Conference Championships – The Next BCS Debate

Arguing about the BCS has become a sport in and of itself. The whole system is so wildly broken that everybody gets an opinion, and many of the opinions actually make sense. Nothing will make more sense than a full-blown 8 or 16 team playoff, but at least we can quiet the noise when the 4 team playoff comes. That is, until we have 5 undefeated teams, or 7 one-loss teams, or fill in the blank.

I have a side-beef with the BCS system – Conference Championship games. The reason I bring this up now is because the Big Ten is about to send an undeserving Wisconsin team to the Big Ten Championship. They are not “earning” their way into the championship game, but rather getting in by default, because Ohio State and Penn State are under sanctions. This should not be.

In 2011, we witnessed a Pac-12 Championship Game between a 6-6 UCLA team, and a 10-2 Oregon team. Why? Because 10-2 USC was ineligible. We also witnessed the farce of an SEC Championship between 10-2 Georgia and 12-0 LSU, only to watch SEC Championship 2 in the BCS Title Game, while 12-1 Oklahoma State got shut out for not passing the “eye test.”

The most egregious use of a Conference Championship to me may have been 2008, when 11-1 Oklahoma played 9-3 Missouri in the Big 12 Championship, while 11-1 Texas and 11-1 Texas Tech stayed home. Do you see where I am going?

I want to eradicate Conference Divisions, when it does not make sense to have them. It amazes me that I have never heard of special rules for conferences in such cases as I described. These match-ups simply do not make sense. For example, this year the Big Ten will have Nebraska play Wisconsin. Wisconsin has lost 2 games (so far) in conference, with the possibility of losing 4. Personally, I think they will go 1-1 in their last two games, but this means they will be an 8-4 team, with 3 losses in conference, playing for the conference title, in a year when there are other teams in conference with less conference losses. Why not have a rule like this: if there are teams ineligible for conference championship play, allow the two best teams in the entire conference (by record) play for the conference championship? It’s not fair that since Michigan, who does not control which division they play in, could have as few as 1 conference loss, and be shut out of the championship game, when a mediocre team gets in from the other division. If there are not enough eligible teams to field a quality championship game, CHANGE THE RULES!

Maybe that one isn’t a very strong example, because the Big Ten is weak this year, and even a 1 conference loss Michigan does not make for a quality opponent.  Let’s go back to the 2011 Pac-12. Why was 6-6 UCLA in the conference championship game? Because they were the champions of the South Division of the Pac-12, right? Yes, but looking closer at the standings, there was a much more intriguing possible game. Since USC was ineligible, why not allow Stanford to substitute in the Conference Championship, because the South Division could not legitimately field a competitive team. Stanford was the #4 team in the country, and Oregon was the #8 team in the country. Outside of ineligible USC, there were no other ranked teams in the conference. These clearly represented the two best teams in the conference, and would have given a definitive winner to the conference, along with great ratings for the Conference Championship Game. Why can’t we make up a simple rule in a case like this when a team is ineligible for a Conference Championship Game, as USC was in this case?

Then there was the SEC. Nobody denies that the 2011 SEC was the best conference in college football, but there are a lot of people who wanted to see Oklahoma State get a shot at the National Championship, and it is still hard to say, even in hindsight, that they didn’t deserve that shot. The Conference Championship Game is a little harder to judge in this case, because Georgia was a good team, and there were no ineligible teams. Still, on one side you had #1, 12-0 LSU. On the other side you had #12, 10-2 Georgia. Again, Georgia was a good team, but in this case there was another team in the conference, #2, 11-1
Alabama, who was clearly the 2nd best team in the conference. The key word in that prior sentence is “clearly.” Without playing in a Conference Championship Game, Alabama still got into the BCS Championship Game. This should never happen! If you have two teams in a conference who are the two best teams in the country, they should play each other for the conference championship regardless of which division they represent. This way, one team moves on, and a team like Oklahoma State gets a legitimate chance to play for the National Championship. It would not be hard to make this kind of rule change.

Now, let’s back up to 2008. The Big 12 had an amazing year that year, but it ended badly. After the regular season was over, you had #3 Oklahoma, #4 Texas, and #7 Texas Tech (depending on which polls you followed), all at 11-1. Because Oklahoma had the higher BCS ranking, they were able to play in the Conference Championship against #17, 9-3 Missouri. Again, we were in a position with National Title implications on the line. #1 Alabama was playing #2 Florida in the SEC Championship, with the winner going to play in the BCS Title Game. This meant that if Oklahoma beat Missouri, they had a walk-in to the National Championship Game. Why not Texas? It would have been so easy to make a modification to the rules so Texas and Oklahoma could battle it out to see who actually went to the National Championship Game. Yes, Texas Tech would have been stiffed, but in this case it seems more fair to let Texas play than neither Texas or Texas Tech. Missouri was simply not a deserving team when we are talking about National Championship potential. And again, if Oklahoma lost to Missouri, there would have been no argument putting Texas in the National Championship Game anyway. Why not let them decide it on the field instead of in the polls? This was clearly a case where the 2 best teams were not allowed to settle these issues on the field.

There is one last conference with eligible teams (at least the ineligible team isn’t very good), but it could still effect BCS Bowl bids, if not the National Championship. The ACC has 2 very good teams, with a lot of also-rans. As it stands now, Florida State will play Miami in the ACC Conference Championship. If not Miami, they will play Georgia Tech or Duke. These teams are barely bowl eligible. FSU will likely win an uncompetitive game in a romp, and go on to a nice BCS Bowl as a result. The ratings will be awful (even if they play Miami), and we will see Charlotte, North Carolina lose moneyin the transaction. It doesn’t need to be this way. Clemson is clearly the second best team in the ACC. They are the
only other ranked team in the conference, and they already played a tough game against FSU this year. Why not allow them to play again, on a neutral field, with a BCS Bowl on the line? Ratings will be high, Charlotte will make money, fans would love this, and a clear Conference Champion will be crowned.

As we tweak the BCS system to get the “best” teams in each bowl game, it seems to me the next logical thing to do (if we do not want to expand the playoff to more than 4 teams) is tweak each conference’s rules to include a little more common sense and intuition into the Conference Championship Games. First, when there is at least 1 ineligible team in a conference, allow two teams from the same division to play each other when the division with the ineligible team is clearly weak. Second, when National Title hopes are on the line, and you have two teams in the top 5 in the country, let them play each other in the Conference Championship, regardless of which division they represent. Third, when
there are clearly two teams in a conference that are head and shoulders better than the other teams, let them play for a legitimate Conference Championship. All of this will add revenue to the NCAA, the conferences, and the universities. It will also create a more balanced system, allowing only the best teams to go to BCS bowl games, while not allowing teams who don’t win their conference championship to “back in” to a National Title game. Let the best teams win!