August 19, 2005

The National Champion Debate

College football longs for a playoff to determine a true national champion. With the bowl money being as lucrative as ever, our hopes are not going to be realized in this lifetime. Lets set the record straight, however. Most years, college football gets it right. Two teams ascend the polls and walk into the championship game undefeated. The winner is truly the champion of the college football.

Some years there are more than one team remaining that is undefeated. For the life of me I will never understand why one undefeated team is better than another. Why should one team get punished for not being able to play another team. Now, granted, this means BCS conference teams. I would love to say that Utah was a national champion last year, but no poll will allow it. Besides, outside of Salt Lake City, I doubt there is too much complaining.

The years I am reviewing only go back to the first champion after my birth, 1977. Its a bias, but in later years, I can remember those arguments for each teams.

My friend, Casey, once challenged me to go back and apply the BCS formula to past years. His goal was to provide a retro analysis of the BCS. Would the BCS have worked to have solved debates in previous years? In most cases this would have eliminated split national champions and broken a tie. However, the BCS was created to put No. 1 vs. No. 2. What will always derail the system are years where more or less than two teams are undefeated.

2004: USC and Auburn, national champs.
This is a caveat for me that gives a national championship to a deserving candidate later in the look back. Go with it, essentially.

2003: The LSU Tigers stand alone.
I hold to you that in 2003, the LSU Tigers were the only national champion. Again, the BCS was created to put #1 vs. #2. It did that. Oklahoma lost the Big 12 championship game yet, still made the Sugar Bowl versus the Bayou Bengals. LSU, Oklahoma, and USC all had one loss. In my mind, that made them all forfeit the right to lobby and complain and they all squarely left the decision up to the computers. Each team had a reason to have to remain silent. In this case, USC lost to Cal in overtime in Berkeley. I should remind you, this was not the 2004 Cal that got cheated out of a BCS bowl bid, but rather the 8-6, 2003 California Golden Bears.

USC was flashy in 2003, they had Mike Williams and a high-octane offense that the media started to love. They also received a ton of press being in Los Angeles compared to Baton Rouge and Norman, OK. I like the Trojans, their program is the best in the nation since 2001. But I am looking at the process of getting a national champion. What never helps the Trojans circa 2003 is their only one win against a team that finished the season ranked, before beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

The BCS worked in 2003. Its interesting that the AP poll dropped out this year in determining the national champion. The pollsters cited reasoning that the press should report the news, not create the news. Gimme a break. The press has long before tried to create the news, save me the PR posturing. Its funny too that the AP will still continue to have a poll, but it wont determine the college champion. You dont think AP writers will cite their poll if it should conflict with the newly-created Harris Poll? Puhleeze.

In 2002, Ohio State beats Miami in a thriller between the only two undefeated squads. Earlier in 1999, Florida State would beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl in a similar matchup between #1 and #2, the only undefeated schools.

The BCS avoided major controversy in 1998, 2000, and 2001 when the only undefeated teams (Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Miami, FL respectively) won their matchups against the "next best team". (Florida State twice and Nebraska in 2001 had blemishes.) Debate can rage about who should have played in the final game, but the point is rendered moot by the undefeated favorites winning

Michigan would have played Nebraska in 1997, no sentimental vote due to Coach Tom Osborne retiring would have been needed. The split here would create the BCS starting the following year.

1996: Florida doesnt even earn a shot at the national title with the BCS applied to the situation. Florida State and Arizona State entered the bowl season #1 and #2. Florida was #3 and drew the rematch with the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl thanks to the Rose Bowl's locked agreement with Arizona State. The Sun Devils were beaten by the #4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, while the Gators got their revenge and their national championship, beating Florida State 52-20 in New Orleans. Florida was elected the national champion over Ohio State. You could sit back and make an argument there about Ohio State needing a piece of the championship due to their win making it possible for Florida to get their title. However, Florida had beaten the team that beat them earlier, and Ohio State still had the "school up north" to blame for their demise. Michigan's four loss season didnt help OSU at the polls.

