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Books | Sports

December 3, 2007

Deconstructing the BCS

Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel tells Gelf why college football can't seem to settle its controversies on the field.

David Goldenberg

The first thing you have to understand about big-time college football, writes Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel in his new book Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls, is that no one's in charge. There's no commissioner making final decisions on scheduling or television rights and no real organization running the Bowl Championship Series. (Think the NCAA pulls the ultimate strings? It's basically powerless to stop conferences from doing things like raiding one another and has almost no control over the bowl system.) Fans are often left confused and heart-broken by this confusing and ever-changing college-football landscape, which seems to be at its foggiest when the final BCS rankings are announced in early December. This year may be the most frustrating ever, as a two-loss LSU team somehow made it into the championship game over several other worthy candidates.

Courtesy Mel Levine
"From an outside perspective, the BCS is inarguably absurd."—Stewart Mandel

Courtesy Mel Levine

As someone who writes everything from investigative reports to game stories to columns to mailbags, Mandel has a broad perspective on the sport and its various constituencies. There's no one better prepared to tell the complicated story of the BCS and how a sinister cabal of infighting conference commissioners, university presidents, and bowl executives work to ensure that fans will never have the satisfaction of a true playoff system. Gelf emailed with Mandel about the most recent controversy, the influence of the media on the BCS standings, and who has the most legitimate gripe against the BCS. This interview has been edited for clarity. (You can hear Mandel and other sports journalists read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Thursday, December 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: At the end of your book, you say that we've yet to see the "all-out, Armageddon-type BCS controversy that truly pushes the public over the edge." Did that just happen?

Stewart Mandel: Amazingly, that is exactly what happened. While there have certainly been arguments before over whether the right team(s) were playing for the national title, there were never this many legitimate claimants, and so little public faith that the two best teams are playing in the game. Chances are, the controversy will eventually die down and people will accept that it's Ohio State-LSU, but unless that game is an absolute classic, the debate afterward will be that whoever won did so because they weren't facing the second-best team. It's a real crisis in confidence, and I think it could be the seminal moment that causes the powers-that-be to finally accept that some sort of change is needed.

GM: What change will this "crisis in confidence" provoke? Is the plus-one game the only real option?

SM: Mostly, I think it will motivate some of the BCS commissioners to actually start talking seriously about a plus-one, whereas to this point it's mostly just been casually tossed about. It is most likely the only real option, and it is far from a given, as the Big Ten and Pac-10 remain adamantly opposed to any change that would affect their relationship with the Rose Bowl. It is going to take some of the other commissioners really getting serious and really going to bat for it to have any chance of happening—and some sort of compromise will have to be worked out to appease the Rose Bowl/Big Ten/Pac-10.

GM: Is Ohio State going to use its nearly two months of preparation [for the title game] better this year than it did last year?

SM: I think it has a much better idea of what it's getting into this time—and it doesn't have the whole country telling them how great they are and that no one can beat them. If anything, it's the exact opposite. They've been hearing for two months how easy their schedule is and how unworthy they would be of a title shot, and I think you're going to see them come out much hungrier and much better-prepared than last year.

GM: Do you buy any of the complaints that "the media" helped swing the No. 2 spot over to LSU? (And why are you such an SEC homer yourself :)?)

SM: As I said in the book, there's no question that ESPN's commentators play a huge role in shaping public opinion, and as soon as I heard Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger endorse LSU on the air towards the end of the Big 12 title game, I knew LSU would get the vote. Now, it's entirely possible that would have happened anyway, but the fact that they wound up a consensus No. 2 in every poll despite losing their second-to-last game and despite such a seemingly cluttered field of contenders, tells me that the voters were cognizant of that message when casting their ballot.
I'm not sure you can be an SEC homer growing up in Ohio and living in New York.

GM: If these commentators like Herbstreit and Musburger have so much power, should ESPN tell them to be quiet? Should anything be done to curb their influence on the voting?

SM: No, I think ESPN wants them to state their opinion, because it makes for more-compelling television. I would be more concerned if they were espousing something that clearly went along with some sort of ABC/ESPN agenda. The fact that they were pushing LSU, an SEC team whose games are on CBS, is much less suspicious than if they had, say, suddenly all risen up and backed USC. (Though I suppose that would not have been in their best interests, since then USC would not go to the Rose Bowl, the one BCS bowl ABC still has.)

