Monday, January 05, 2009

Utah and the Myth of a National Champion

I admit to being torn by the state of college football proclamations of a "national champion."

I am as frustrated as everyone else by the current system. I was as inspired as everyone else by Utah's performance. I too find the idea that the Florida-Oklahoma winner is definitively "better" or the "champion" ahead of Utah or USC or Texas to be at odds with what I see with my own eyes.

There are two strong arguments, both articulated this weekend by CFB's leading blog voices:

EDSBS: Atomize the notation "champion" into enough pieces to fit the myriad teams worthy of wearing the label. (But what if you think that Utah has a clear resume advantage over USC?)

Doc Saturday: Continuously dismiss the current system. (And I don't say that to dismiss the way Hinton is approaching it -- to the contrary: I think his hammering is entirely valuable.)

Here's the reality: We all buy into a ranking system. Both Orson and Matt force themselves to rank the top teams each week as part of the BlogPoll. There is no split vote for any of us.

We could, in theory, anoint hundreds of national champions: The EDSBS Champ, the Yahoo Sports champ, the champ, etc.

Instead, we have decided to cede this responsibility to the college football coaches and to the AP.

We collect so-called "experts" and aggregate individual ballots. Sometimes these voters disagree, but everyone agrees to buy into the aggregate.

Now, the BCS system is rigged -- coaches aren't allowed to vote: They automatically vote for the BCS game winner.

The AP has -- at times -- served as a counter-balance, most notably in 2003 when they gave USC the national title (although USC went into the bowls as the AP's top-ranked team -- this year, Florida and Oklahoma are 1-2; to have Utah or USC or Texas jump them, the AP would have to nullify its own existence... unlikely).

So the obvious solution is to create more "recognized" champions outside of the BCS and the AP. There are a few problems with that:

(1) The AP isn't exactly about to cede its position, despite the fact that it pulled itself out of the BCS system because it didn't want to "make news itself." Yeah, right.

(2) The BCS and its partners -- coaches, conferences, media companies, sponsors -- have a vested interest in promoting the "unified champ...our champ" theory.

(3) Even if you created multiple outlets to crown a champion, would they really divide it as easily (and appropriately) as Matt does: Fla-Okla winner (BCS); USC (Media); Utah (People's); Texas (Aggrieved).

Here is one test: Bloggers are as "counter-culture" as anyone out there, and the BlogPoll is the closest thing to a recognized poll with any sort of traction.

Do you think the BlogPollsters will vote Utah as our national champ -- not as a protest, mind you, but because they actually think the Utes are the best team in the country? How about USC? How about Texas?

There can only be one "best," one top-ranked team, one No. 1. As a poll voter or as a fan, you take in as much information as you can, put it through your filter and make your determination.

You don't get to split your own personal vote 4 ways. You can be frustrated at not having an on-the-field way to decide between the contending teams. But you gotta make your choice. We do it every week during the regular season. Ideally, as Matt does, you weigh the resume; it's no different after the bowls than it is after Labor Day, except you have more information.

The BCS has already made its choice. The AP voters will make their choice. You will make yours.

If you legitimately believe that Utah or USC or Texas or Florida or Oklahoma is the best team in the country, vote them No. 1. Make your case to others, and maybe you will convince enough people to agree with you that you create legitimacy for your position.

But you still lack the credibility and self-fulfilling validity of an awards platform.

There is a model for this: College football's many awards, particularly "Player of the Year" awards -- as evidenced this past season, when Bradford won the Heisman, Tebow won the Maxwell, McCoy won the Camp, etc.

There is another model for this, one that aggrieved college football fans and bloggers should look to: Movie awards. What is the "Best Picture" in any given year? Like college football, there is a lot of debate -- and it's not like there is a tournament to pit them against each other.

(Hmm: "Benjamin Button" as Florida? "Milk" as USC? "Slumdog Millionaire" as Utah? "Frost/Nixon" as Texas? I digress....)

But we have the Oscars, which is/was the standard. But then the foreign press wanted to have their influence, so they created the Golden Globes. Then the actors wanted a say, so they created the SAGs. And each regional film critics' association created their own.

