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Complaining About College Football

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, January 5, 2009

Wherever I go these days, people are complaining about college football. This odd fact will make more sense if you know that I live in Texas and have recently vacationed in Southern California. Texas is, after all, the home of several prominent football teams, including the University of Texas Longhorns. Southern California is also the home of several prominent football teams, most of all the University of Southern California Trojans.

If you follow college football at all, you know that the Longhorns and the Trojans have, in recent years, regularly been in the running for the national championship. In fact, the Trojans won the title in 2004, and the Longhorns narrowly edged Trojans in 2005. This year, both Texas and USC had strong hopes of winning the national championship. But neither school will end up with this honor. However, there are lots of people, including but not limited to Trojan and Longhorn fans, who believe that one of these teams is, in fact, the best in the country. So there’s been plenty of complaining about college football and the odd way it determines a national champion. (Photo: Vince Young of Texas scores a game winning touchdown in the closing seconds of the national championship game for 2005, played in the Rose Bowl on January 4, 2006. Until this game, USC was ranked #1 and Texas #2. Note: the following is not for USC fans: a clip of Vince Young’s amazing touchdown; a clip of Texas fans losing their heads in celebration).

If you’re not familiar with how this is done, let me explain briefly. College football does not have a national tournament to determine the champion team, unlike college basketball’s March Madness. For years, the national champion in football was determined by a couple of national polls. This worked fairly well, except for years in which the polls came out with different champions, which was not that uncommon. So, beginning in 1998, college football came up with a new system, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Now, with the help of an omniscient computer, the two best teams in college football would play each other in a championship game, with a clear winner and champion to be determined on the playing field.

At least this was the plan. But, in fact, the BCS plan hasn’t worked as it had been hoped. The main problem is that, in some years, the best computer models don’t necessarily identify the best two college football teams. 2008 is exemplary. At the end of the crazy season, none of the top five teams in the BCS standings had a perfect record. Each team lost one game along the way. (Ironically, sixth-rated Utah did have a perfect record, but the BCS computer devalued this record because Utah didn’t play sufficiently difficult opponents. In the Sugar Bowl last Friday, Utah solidly defeated fourth-ranked Alabama, showing surprising strength and remaining undefeated. ) The top two teams, Oklahoma and Florida, just barely edged out Texas, the third-ranked team. USC lagged behind in fifth, after Alabama.

Now an Oklahoma vs. Florida championship game would make perfect sense, except for the tiny fact that Texas actually beat Oklahoma in 2008. On October 11 Texas won the head-to-head competition 45-35. That would seem to make Texas clearly better, right? Not necessarily. After getting beaten by Texas, Oklahoma went on to crush its opponents with a record-setting offense. In its last five games, Oklahoma scored at last sixty points and won by an average of more than thirty points. Texas, meanwhile, was cruising along just fine, until it lost a squeaker to Texas Tech on November 1 (39-33). After that victory, Tech looked like it was heading for a national title until the Red Raiders got crushed by none other than Oklahoma on November 22 (65-21).

So now you’ve got a problem. Texas beat Oklahoma comfortably early in the season. Later in the season Texas lost to Texas Tech by a little. Three weeks later Oklahoma destroyed Texas Tech. So which team is the best, Texas or Oklahoma? Not an easy choice.

One might think this choice would have been made simple because both Texas and Oklahoma are in the Big-12 Conference. Surely they would play each other in the final conference championship game. Right? Not so fast. Because the Big-12 is divided into northern and southern sections, only Texas or Oklahoma would play the clearly inferior Missouri for the Big-12 title. Oklahoma beat Missouri by the score of 62-21 on December 6. Texas, ironically, ended up third in the southern section of the Big-12 because Oklahoma was the conference champion and Texas Tech beat Texas and got second place.

So, the team that might very well be the best college football team in the country not only missed a chance to play in the national championship game by a whisker, but actually ended up in third place in its conference. Then there’s USC, which lost one game, a close on in September to Oregon State. Otherwise, USC mostly devastated its opponents with the best defense in college football. USC’s excellence was on display particular in the Rose Bowl, where it defeated highly-ranked Penn State with ease.

So, I’ve been hearing a lot of complaining about college football recently. Texans feel slighted. Southern Californians feel slighted. And both sides are not just caught up in a fit of whining. It’s not impossible to believe that the two best teams in college football are not even playing in the BCS championship game. (If Texas loses to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl tonight, this will stop some of the whining. If the Longhorns pummel the Buckeyes, no doubt folks will turn up the volume of their complaining.)

