LSU-Alabama exposes more BCS flaws
For those of us who yearn to see a college football playoff replace the decrepit Bowl Championship Series, this is not going to be a good week.
Because while practically every factor in the eternal postseason debate favors some form of playoff, there is one pro-BCS argument that — while generally false — will be hard to get around in the massive buildup to Saturday, when No. 2 Alabama faces No. 1 LSU.
They call it the “sanctity of the regular season,” and you can bet it will be on full display this week leading up to what’s being called the Game of the Year, the decade and maybe the biggest game in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
Even proponents and enablers of the bowl system acknowledge that a playoff would be more profitable than the BCS. Television ratings would soar. Interest would be second only to the NFL playoffs, and may even rival it in some cases. But power doesn’t recede without a fight. And for those who profit off a broken bowl system at the expense of identifying a true college football champion, the “sanctity of the regular season” is the last weapon left in their defense.
It goes without saying that the stakes in Tuscaloosa this weekend could not be higher. Barring a huge upset later in the season, the winner will take the SEC West crown and cruise into the BCS Championship Game as the top-ranked team in the country. The loser is likely out of the national championship race.
And this, of course, is a huge part of the argument that keeps the BCS afloat.
When it became clear in September that Alabama and LSU were on course to remain undefeated until they played each other, the specter of this game began to loom larger and larger each week. The hype and anticipation is now registering at ridiculous levels. The atmosphere in Tuscaloosa as the weekend approaches will be like nothing else in American sports. The prime-time network broadcast could set all kinds of ratings records. Without question, this will be a banner week for college football.
And on some level, it wouldn’t be possible without the BCS.
Much of the hysteria surrounding Alabama-LSU is rooted in the notion that every week in college football is a playoff. Lose even one game, and you’re likely out of the picture — or, at least, you’re going to need a significant amount of help to get back in.
If some sort of postseason tournament existed at the end of the season, the result of this game by definition wouldn’t mean as much. Regardless of whether the playoff included four, eight or 16 teams, both Alabama and LSU would probably be there, thus negating the all-or-nothing implications that seem inherent to the buildup and the outcome on Saturday.
I won’t even attempt to argue that point.
But there are two questions worth considering here from the pro-playoff perspective:
First, is the out-of-control hype accompanying one game really worth the diminished interest in all but a handful of teams once the season reaches the second half?
And second, is it possible this game will actually undercut the BCS in its purported mission?
Let’s deal with those in order. First, remember that after Saturday, there will still be three more weeks in the regular season plus the conference championship games. And yet, at a time when the sport should be reaching a fever pitch, there are really only four teams that will demand our attention: The winner of Alabama-LSU, Stanford, Oklahoma State and Boise State.
The BCS has made everyone else irrelevant. When Wisconsin loses on a fluke Hail Mary play on the road against Michigan State, there’s no incentive to watch them the rest of the season. When Oklahoma has a bad day against Texas Tech, the only reason to pay attention going forward is to see whether they can knock undefeated Oklahoma State out of the race in the final week. Had a single play gone wrong in overtime Saturday night against Southern California, Stanford would have been reduced to a permanent bystander in the debate.
On the other hand, an eight-team playoff would bring a whole host of teams into the mix until the very last week, fighting to get in the field. This week alone, there would be three games besides Alabama-LSU with huge playoff implications: Kansas State at Oklahoma State, Oregon at Washington and South Carolina at Arkansas. In each case, the winner of that game would still be alive to play for a national championship if they kept winning and the loser would be on the outside looking in.
A playoff might not give rise to one mega regular season game like Alabama-LSU, but it would create huge stakes every week all over the country as teams fight and claw just to get in the tournament. It would enhance the regular season, not kill it.
And for a sport whose network television ratings declined by 4.5 percent on CBS, 10 percent on ABC and 12.5 percent for BCS games in 2010 — with ratings on track to decline again this year — having more relevant matchups late in the season might be the only way to reverse the trend.
But there’s also the matter of the BCS and what it says it accomplishes: Taking the No. 1 team and the No. 2 team and creating a national championship game between them. The BCS brags about its track record in that respect, and outside an argument here or there, it’s true that the right matchup has generally fallen into place with little controversy.
Alabama-LSU, however, could betray the notion that the two best teams will play for the championship. Just consider: What if LSU loses a close game at Alabama, as the point spread suggests, and wins the rest to finish 11-1?
The mathematics that drive the BCS formula indicate that Oklahoma State, Stanford and Boise State — in that order — would be in line to face Alabama in a championship game if they remained undefeated. And yet, under that scenario, it’s entirely possible LSU would still be widely viewed as the second-best team in the country.
An Alabama-LSU rematch on a neutral field could very well be the game everyone wants to see, and yet it won’t happen unless both Oklahoma State and Stanford lose. In other words, it’s possible we could end up with just two undefeated teams at the end of the season — and matching them up won’t be accepted by the public as the true national championship.
This week will be a relentless advertisement for the BCS and how it “protects” college football’s regular season. But if it’s rendered almost every other game irrelevant and can’t even produce the matchup of the two best teams, what’s it really worth?