BCS Bowl Selection
So, there’s a lot of wondering every year as to just how the Bowl Selection Committee determines who is and isn’t playing in the five BCS bowl games. It’s actually not that complicated of a process. In fact, the simplicity of the whole thing is quite astounding. Of course, that simplicity also makes you bang your head against the wall over the fact that the entire selection process has the same level of intricacy and intelligence as a high school clique. But, such is our process, and as Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said on selection Sunday (more or less), we (they) have gotten on board with the system, and have to accept the way it works while it’s in place, whether they like it or not. So let’s take a look at exactly what system is in place, how the teams playing in the five BCS games are determined, and whether there actually is a better way to do things.
As you may or may not be aware of, there are currently five BCS bowl games played every year: the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, and the BCS National Championship. Ten of the top teams in the country compete in these five games. Note, however, that I said ten of the top teams, and not the top ten teams. Hold onto that for later, because it’s surprising sometimes just who gets to play, and who is left out in the cold.
The current BCS system allows for six automatically qualifying teams and four others, known as “at-large bids.” So who exactly gets the automatic qualification? One would hope that the answer would be “the top six teams in the BCS rankings.” Alas, such is not the case. In 1998, the major conferences in college football got together with the independent schools and created the system known as the BCS. These conferences were the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac 12 (former the Pac 10 at the time of creation), the Big East, the ACC, and the SEC. Together, with the independent schools (Notre Dame, Army, Navy, and BYU), these conferences created the system used by the rest of the country. In fact, it was more of a “get on board, or get left out” mentality, and other conferences wanted to get on board and be considered for those BCS games.
Being that six conferences were involved in starting this whole system, they made sure that one team from each would be guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl game. Thus, you have your six automatic qualifiers: The champion of each conference is automatically placed in a BCS game, with certain games be designated for certain champions (for instance, the Rose Bowl being specifically for the Big Ten champ and Pac 12 champ, unless either team should be playing for the national championship). In 2011, LSU (SEC), Clemson (ACC), West Virginia (Big East), Oregon (Pac 12), Wisconsin (Big Ten), and Oklahoma State (Big 12) were the champions that punched tickets to BCS bowl games. This leaves four spots open for other ranked teams to take a trip to a major venue. (Note: Notre Dame gets an automatic bid if the team finishes in the top 8 of the BCS standings at the end of the season.)
The other four teams to play in BCS games are known as “at-large bids.” The 2012 bowl games will include Michigan (Big Ten), Virginia Tech (ACC), Stanford (Pac 12), and Alabama (SEC) as the “at-large” teams. Not all of the selection processes for these four teams were the same, however. Let’s start with the BCS Championship game. This game is SUPPOSED to be for the teams ranked #1 and #2 in the BCS (still bitter about 2006). Therefore, you have LSU playing Alabama (ranked 1 and 2, respectively). Stanford is in a similar situation. The Fiesta Bowl is for teams ranked 3 and 4 to battle it out, and thus you have Oklahoma State against Stanford. These two games work, regardless of the automatic bids and at-large bids, because even if no champion from one of the six major conferences is ranked higher than 5, then you have here your four at-large bids, and the Sugar, Cotton, and Orange Bowls will host the six conference champs. After, all, regardless of money and draw, it’s only fair that the four best teams in the country should be acknowledged for their hard work and given big stage to play on.
Michigan and Virginia Tech (the 2011 “at-large bids”) are another matter entirely, though. Once the automatic bids have been chosen (and there are ways for the other FBS conferences to obtain an automatic qualifier), the at-large bids are basically chosen based on personal biases. The only rule is that to be considered for an at-large berth, a team must have at least nine wins and be ranked in the top 14 of the BCS standings. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s game. Michigan and Virginia Tech were chosen over several other teams that were ranked higher, more deserving, and definitely better. Yet the #11 and #13 teams obtained the at-large selections, and will play each other in the Sugar Bowl.
