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Monday, December 08, 2008

Dear ESPN, BCS Got It (Mostly) Right

ESPN is renowned for creating news and controversy where none otherwise exists. In this regard, I would like to refute the notion that Texas deserved to go to the BCS National Championship in lieu of Oklahoma. The argument proffered is based upon the tie that existed between Texas and Oklahoma and the Longhorns' victory over the Sooners in head-to-head competition. This would be a perfectly valid argument if the issue were that simple. Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of the problem, and here is where I must disagree ...

The tie does not exist between Texas and Oklahoma; it exists among Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Each beat the other in a quasi-round robin format. Thus, head-to-head competition does not tell the whole story. So let's look at the different possible ways of analyzing this:

1. Quality of Head-to-Head Performance ("Style Points" Analysis)
Texas defeated Oklahoma by 10 in the Red Rivalry Shootout at the midpoint in the season. This was Oklahoma's only loss of the season. Next, Texas Tech defeated Texas with a last-second touchdown in a subsequent game. Then, Oklahoma defeated Texas Tech by a whopping 40+ points. If you are evaluating teams based upon their most recent head-to-head performance, Oklahoma gets the nod, coming out with the last win in the round-robin format. If you are evaluating teams based upon the quality of the win in the round-robin format, then, once again, Oklahoma gets the nod, having the most convincing victory of the three Big XII South competitors.

ESPN has met this argument with a rather clever criticism: "Texas Tech was a pretender." After all, Texas Tech does not favorably compare with Texas or Oklahoma if you compare their whole body of work. While I am sure that Mike Leach and his several fans in Lubbock would love to give Kirk Herbstreit a good shot to the jaw for such a comment, let's allow deference to this prima facie case. However, why not flip the argument a bit. Compared with Oklahoma, Texas was a pretender. In fact, any team not lead by Tim Tebow does not compare favorably with Oklahoma's body of work for the season. This issue will, of course, be discussed at greater length below. Just as much as Texas Tech can be "written off" as a "fluke," so can Texas.

2. Body of Work
Texas looked good at several points throughout the season. The victory over Oklahoma flamed their short stint at No. 1. The thorough romping of Big XII North Champs Missouri made the Longhorns appear legit (even though Missouri proved to be "paper" Tigers -- I couldn't resist). However, Texas cannot legitimately argue that their body of work is comparable with the team that set the NCAA record for points scored in a season ... with one more game still left to play. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford is poised to set the NCAA record for quarterback rating (previously held by poser Colt Brennan of pass-happy Hawaii) and possibly bring home the Heisman trophy. What's more, Bradford will have accomplished this on a balanced team, which is something most quarterbacks who put up video-game stats cannot readily claim. Oklahoma's offense set another NCAA record for being the first team to score 60+ points in five consecutive games; the game before that streak started -- a 58-point performance, with 55 of those coming in the first half and the first-team offense sipping soft drinks in the second half. Texas is just not in the same world as this team, and it was extraordinarily lucky to beat them at the season midpoint. This plays into the "fluke" counterargument above. If you evaluate the body of work, you must give the nod to Oklahoma.

3. Strength of Schedule
Texas strength of schedule is weak. The Longhorn nonconference schedule: Florida Atlantic, UTEP, Rice and Arkansas. Two-bowl bound teams among those -- Florida Atlantic and Rice -- neither of which strikes fear in the hearts of Big XII enthusiasts. The Longhorn conference schedule differs from Oklahoma's only by one game -- Texas played Colorado and Oklahoma played Kansas State. This is of (very) little consequence.

Oklahoma's strength of schedule is superior. The Sooner nonconference schedule: Cincinnati, TCU, Washington and Chattanooga. I will criticize Oklahoma for scheduling a Division I-AA program. However, the Sooners then played two BCS conference teams and a perennial mid-major powerhouse. Cincinnati is headed to the Orange Bowl to face Virginia Tech as the Big East Champion. The Bearcats lost only one other game this season, having bested Big East powers West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida and Pittsburgh. TCU is headed to the Poinsettia Bowl to face undefeated Boise State. The Hornfrogs are credited with undoing the BYU "Dream Season" and almost repeating a spoiler against Sugar Bowl-bound Utah (which happened to be their only other loss). Therefore, if you are basing your decision on strength of schedule, the Sooners get the nod again, having played two extremely tough nonconference games, while their rival was dodging any nonconference challenge.

I say that the BCS got it mostly right because I am a firm believer in rewarding undefeated teams. In this vein, it is a travesty to choose a 10-2 Ohio State team that has had its ass kicked in two consecutive BCS Title games over a 12-0 Boise State team that provided the most exciting game of the 2006 season in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. One could argue that Boise State did not have the strength of schedule, but Ohio State's strength of schedule does not pass muster either. Ohio State got obliterated in its tough nonconference game against USC, and defeated against Penn State, champions of the deflated Big Ten. The Buckeyes' highest quality win was over a 9-3 Michigan State. On the other hand, Boise State, who was the champion of its conference, had its best win over 9-3 Oregon. Thus, the quality is even.

The true tragedy of this prejudicial oversight is the effect it will have on the Boise State program. Broncos' head coach Chris Petersen is like any other coach in America -- he is looking to promote his career. While he would prefer to do so with Boise State, the system makes it so that the Broncos cannot break through the mid-major glass ceiling that has been created by the BCS system. Thus, it is not unexpected that rumors have circulated that Chris Petersen will accept the job as Mississippi State's next head coach and add to the unbelievably deep coaching in the SEC.

In this regard, I believe that a slight adjustment needs to be made. Here are the possibilities:
1. Turn one of the BCS games into a Mid-Major National Championship, pitting the top two ranked mid-majors against each other.
2. Ensnare the BCS from selecting an at large from a BCS conference over an undefeated mid-major.
3. Create a seventh BCS conference. A fusion of the Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC, resembling the following: 1. Air Force, 2. Boise State, 3. BYU, 4. Colorado State, 5. Fresno State, 6. Hawaii, 7. Houston, 8. Nevada, 9. Rice, 10. TCU, 11. Tulsa, 12. Utah. This 12-team conference would then reduce the possibility of having multiple undefeateds, ensure a BCS bowl for the conference and would give these teams the credibility to vie for a National Championship.
4. Switching to an eight-team playoff system. However, the playoff system must operate such that each BCS conference only sends one team to the playoff. That being the conference champion. The two remaining slots would exist for mid-majors and independents. Otherwise, the system would be equally prejudicial.

With this evaluation of the BCS system, I am expecting a great national championship and an otherwise enjoyable bowl season. Luckily, Boise State wasn't prejudiced too much, as the game with TCU should also be exciting.

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