Disclaimer: Boise State has had opportunities to clinch automatic qualifying berths to a BCS bowl in each of the last two college football seasons. They have not taken advantage of those opportunities. The expectation for the Broncos, or any school from a non-BCS conference, is to finish the season undefeated in order to have a chance to prove you belong among the elite and Boise State has been unable to do that in either 2010 or 2011. Yet their body of work over the past decade has proven the quality of their program and perhaps it is time to re-think the standard of what constitutes “elite.” This diatribe is bound to feel a bit personal.
How many times in your life have you heard the expression, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Probably several dozen, either in jest or in reality. Now think about how many times you have heard, “Yes, it is broken, but we’re not going to fix it.” Maybe from a landlord, or a really bad repair company, or even our current government. But from a lucrative, multi-million dollar industry like the BCS?
In the 14 seasons of its existence, the Bowl Championship Series has consistently proven itself to be broken but nobody seems to have any sense of urgency to do anything about it. Despite its insistence that “Every Game Counts,” the BCS has chosen this year to pit two teams from the Southeastern Conference in the championship game even though they faced each other earlier in the season. Apparently, that particular game did not count.
Before moving on, I offer a brief overview of the BCS for those that may not understand its machinations. The BCS standings are comprised of three components, each counting for 1/3 of the formula total: the USA Today Coaches Poll, the Harris Interactive Poll and the Computer Rankings.
The USA Today Coaches Poll is a board of 59 coaches who turn in weekly ballots of the top 25 teams. It is commonly understood that most coaches do not have time for such nonsense and leave this job to athletic department or football program underlings.
The Harris Interactive Poll is comprised of former players, coaches, administrators and media members. Some of the notables on the 2011 list include former Oregon and Kentucky Head Coach Rich Brooks, Idaho Statesman Sports Editor Mike Prater and former Boise State offensive lineman Pete Cavender.
The Computer Rankings are the aggregate of six different computer formulas that place emphasis on elements such as strength of schedule and using predictive outcomes to set the expectation for which team should win, based on things such as conference strength and home field advantage. The methods can vary wildly so the total is determined by throwing out the highest and lowest computer scores and averaging the remaining four elements, hopefully bringing some consistency to the various formulas.
To get to the final BCS average, the three components are averaged and teams are ranked one through twenty-five. The sole purpose of the BCS is to find, in as unbiased a method as possible, the top two teams to face off in the National Championship Game. The remaining slots filled up by eight additional teams in four other bowl games are determined by conference affiliations with several stipulations.
The six Automatic Qualifying conferences are the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Big East. The champions of those conferences are guaranteed a spot in the BCS. If Notre Dame finishes in the top eight of the BCS standings, they are guaranteed a spot. If a team from one of the five non-AQ conferences finishes in the top 12, they are guaranteed a spot (unless there is more than one school that meets the criteria, in which case the highest ranked non-AQ is the only one that is guaranteed a BCS bowl bid.)
Within that particular piece of the system, nothing seems to truly be broken. The big conferences negotiated the big deals with the big bowls. Politics can be argued, but surely to no avail. So that brings us to the concept of the at-large bid.
With ten spots available in the five bowl games (including the National Championship Game), there are at most four at-large spots available in a given year. An at-large bid is attainable if a team has won at least nine games and is in the top 14 of the final BCS standings. There is a maximum of two teams from any one conference that can participate, with the exception being two non-champion schools from the same conference being in the title game. That was a plausible scenario this season had Georgia beaten LSU in the SEC championship game. If LSU and Alabama had remained in the top two spots, they would have been joined by Georgia as the SEC champion, giving one conference three bids for the first time.
For the purposes of this argument, I will not discuss the merits of LSU and Alabama repeating their ugly regular season contest for the BCS championship. Nor will I harp on the ridiculous inclusion of 15th-ranked Clemson (ACC champions) or 23rd-ranked West Virginia (Big East champions) getting automatic bids, unfortunate as it may be. Furthermore, there is no argument to be made for the champions of the Big Ten or Pac-12 that won conference championship games and will face off in the Rose Bowl. Oklahoma State won the Big 12 championship and the automatic berth that comes with it and will face Stanford, the highest-ranked at-large team in the Fiesta Bowl.
