Thrill of Victory

How the bowls and polls are hurting college football's regular season (and beyond)

For a college football fan, this is the time of the year when we’re glued to the television watching games, and to our mobile devices checking scores elsewhere. Lots of us will be watching this weekend to see if Texas A&M can unseat Alabama and perhaps destroy the ‘Tide’s national title hopes, and if TCU can do the same with No. 2 Kansas State. Next weekend, No. 3 Oregon will need to survive a tough game with Stanford if it wants to remain in the national title picture.

There will, however, be some other games that elicit considerably less interest. Next weekend, nobody will wait with suspense to see if Alabama can squeak by Western Carolina, or Georgia can escape a game with Georgia Southern unscathed, of if Florida can dispose of Jacksonville State, or if Sam Houston State can hang with Texas A&M.

We should be getting more for our investment as fans, but we’re not. And the system is to blame.

In this era of football, most FBS teams that have any hope of post-season glory – either through competing for a national title, or simply making a bowl game – do anything they can not to lose. That’s why you see these pitiful games, and guess what? It’s just going to get worse so long as the NCAA makes no changes to the way it rewards teams for piling up as many wins as they can, against whoever those wins happen to come against.

I watched Alabama-LSU last weekend as a neutral observer hoping to see a great game, but as the clock wound down, I found myself rooting for an Alabama comeback (which happened) because it suddenly occurred to me that, as great as the Southeastern Conference is this year, a ‘Bama loss would probably keep the SEC out of the national title game.

Given that the SEC has won the last six national titles and currently has six of the nation’s top 15 teams, that just doesn’t seem right. Had Alabama lost, it would have fallen to fifth or sixth in the polls, and the later in the season that a team loses, the more that team is generally punished. Could a one-loss Alabama team that’s still probably the best team in the country have climbed back into the title picture? I doubt it.

Had that happened, we could have been looking at (and still may) a title tilt between Kansas State and Notre Dame. A lot of my enjoyment in that game would be ruined as I sat and thought, “Alabama would smoke either of these teams.”

Let’s put the national title picture aside for a minute and talk about the bowl system as a whole. Counting the BCS title game as a bowl, there are 35 bowl games this season, even though there are just 120 FCS teams. While a lot of programs consider a bowl game the mark of a good season, the truth is that the measure of shame for not making a bowl may be greater than the pride in getting there since over half the teams make a bowl.

As for the bowls, you can effectively schedule your way into one. And thus, you get the slate of games we’ll see on Nov. 17, or an out-of conference schedule like Mississippi State’s (Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama, MTSU) – all because it’s a virtually-sure way to make the postseason. Kentucky has been a master at scheduling itself into a bowl, and Vanderbilt (which dropped Ohio State and Northwestern on next year’s schedule, and replaced them with Austin Peay and Alabama-Birmingham) is following suit.

What do I propose as a better way? Let’s draw some inspiration from one of the best sporting events around – the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

The tournament’s selection committee each year goes over the resumes of the 68 teams it selects with a fine-toothed comb, and bends over backwards to reward teams for playing good competition – even if that means you lose a boat-load of games as a consequence. You will often hear the NCAA’s justification for leaving Enormous State University out of the tournament simply articulated as, “It didn’t play anyone out of conference, and we didn’t want to reward that.”

That translates to better basketball in two ways. First, you get some great out-of-conference, regular-season matchups between powerhouses that would not happen if the post-season penalty for those losses is equivalent to what it is in football.

Second, you get a better tournament field – you can argue that the committee makes a mistake or two every year with its selections, but at least it rewards teams for real accomplishment rather than smoke-and-mirrors success

So, here are some thoughts on how the NCAA can improve its product.

First, let’s pare down the number of bowls – my ideal number would be around 20, but any smaller number would be an improvement – and have the NCAA place those teams in those bowls through a selection process like the NCAA Tourney does, with common sense as a guide. If a 6-6 team that played a meat-grinder of a schedule and had a couple of good wins looks stronger than a 9-3 team that played nobody, take the six-win team.

The bowl games themselves also become more interesting. Last year, an 11-1 Boise State team beat a 6-6 Arizona State team in the Las Vegas Bowl, while a 10-2 TCU team beat an 8-4 Louisiana Tech squad (Tech beat nobody of consequence) in the Poinsetta Bowl. I had no interest in either game, but had Boise State played TCU in a bowl game (which might happen if you cut the number of bowls down) would I have cared? Absolutely!

And if a one-loss team belongs in the title game over an undefeated team, then so be it.

Now, this will probably never happen; the NCAA is so scared of losing money that it can’t even commit to the playoff that everyone knows needs to happen. Therefore, it’s probably not going to eliminate a few bowls for the same reason.

On second thought, perhaps I should have been rooting for LSU to win, leaving Alabama out in the cold and setting up a less-desirable match-up. That would hurt TV ratings, which would impact revenues, which might get the NCAA’s attention. Even if it didn’t, I suggest that NCAA could more than make up those revenues incrementally during the season from the ratings generated by an Alabama-Southern Cal game, or a Texas-Texas A&M tilt.

Then again, if the NCAA had that sort of vision, I wouldn’t’ be writing this. We’d already have a system that delivers a better product, and makes the fans a whole lot happier.