.)
This was a year when opinion mattered. Five of the seven computer rankings had Oklahoma State above Alabama, but the Tide finished ahead in both human polls. Why? Because of the brand. You cannot tell me that if Alabama’s name were attached to Oklahoma State’s body of work and vice versa that the results wouldn’t have been different. We all know they would have.
And now we’re faced with this scenario: A winner of nothing save some eyeball test can split two games against another team … and be declared national champ. Some “system” this is.
By Mark Bradley