LSU vs. Alabama Will Be Great, but the BCS Still Needs to Go

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The championship game brings together the two best teams in the nation, but fans missed out by not having a playoffs.

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Reuters

The BCS—Bowl Championship Series—is touting the 2011 season as one that justifies its existence. From its first game in 1998, the point of the BCS was to produce an official champion in Division I-A college football. Before that, dating back to the 1890s, there was no national champion. Any organization who wanted to—including the Associated Press, United Press International, and college football writers who voted for the MacArthur Bowl, to name just three—could choose the team they thought was worthiest. 

This drove many football fans—or at least pro football fans, where champions are decided by playoffs—plain nuts.  In truth, though, the system worked very well for college football, often rewarding two or more teams (in a few cases as many as five) for having excellent seasons. Some years, the arguments about who should be number one lasted well into the off-season and often into the next.

In the mid-1990s, the BCS was formed to finally answer the burning question as to which team most deserved to be ranked number one by determining the two best teams in the country and then pitting them against each other.  Except ... that was never really the burning question.  In the eyes of most fans, the issue could never be settled unless several teams were included in a postseason tournament instead of the BCS way, which involves a Byzantine ranking system based partially on statistics and partially on popularity polls to determine the number one and two teams, who then play for the "official" title.

This method has satisfied practically nobody and has raised at least as many questions as it has answered, with the loudest complaints coming from fans of teams ranked between number 3 and 10 but never got a chance to play for number one. 

This year, there is no such controversy.  By consensus, LSU, 13-0 and ranked number one in all major polls, and Alabama, 11-1 and ranked number two, are by consensus the best teams in the country. So their rematch—they played on November 5 with LSU winning 9-6 in overtime—this Monday in the BCS championship game should settle any question about who most deserves to be number one this year.

There are those who disagree. Some say no one should get a second chance at the top spot or that there are too many other good teams waiting in line. Others contend that the LSU and Alabama match-up will be boring—i.e. low-scoring—because they are have two best defenses in the country and won't produce the kind of fireworks seen in other bowl games this year.  But these are side issues.  If the goal is to produce a championship game between the two best teams in the country, then that's what's going to happen tonight.

Even acknowledging that the BCS has put the two best teams on the field, there are two major issues that are being ignored. First, it isn't the BCS that's responsible for putting Alabama and LSU together—it's the Southeastern Conference. The SEC, as every college football fan should know, is the major league of the sport. This is the sixth consecutive season in which an SEC team will be the national champion; SEC schools have won the previous five by an average margin of victory of 14 points.  For the last several seasons, competition within the SEC has been so tough that whatever team becomes king of its hill is by definition the best in the nation.

This, by the way, has always been the case. Since the conference began in 1933, SEC teams have been voted number one by at least one of the polling groups in 36 of 77 seasons.  This year, 9 of the SEC's 12 teams were invited to postseason bowl games and to date have been victorious in 5 of the first 7 games played. So, it wasn't through any genius of the BCS committee that LSU and Alabama made it to the top game; it was a simple matter of looking at the top ten and realizing that it had to be two teams from the SEC.

The second major issue that the LSU-Alabama championship game is obscuring is that even if these are the two best teams in the country, why did they have to come together by invitation from the BCS? Stated another way:  Why weren't these two teams made to prove they are the best by defeating all other contenders in a playoff? There may be little doubt that the Tigers and the Crimson Tide would be the last two teams standing in any tournament- there's certainly little doubt in my mind and every opinion and computer poll in the country places them to the top slots. But if they had to play the other major contenders—including Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, and Wisconsin—before they got to the Super Bowl of college football, at least the other big bowls would be meaningful instead of what they are now, pale sideshows to the main attraction.

It's no wonder that the Nielsen ratings in most of the bowl games are down this year. The Orange Bowl, in which West Virginia beat Clemson 70-13, drew just a 5.3 rating, down from last year's 7.1. Even though Michigan won a 23-20 overtime thriller over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, ratings were down even more, 7.0 compared to last year's  9.5.  Even the oldest of bowls, the Rose, in which Oregon beat Wisconsin 45-38, had just a 13.1 rating, 0.7 lower than the 2011 game.  Would more viewers have tuned in if they had been playoff games?  Well, what would you rather watch: a game where the winner would still be in contention for the national title or a game where the winner is not even playing for bragging rights?

The BCS has nothing to boast about. Once again it's given college football fans nothing that they wouldn't have already have while taking away games that millions of them want to see.  

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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