With those eight teams locked in to their BCS spots, there were two at-large selections remaining. The Sugar Bowl is contractually obligated to feature the SEC champion but in recent years has had to select a different team due to the champion of the SEC being in the National Championship Game each of the past six seasons. A unique scenario this season had the runner-up in the SEC also unavailable to be selected.
With no conference affiliations or automatic-qualifying teams for the Sugar Bowl to select, they had their choice of any of the remaining top 14 teams that were not from the SEC (sorry Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia) or the Pac-12, as those conferences each already had two schools selected.
In order of their BCS ranking, the teams that did not have automatic-qualifying status (and were not SEC or Pac-12 schools) were #4 Stanford, #7 Boise State, #8 Kansas State, #11 Virginia Tech, #12 Baylor, #13 Michigan and #14 Oklahoma. With the six conference champions and Alabama locked in, there were three at-large spots available this year.
Stanford was a shoe-in for an at-large bid as the highest-ranked team remaining, with their only loss coming to #5 Oregon. Houston’s loss to Southern Mississippi in the Conference-USA championship game knocked them from #6 in the BCS all the way to #19 leaving TCU as the highest-ranked non-AQ conference champion. They finished at #18, two spots behind a guaranteed bid which meant there was not an automatic qualifier from the five non-BCS conferences.
The resumes of the remaining candidates were as follows:
#7 Boise State
- Ranked 6th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll
- Only loss was to 18th-ranked TCU by one point
- Beat SEC East champion Georgia (#14) in Atlanta to open the season
- Did not win their conference championship
- Strength of Schedule rating: #77 (dropped 10 spots just by playing New Mexico in season finale)
#8 Kansas State
- Ranked 10th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll
- Gave up 110 points in losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State
- Beat #13 Baylor by one point
- Did not win their conference championship
- Strength of Schedule rating: #7
#11 Virginia Tech
- Ranked 11th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll
- Lost twice to #15 Clemson by 20 and 28 points
- Zero wins against BCS Final Top 25 teams
- Did not win their conference championship
- Strength of Schedule rating: #51
- Ranked 16th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll
- Three losses including giving up 114 points in consecutive games to unranked Texas A&M and Oklahoma
- Wins against #14 Oklahoma, #18 TCU and #24 Texas
- Did not win their conference championship (tied for 3rd place)
- Strength of Schedule rating: #13
- Ranked 12th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll
- Lost to #17 Michigan State and unranked Iowa
- Beat #20 Nebraska convincingly at home
- Did not win their conference division or championship
- Strength of Schedule rating: #40
- Ranked 19th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll
- Three losses including unranked Texas Tech, #12 Baylor and #3 Oklahoma State
- Beat #8 Kansas State and #24 Texas
- Did not win their conference championship
- Strength of Schedule rating: #4
In reverse order of resumes, Oklahoma should have been immediately eliminated despite a pair of decent wins. Three losses, including an embarrassing 44-10 defeat to rival Oklahoma State in the de facto Big 12 championship game, rule them out. They played a tough schedule but did not manage to win the games they needed to win. They were also ranked behind two other conference opponents.
Michigan was unimpressive all season, with the lone exception being an easy win over Nebraska at home. They had two losses and could not win the division of their conference to even play in the Big Ten championship game. They have a major national fan base that is a lucrative boon to any bowl game that will host them, increasing their odds of being selected in any year in which they are eligible.
Baylor is eliminated with three losses as well, despite the impressive wins on their resume. Their offense is incredible with Heisman hopeful Robert Griffin III at quarterback but their defense is atrocious, giving up over 35 points per game. They were also several spots behind a conference foe as the third team from the Big 12.
Virginia Tech won their division title but lost to Clemson in the ACC championship despite the Tigers being in a bit of a tail spin. It was the 2nd humiliating defeat to Clemson this season and Virginia Tech had no wins of note aside from a victory at then-#21 Georgia Tech, a team that finished 8-4 and out of the BCS top 25.
