The annual outrage over college football’s Bowl Championship Series shows that sports journalists are even more attached to preconceived narratives than political pundits are. When the BCS gets something right, as it did by pairing Florida against Ohio State in this year’s national championship game, everyone still recites the talismanic phrase: “The BCS doesn’t work.”
Of course, it’s true that the BCS doesn’t work. It discriminates against teams that don’t hail from the six major conferences. It’s biased in favor of teams that were highly ranked based only on preseason expectations. And it has ruined the traditional bowl season by, for example, sending the Big 12 champion to the Fiesta Bowl rather than to the Orange Bowl.
But this year’s debate over the merits of the BCS has exposed a more basic flaw, the faulty premise that underlies the entire system. The BCS was created in 1998 with the stated goal of pitting the nation’s top two football teams against each other in a championship game. Michigan partisans, then, are outraged that their team isn’t getting another chance to take on Ohio State. The Wolverines are the second-best team in the country, they say. Shouldn’t that guarantee them a spot in the title game?
No. The fact that the Wolverines are probably the second-best team in the country doesn’t mean they’ve earned the right to play in the national championship game. In fact, it means the exact opposite: Michigan’s No. 2 status is why they shouldn’t be playing for the title.
Playoff systems are designed to determine, in a fair manner, which is the single best team in a particular sport. Their purpose is not to pit the two finest teams against each other in a season-ending game. The Yankees and Red Sox do not play annually in the World Series. The Indianapolis Colts will never be given a chance to play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. When the two best college basketball teams in the country face off, as they routinely do, in a Final Four semifinal or even in the round of eight, does anyone think that the loser deserves a rematch?
Take this example: Does anyone think the Seattle Seahawks were the No. 2 team in the NFL last year? No. Likewise, will anyone think the NFC champion who makes it to this year’s Super Bowl is the second-best team in football? Of course not. Will the best team in the NFL still win the Super Bowl? Yes. Even if it’s an NFC team!
Unlike TV commentators and sports columnists, the college-football voters understand, at least implicitly, that the season-long playoff that is the college football season should determine the single best team, not the best two teams. That’s why the voters in the Harris poll and coaches’ poll have consistently voted against a Michigan-Ohio State rematch. The voters cast their ballots for “not-Michigan” when they voted for USC, and they’ve cast their ballots for “not-Michigan” by voting for Florida.
Do we know if Florida is the second-best team in the country? Of course not. Here’s what we do know: Michigan is not the best. How do we know that? By the traditional criterion: They scored fewer points in a football game than Ohio State did. The only team that has the “right” to play in the BCS championship game is the best team, Ohio State. And the only teams that should be scratched without question are teams that have already been determined to be “not the best,” like Michigan.
On Sunday, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr had the gall to declare, “I hope that, in the future, we can have a system where all of the answers are decided on the field” and, “We need to get away from anything that’s not decided by the players themselves.” I’m fairly certain that Carr’s players were involved in Michigan’s 42-39 defeat at the hands of Ohio State and that it was played on a field. (If not, sports journalists have a real scandal on their hands.)
“Divining the difference between 11-1 Michigan and 12-1 Florida is truly an impossible task,” wrote ESPN.com’s Pat Forde. Fair enough, but there’s no need to divine the difference between Michigan and Florida. The gridiron has already divined the relevant question: the difference between Michigan and Ohio State.