In 1995, juggernaut Nebraska destroyed Florida, 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl. Both teams were undefeated, and college football had no controversy.
    1994: Penn State gets their due, splitting the title with Nebraska.
    With the BCS in place Penn State plays Nebraska for the title. I can't predict a winner. I won't get into that debate, however, for Penn State to not have earned a split is ridiculous in my opinion. The Nittany Lions were not a team that won umimpressively through the year. Their only "set back" was to Indiana, winning 35-29, a score that looked close, until you read the boxscore and saw that IU connected on a hail mary with :00 on the clock (and subsequently converted the two-point play) to end the game within six.

    Penn State had nothing to play for on that play. The voters showed that they don't watch the games, they only see the scores when covering their teams on their beat. The coaches poll was just as negligent, proving that SID's didn't watch much more football than the coaches, who hand the duty of voting off to in order not to be bothered with the task.

    The process at the time was the Bowl Coalition and it did not unlock the Big Ten or Pac-10 champion from the Rose Bowl. Penn State was forced into the game with a three loss, cinderella Oregon. That matchup as well, cost the Nittany Lions who have a history of such things. (see 1968, '69, and '73 - Joe Pa would not win his first title until 1982.)

    As a Notre Dame fan, it hurts to say that 1993 worked. Florida State and Nebraska entered #1 and #2 in the Orange Bowl after the Irish didn't light enough candles at the Grotto the next week for their game against Boston College. The Eagles won 41-39 in South Bend and ended a FSU-Notre Dame rematch. Nebraska held their own against the Seminoles, taking a late lead, but losing when a desperation field goal missed badly. Earlier in the day, the Irish had a chance to sway voters if they could have crushed a one-loss Texas A&M squad. The Domers won on a late field goal, not enough to sway the voters, determined to give Bobby Bowden a national championship. (Alright, that was the fan coming out.) Noteworthy to mention is the exclusion of the 1993 Auburn Tigers. Auburn went 11-0 on probation. I don't reward probation teams.

    was beautiful with #2 Alabama upsetting #1 Miami, FL in the Sugar Bowl, 34-13.

    In 1991
    , Miami would have played Washington, but again the Rose Bowl prevented it. However, unlike Penn State later in 1994, the voters split for the title.

    Colorado and Georgia Tech split the 1990 title, however, using the BCS would have put the Big 8 champion against the ACC champion in a bowl for the title. The one loss, one tie Buffaloes would have earned a shot over several powerhouses saddled with two losses heading into the bowl season.

    In 1989, the Colorado Buffaloes were undefeated headed to the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame. The Irish prevailed 21-6, handing the title to Miami who had beaten Notre Dame earlier in the season to end the Irish 23-game winning streak. Under the BCS, Miami would have gotten their direct shot at Colorado, but at the time bowl reservations were set well in advance and the Orange had already committed to Notre Dame.

    1988 saw #1 Notre Dame beat undefeated West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Before 1988, some of the arguments begin to breakdown:

    What would the BCS have done with Independents? In 1988, powerhouses Penn State, Florida State, Miami, along with Notre Dame were not aligned with conferences. In 1987, does an 11-0, independent, #3 Syracuse break through the 1-2 held by Miami and Oklahoma? The 1987 Hurricanes would win the title on their home field, the Orange Bowl, 20-14. The Sooners would win in 1985 after beating undefeated, #1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Do the 1984 BYU Cougars even get a shot, coming from the WAC?

    1983 would be the next instance of a national championship stripped. Nebraska and Texas were 1-2 but did not meet. The Huskers were obligated to the Orange Bowl as a Big 8 member, and Texas headed to the Cotton Bowl as the SWC champion.