And, this weekend, I'm watching CBS and I see a promo for the People's Choice Awards. Now, I'm as populist a sports fan as there is, but this awards show is ludicrous.

However, some genius came up with it and now it is as legitimized as the Oscars, complete with nationalized voting, a red-carpet show, a primetime broadcast and Queen Latifah as host.

For more than a decade, I have been pushing the notion of a nationalized "Fan Poll" as the closest thing there is to a counter-balance to both the BCS and the AP's hegemony. I usually get scoffed at -- you'd think fans would be more inclined to support something that empowers them and breaks up the tyranny at the top.

That's why I'm such a huge fan of the BlogPoll -- if you buy the atomized, offsetting rooting interests of the participating bloggers and also trust that each voter/blogger listens to their readers, adjusting their ballot as is appropriate, the BlogPoll is as close to a Fan Poll as we have.

There is no reason that we BlogPollers can't anoint our own No. 1-ranked team as national champ. If it isn't the BCS or AP champ, I guarantee you that the school will display that status as prominently as a BCS trophy. Schools are smart about their marketing like that.

Here's the rub: When we do finally bring together the 150 BlogPoll voters and their represented millions of fans who consume them, will the group really reach a consensus that the champ is NOT the winner of Florida and Oklahoma? That it is Utah or USC or Texas? I doubt it.

Though I'd like to see it.

But it will take a critical mass of individuals acting and thinking rationally enough to independently see it that way -- and not just as a knee-jerk protest vote, but because you look at the resumes and you legitimately believe that your alternately proposed No. 1 team is the best.

You will not break up the BCS, no matter how loudly you protest. You will not convince the cloistered AP to stop making news itself and running its poll and proclaiming its champ.

But there IS room for more voices at the table identifying and proclaiming their own champ. All it takes is the organizational power to create it, then demand it be recognized.

Yes We Can.*

(* - But there is no guarantee that the result will be any more enjoyable or high-minded than what the BCS or AP comes up with. However, if you would like a Heisman-Maxwell-Camp scenario among national-title teams, we can probably figure out a way to make that happen.)

-- D.S.


brahma said...

Disclaimer, I'm from Oklahoma. The BCS poll is an accumulation of opinions from coaches and writers, and the results of several computer rankings. Even a playoff would start with either a presumption of conference winners being "qualified" or a set of opinions as to who is invited. How is that better? Then you'd have to deal with home team biases, officiating lapses, and writers pandering to constituencies continuing to berate the results. I'm not seeing any improvement. There is no solution that would lead to a true consensus, other than a national, randomly crafted schedule, with full boat (200 team?) playoffs at truly neutral fields. Even then there'd be whining.

Unknown said...

Great post. I agree with almost all of it, and also agree the blog poll is the most accurate "poll" out there. But I wonder if it would be as pure and fan friendly if it ever gained real influence?

The other problem with the blog poll is that it's still reliant on the BCS -- especially if you do a resume ranking system. Texas/ USC/ UTAH, for instance, won't get the chance to play Florida. The winner of the 1-2 game gets a huge resume boost and everyone else is locked into conference affiliations. So, for instance, Texas is stuck with OSU (who they could lose to, but not my point) while all the other teams get to play one loss or no-loss teams.

Essentially, the blogpoll would still rely on the BCS formula to set its matchups in the bowl games, and I don't see how that doesn't end up penalizing the teams that don't get recognized by the BCS.

cmr said...

Good stuff, Dan, but why didn't Boise State 2 years ago get the same love that Utah is getting now?

Biff said...

It seems like we are just back to where we were before the BCS/Bowl Alliance/etc. Various bowls "guessing" at who is the #1 team. Lame.

I still don't understand why NCAA Div 1 football is the *only* collegiate sport to not have a true playoff. Mind. Boggling.

They can do it in the lower divisions, but somehow doing it in Div 1 somehow hurts academics? Wha?! Again, lame.

The BC$ needs to die, now. The fact that any team can go undefeated in the regular season and the post season and not be awarded the national championship is ridiculous. No other collegiate sport has this glaring loophole. It's time to change.

Michael W said...