GM: Salon's King Kaufman writes that the fact that Hawaii had an unofficial ceiling this year means that no non-BCS conference team will ever play for the title. Do you agree?

SM: The odds are obviously very stacked against those teams, but I actually believe Hawaii would have merited serious consideration this year had it played and beaten just one respectable BCS-conference opponent. Boise State did that last year in crushing 10-4 Oregon State early on, and it really helped them move up the rankings. They didn't move into the top two, but that's because we had some very qualified undefeated or one-loss teams in the top two. This year, where there's such little confidence in those teams, I think an undefeated Hawaii that had beaten, say, Arkansas, would have risen higher in the polls and would have had some support to play in the title game.
For the most part, however, the system is still very stacked against those teams, which is not surprising, seeing as the system is run by the six major conferences.

GM: Without the SEC championship game, it's doubtful LSU would have made it back up to No. 2. Does that resonate with Pac-10 and Big Ten coaches, or do they still see the idea of a championship game as an unnecessary hurdle?

SM: Well, by the same token, Ohio State rose to No. 1 without doing a thing. The decision to hold a conference-championship game is purely financially driven and has little to do with the national title-race. [Big Ten Commissioner] Jim Delany has never been one to pass up an extra dollar, so if they haven't felt the need to have a game to this point, that tells me there's really very little interest in it within that conference. Same with the Pac-10.

"As soon as I heard Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger endorse LSU on the air towards the end of the Big 12 title game, I knew LSU would get the vote."
GM: Which do you think is funnier about the coaches' poll: That [LSU Coach] Les Miles voted his team first and Oklahoma 5th or that [Oklahoma Coach] Bob Stoops voted his team first and LSU 6th?

SM: Gotta love the coaches poll. Miles can be excused because his vote isn't all that different from the general poll. Stoops—that's a pretty transparent attempt to get his team in the game.

GM: Was this year an anomaly or do you see more of this medioc—er, parity—in the future?

SM: I don't think parity is going away anytime soon, but I do think this year was a bit unusual as to the extent of the attrition at the top of the polls. I can't remember a year when so many highly ranked teams sustained so many key injuries. The fact is, if John David Booty doesn't break his finger, USC would be 11-1 and a no-brainer title-game selection. Same for Oregon if Dennis Dixon didn't get hurt. Much of LSU's struggles down the stretch could be attributed to not having Glenn Dorsey, the most dominant player in the sport, at full strength. While I do think upsets and upheaval will become a norm, I think in most years there will still be two or three teams that separate themselves from the pack.

GM: Did Notre Dame do any irreparable damage to its brand with this season?

SM: Nothing is irreparable, but Notre Dame and Charlie Weis in particular certainly took a huge hit. If he turns it around and they go 11-1 two years from now, nobody's going to hold 3-9 against him, but more realistically he's going to be under tremendous pressure next year to engineer the type of dramatic turnaround that as of now does not seem possible.

GM: In your book, you call out some non-football writers (like Mitch Albom) for not understanding how real fans feel about the BCS. Why is it that arguing about the BCS is so weirdly fulfilling?

SM: I just think it's easy. It's the easiest column you can right. From an outside perspective, the BCS is inarguably absurd, and it doesn't take a lot of effort to churn out an 800-world column lamenting how screwed up it is. I myself wrote a column that went up today (Monday) arguing that it's time for a change, but mine was steeped in reality and knowing that the only possible change in the offing is a plus-one game, and anyone arguing for anything more than that is someone living in fantasyland.

GM: Since the BCS debuted, which team has the most legitimate gripe about being left out of the championship game?

SM: Without question, Auburn in 2004. Every other team, and especially every team this year, did something (lose) to take their fate out of their own hands. At that point you're at the mercy of the voters. But Auburn couldn't have done anything more than it did—it won every game, it won the SEC title—and still got left out. There's nothing that could have been done about it, other than excluding one of the two other teams that year (USC and Oklahoma) that also won every game, but Auburn still had every right to feel absolutely "tattered."

Related on the Web

Mandel's most recent AP ballot.

Sports Pickle headline: "Columnist Hoping No One Notices 'Crazy BCS' Column Is The Same One He Wrote The Last Four Years"

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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