Kansas State had a rough patch in which they lost consecutive games in mid-season, giving up over 50 points each to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, before settling down and winning their last three games, in unconvincing fashion. Their early-season win over Baylor was the only impressive win of the season but they had perhaps the best resume of any remaining team with the 2nd-toughest schedule in the group and only losses to a pair of teams in the top 14.
That brings us to Boise State, the so-called “Non-AQ darlings of the college football world.” The Broncos have twice busted the BCS party, beating Oklahoma in an instant classic in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and then turning back TCU in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. Two other times in the previous six seasons, Boise State had gone undefeated in the regular season only to be left out of the BCS, both times when Utah grabbed the automatic bid as the higher ranked non-AQ team.
Even when they have forced the issue and made it through to a BCS game, the lack of respect has been unsettling. The Vegas line had the Broncos as only a 7.5 point underdog against Oklahoma but the perception was that the game would be a complete mismatch. Three years later, when both Boise State and TCU found themselves in the unique position of being non-AQ schools in the top 5 of the BCS standings, they were rewarded not with games against high-profile BCS conferences but instead matched up against each other. It was a great game but did nothing to further the cause of the non-AQ schools.
The Broncos have an unquestioned pedigree as the team with the most wins and best winning percentage of any school in the country over the past decade. They are certainly no flash in the pan. In the past three seasons they have wins over the Pac-12 champions, ACC champions and SEC East champions, each in the season opener. They are not afraid to travel to hostile locations and aside from a 2005 beating at Georgia, they have accounted themselves quite well against BCS opponents in recent years.
As mentioned above, Boise State has now twice shot itself in the foot by missing field goals that would have guaranteed a BCS berth. They could have easily avoided the situation they find themselves in by taking care of business when they needed to against Nevada and TCU these past two years.
Yet even when you put that argument aside, it is clear that they were one of the top two teams eligible for the remaining BCS at-large berths. This was absolutely a case of the “haves” making sure they kept their money away from the “have-nots.”
If rankings don’t matter, and five teams ranked lower than Boise State making the BCS prove that they do not, why even bother putting the little guys in the polls? Instead of Boise State, Houston, Southern Miss and TCU, wouldn’t people rather see bad Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame and Florida teams? Those four will undoubtedly find their way back into the preseason polls in 2012 anyway.
If Boise State is not going to be given a chance to prove that it is worthy being placed among the top 10 teams in the five major bowls, what is the point of the #7 ranking?
The answer lies in the farcical nature of the BCS. I stated earlier that its only objective is to crown the champion between the top two teams in its formula. The rest of the bowl structure is a good old boys network that has nothing to do with rankings and everything to do with money and tradition.
The Sugar Bowl feels that it is not in its best interests to have a minor league program like Boise State playing in its game when it can have a prestigious program like Michigan, or a recognizable powerhouse such as Virginia Tech. And the rules have been written as such that they can invite either of those teams, provided they are in the top 14 in the final BCS rankings.
It is absolutely their prerogative to unjustly keep the Broncos out of the big boy bowls. If they want to stack the cards against the Sisters of the Poor, why not just take them out of the equation entirely?
There are better ways to decide a champion in the sport of college football. The crux of the issue is that there may not be more lucrative ways to crown said champion. Despite the fact that Boise State has proven it can put posteriors in the seats and eyes on the television over the past decade, they are being excluded from the party because of a structure that refuses to let them prove themselves.
This, and only this, is the reason the Broncos are seriously considering an otherwise undesirable move of their football program to the Big East Conference. There you can finish with three or four losses, not even be ranked in the top 25 should you so choose, and still get a piece of the pie. Why wouldn’t they be clamoring for such an arrangement?
Fans of Michigan and Virginia Tech probably have no idea why there is an uproar outside of Ann Arbor and Blacksburg regarding the 2012 Sugar Bowl. It is merely their right as a member of the college football elites to have that honor bestowed upon them.
But when the Sugar Bowl kicks off on January 3rd, there will be at least one house in Idaho that has no interest in turning on the television set and perpetuating the nonsense that the BCS system has created.