    The Georgia Bulldogs beat Texas 10-9 in Dallas to end Texas' hopes. Presumably it was seen as a small chance wasted with Nebraska set to destroy Miami like they had crushed everyone so far that year. Texas fans watched in horror as Miami pulled the impossible, leaving them lamenting a late fumble that Georgia QB John Lastinger took in for the deciding score with 3:22 left.

    1982 would be another instance of an undefeated losing, paving the way for a blemished champion. Penn State defeated Georgia, 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl to catapult themselves to #1.
    Nebraska finished with one loss, but it was to the Nittany Lions, whereas the SMU Mustangs (members of the then-powerful SWC) finished 11-0-1 and got nothing. A tie against Arkansas in their final home game gave Penn State the chance and Joe Paterno his first national championship.

    In 1980 and '81, Georgia and Clemson would be the only undefeateds before and after the bowls. Georgia beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, and Clemson dispatched Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

    Someone has to explain to me how in 1978, Alabama and USC split the vote, even though USC beat the Tide in Tuscaloosa during the season. Looking back I guess USC got payback tying the Tide in 1979, even though Alabama was 12-0 and USC 11-0-1. Applying the BCS would have met these two schools both times.

    Add 1977 to the mix of national championships that don't happen. In '77 Notre Dame beat #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 38-10. The Irish margin of victory and losses by #2 Oklahoma and #4 Michigan helped put the Irish to the top, assisted finally by #3 Alabama beating a 9-3 Ohio State team. In BCS mode, the Irish don't get to play Texas. Either #2 Oklahoma does, or the polls realize that OU already had their shot and give #3 Alabama the chance. Notre Dame helped themselves by the circumstances at the time. The Irish were free to go to any bowl of their choosing.

    Lessons learned:
    - Pre-BCS, it was good to beat the undefeated #1 in the bowl game, even if you weren't #2. 1977 Notre Dame, 1978 Alabama, 1982 Penn State, 1983 Miami all profitted.

    - The BCS era is far better than what we had before when all of the big conferences were locked into their bowl ties. The SEC champion went to the Sugar Bowl, the Big 8 to the Orange, the SWC to the Cotton, the Big Ten and Pac-10 to the Rose, and the ACC to the Citrus. The Big East did not exist until 1991.


    In closing, college football takes hits and fan boards love to talk about a "mythical national championship" and the need for a playoff. The playoff has been nothing new for an idea, but big money flows through the bowls and the chamber of commerces that host the games.

    Its a good track record that since 1977, I can only eliminate three national champions (1977 Notre Dame, 1983 Miami, and 1996 Florida) even getting a shot at the title. Those teams took advantage of the situation that existed and the conference comissioners could have not signed exclusive contracts with the bowls, giving them the freedom of movement. They are to blame as well.

    The game will always be governed by money, a sad college sports fact, however, the fun in college football is the debate. The heated arguments exist (trust me, I will go purple in the face about Notre Dame '93) and they give college football its zealous interest.

    I believe the 2006 format of the BCS will eliminate all problems. The format calls for one game after the major bowls. The teams will be unbalanced again and conference tie-ins will get stronger (SEC-Sugar, ACC or Big East-Orange, Big 12-Fiesta, Big 10/Pac-10-Rose), however, there is no scenario that exists since 1977 that would have prevented the national champion the chance to play for the title.

    I dont want a playoff, it ends these debates, it ends the rivalries with schools costing others the chance of winning with key losses. However, national championships will shed their "mythical" label and that is a positive for The College Game.

    Photo credits:
    Nick Saban with Sugar Bowl trophy - AP
    Danny Wuerffel - Wide World Photos
    ND-FSU scoreboard - The Observer
    Kevin Butler, UGA - Dallas Morning News


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    Anonymous said...

    LOL @ "the point is rendered moot by the undefeated favorites winning"

    Think maybe they could have lost playing a better team?


    Also LOL @ 2003 LSU's offense being shut out at home and losing to a true freshman QB. UF beat LSU avoiding the blitz passing to RBs. And yes, USC passes to RBs.

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