The problem with the BCS isn't in how we choose the bowl games. College Football is pretty unique in that we want to anoint the "best" team the champion. When you get right down to it, something like the Super Bowl is pretty arbitrary. I mean, were the Giants really the best team in the NFL last year? Really? Really really? No. But we don't care that they weren't the best team, they were the team that won the game the NFL decided should be the last.

College football will never be fair until every team gets to play every other, and that aint happening. College football will never be fair until everybody learns to disregard meaningless polls, especially preseason ones, but that aint happening, either.

Think a playoff would satisfy everyone? Man, the basketball tournament has 65 spots and people still bitch about teams getting left off.

USC is the champion of the Pac-10 and Big-10. The Florida/OK winner will be the champion of the SEC and Big 12. Utah's a darn good team who could give anybody a run for their money. If there's no clear-cut #1 between them, that's perfectly fine with me. I still liked the bowl games, and that's all that matters.

Well, I would have liked them more if Notre Dame lost, but that's a totally different issue.

Precourt said...

First, can they stop giving OSU the benefit of the doubt. Yes they played Texas tough, but give someone else a chance.

Second, assuming Oklahoma wins there has to be a split champion. No one in their right mind should be able to vote for Oklahoma over Texas. I didn't have a problem with the way the Big 12 North winner was decided because one of the three 11-1 teams was going to get screwed either way. So many times we say well if Team A would have played Team B, Team A would have won. Well we had that this year and Texas won head to head. They will have the same record(basically) and they won head to head on a neutral field.

Third, of all people you should be supporting the idea of the AP voting for Utah. But no, your beloved Gators are the ones who stand to lose by the AP voting for Utah so all of a sudden you are against it. They are the only team that didn't lose. They played a tough schedule and they made Alabama look like they didn't belong on the same field with them. Same Alabama team that was the consensus number 1 team in the nation after the regular season that made it through the number 1 conference.

I wonder what this post would read like if USC was playing OU for the National title and UF just won their bowl game to finish with a record of 13-1. Let alone if it was UF who gave USC their only loss earlier in the year on a neutral field. Would you then still think the same way. I doubt it. In fact, you would be damn near crying about how everything is unfair, needs to change, and how we need a 120 team playoff.

Everyone has their biases and of course their biases leak into their thoughts, ideas, sayings, and writings. Yours however, are getting damn near exhausting and tough to read through. If I misunderstood your position in this post I apologize.

And regarding Utah, you are always advocating the what have you done for me lately strategy for poll voting. They dismantled Alabama, they are undefeated. Will the AP vote them number 1? Of course not, but it doesn't mean they shouldn't and it certainly doesn't mean you can't state your opinion that you would have if it were any other team than the Gators that would lose out on the AP title.

Zuzax7 said...

I have to agree with the original post. Even as a proud Mountain West fan, I can't see the eastern press popping Utah to the top over the winner of the BCS Championship game.
That said, neither Oklahoma OR Florida want any part of the Utah team that walked onto the Sugar Bowl turf.
I am tired of hearing that Alabama simply wasn't prepared to play in the Siugar Bowl and that is the reason for thier performance. The reason for their performance was that they got thumped from beginning to end; from sideline to sideline, on both sides of the ball.
Admittedly, the Mountain West is not the Big-12 or the SEC. However, the MWC owns a winnng record against both the PAC-10 and the Big-10 in head-to-head comp over the past few years and the MWC has difficulty getting schedule commitments from the top tier teams, as it is known among perennial power coaches that those away games played at the mile high altitudes of the MWC sites are no picnic in the 4th quarter for their sea level teams. Hence, home and home has no upside for them. :)
These are the original charter WAC members from the sixties and the ones with $ and large enrollments who jumped to form this new conference. Aside from Wyoming and Colorado State, these are big schools with deep pockets.
In the 10 years since conf was born, we have watched them progress, year by year, and the commitment for consistent improvement is bearing the inevitable fruit.
Monitor the MWC over the next five years. During that period, we are confident to be a BCS Buster for a few years and we will gain automatic BCS status and at some point, and gain the rightful respect and recognition we strive for.
Utah is real and the MWC is coming on. So, all you big conferences, Hide and watch. We will love seeing you SEC and Big-12 folks down the road.