What can we really say about the automatic bids? Remember when I said that the selection was as simplistic as a high school clique? Try arguing that that’s not what the six member conferences created when they entered into the agreement that started the BCS system. All six get an automatic bid into the BCS games. The at-large teams are likely to come from those conferences as well, considering that beyond the 9-win, #14 or higher criteria, it’s all about money when you’re looking at which teams to let in. So you’re looking at five bowl games filled with nothing but teams from six conferences. These games are supposed to be for the best of the best in the BCS. There’s a reason that these five games are coveted above all the other ridiculous bowl games that exist. (I’m looking at you, Beef O’Brady Bowl. You too, GoDaddy.com Bowl.) It’s because these are supposed to be the games that showcase the best of the best that college football had for any particular season. Now, I understand that certain games belong to certain conferences, because it’s hard to argue with tradition that stretches back 100 years or more. The Rose Bowl will showcase the Big Ten and Pac 12. The Big 12 will have the Fiesta Bowl, the Sugar Bowl for the SEC, and the Orange Bowl for the ACC. Those are all fine, if that’s the way those individual committees want to proceed. But that shouldn’t mean that the rest of the conferences are frozen out. Boise State may play in the Mountain West Conference, but they’re still the seventh ranked team, nationally. They should be in one of the top games. Likewise for Kansas State, Arkansas, and South Carolina (from the Big 12 and SEC, respectively). They may not have won their conferences, but they are ranked in the top ten nationally, and should be in these BCS games. (Note: It should be noted that Kansas State and Arkansas will be facing off in the Cotton Bowl, which, given the national attention, is something of a red-headed stepchild to the BCS—it’s a game that should be a part of the family, almost is like a part of the family, but isn’t actually acknowledged as such.)
These automatic bids don’t necessarily deserve their places in these BCS bowl games. But, when a clique decides what it’s going to do, you better believe everyone left on the outside isn’t going to be able to change the status quo. They’ll just have to find a way to the inside (just as Boise State, San Diego State, and others are doing with the current realignment of the Big East in progress).
Remember how those top ten teams should be playing, instead of just ten of the top teams? This is even more of a problem with the at-large bids. Now don’t get me wrong—I am ecstatic that Michigan is back in a BCS game. It has been far too long since my boys in blue have seen the national stage. Granted, I don’t think Denard Robinson stands even kind of a chance, but at least they’re back. But that doesn’t mean they’re deserving. Likewise, for Virginia Tech. The Hokies were ranked fifth going into championship weekend. But they were mightily upended by Clemson, and fell to eleventh. When you’re ranked that high, and fall that far, you probably don’t deserve to head to a national game.
But when the at-large teams are decided, it comes down to the money. Computers are used to decide a lot of the rankings throughout the season, which (while not infallible) removes a lot of the bias from the process. When it comes time to decide those BCS bowls, however, that pent up bias gets let out. It suddenly becomes all about which schools travel the best, which schools will bring in the most revenue, and which schools are most well recognized. Do you think that Boise State has the fan base to dedicate a primetime spot on a Tuesday evening to? The state of Idaho doesn’t count as a fan base. Although they do make fabulous potatoes, and the solitude has got to be peaceful and relaxing. Plus I hear that up in the Northwest there are like no speed limits on roads, so that’s pretty cool. But I digress. When you look for teams to pick as at-large bids, everyone is looking to see who will bring in the most money. Michigan is a school with nearly 500,000 alumni worldwide. Virginia Tech has an amazingly substantial alumni base as well. If you want to fill a venue, and you want to garner phenomenal ratings, you put two teams just like these two in the same game. Other than the BCS Championship game, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Sugar Bowl is the most-watched game of the Bowl Season. Too bad the way to achieve all that is pretty silly, and certainly unfair.
BCS Bowl Selection – Final Thoughts
It’s not perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. Should there be a playoff system? I personally am all for that sort of system, but I know plenty of people who aren’t, and I understand the rationale on both sides. For me, there’s something inherently more intense and dramatic when everything comes down to a winner-take-all battle on the field. After all, as the graphic that ESPN showed several times on Sunday taught us, the teams that appear to be better on the field (Oklahoma State over Alabama) don’t always get their due consideration. I don’t know that there’s any particularly “better” way to solve this problem. But at least everyone is trying. Even if it does seem counter-productive, destroying some of the other smaller conferences (like the Big East is trying to do with all their invites) means that more teams in FBS stand a chance of being in one of those coveted top 14 spots and making it to a BCS game. Could you imagine San Diego State playing in the BCS National Championship because they won the Big East and stayed at or near the top of the heap all season long? It seems far-fetched, but at least their dreams of a BCS automatic qualifier bid could come true should the team join the Big East.
So, that’s a little bit as to how this year’s teams were chosen. I know it may seem pretty silly, somewhat arbitrary, and wholly unfair to a lot of deserving teams. But unless you can become part of whatever committee decides these matters, it’s the best we have, and it’s what we’re stuck with. So let’s enjoy the bowl season, and Go Blue.