So, whatever should we do about this gross injustice? Let me offer a few observations.

First, it seems to me that some sort of college football tournament would be both more fair and more fun. If the top four (or eight) teams were to meet each other in playoff games, with a final championship game sometime in January, at least the winner would have an undisputed claim on the title. (It’s surely true, however, that sometimes the winner of the tournament isn’t really the best team, but was lucky, or unusually pumped up, or something like this.)

Second, I think this approach would mostly work without compromising the academic demands on the players. Okay, okay, I know that academic achievement isn’t generally the top priority of many college football players and programs. But it should be. I’m still rather naively idealistic about that. Yet, the fact that most colleges are on break in early January means that players could focus on football without compromising their studies.

Third, as I listen to people argue about the injustice of the BCS system, it seems as if they have completely forgotten the fact that college exists primarily for academic purposes. Moreover, the idea that football is, in the end, just a game, seems to have been consigned to the ash heap of antique ideas. I’m well aware that college football is a huge business. But, in my opinion, we have our priorities way out of whack when it comes to college football.

I say this knowing that I am offending just about everybody in my new state of Texas, as well as hundreds of my friends in Southern California. Don’t get me wrong. I think football is great. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It’s inspirational. But it is, in the end, it is not nearly as important as many other things in life. Texas and USC may well have been victims of BCS injustice this year, but the players, coaches, and fans are not being imprisoned for their faith, tortured for their political beliefs, or killed because they offended a tyrant. Arguments about college football aren’t bad, but they, like football itself, should be thought of as a game, something entertaining, but not essential.

Topics: Pet Peeves |

11 Responses to “Complaining About College Football”

  1. Don B Says:
    January 5th, 2009 at 6:16 am

    Our president-elect is with you!

  2. Quotidian Grace Says:
    January 5th, 2009 at 6:28 am

    When you’re watching the Fiesta Bowl tonight, be sure to cheer for Texas tailback Chris Ogbonnaya #3! I think it is safe to say that Chris is the only Presbyterian elder (he served as a youth elder at Southminster PC in Missouri City, TX) in the game. It’s his last collegiate game! Chris was also named to the Academic All-American second team.

    We’ve know Chris since he was a toddler–not that we’re proud of him or anything!

  3. Ray Says:
    January 5th, 2009 at 6:31 am

    Computers (or sports writers, for that matter) that pick the best teams are sort of like the computers (and meteorologists) that predict where a hurricane will hit and how strong it will be. They come pretty darn close most of the time, but when is the last time they nailed one dead-on?

    Face it, college football IS primarily a business. Division 1 schools are actually the NFL farm system (in which the NFL has NO INVESTMENT, by the way). And who can ignore the economics of bowl games? For the players involved it’s all about gaining maximum exposure and access to the NFL. And for the schools it’s all about the money.

    I don’t know how to fix the mess, but I am beginning to lean toward a playoff system. There are playoffs for baseball and basketball, and a similar system for football would at least bring some organization, order and structure to the chaos that exists now. We recenlty went through state high school football playoffs, and I saw some very good teams get eliminated. But when it was over, the results were black and white - nothing like the mottled shades of grey we have in college football.

    And right now Utah could probably beat anybody.

    I’m soooo ready for my 9 year old’s baseball season to start!

  4. Dale Says:
    January 5th, 2009 at 10:08 am

    all that matters is in the NFL the chargers are still in it

  5. Steve Says:
    January 5th, 2009 at 11:14 am

    It seems to me that our culture defines success about who is number 1. People are frustrated because it isn’t easily definable in the College football system. Shouldn’t it be enough to win your conference of beat your rival? Doesn’t just playing on a college football team qualify as a significant thing? It is a bunch of young people who should be able to play the game for fun and perhaps for school pride. Instead, it is has become big business. I think the ultimate question is “what system best serves the players”?

  6. Ray Says:
    January 5th, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Steve, I hear ya, but I don’t think you can realistically look at it like that. College football is not about “playing the game for fun and perhaps for school pride.” It’s not an extracurricular activity to the players; it’s their potential future livelihood. I don’t think there is any difference between a biology major competing for a spot in med school, a vo-tech student competing for a trade apprenticeship, or a football player competing for a spot in the NFL. None of those are - or should be - about school pride. It’s about real life. That’s why it’s important that the college post season make rational sense - because that’s what is most fair to the kids in that system.

  7. Charlie Says:
    January 6th, 2009 at 5:02 am


    I know this is a bit beside the point but I second Ray’s first comment. Your discussion on the BCS is, in my mind, a symptom of a much bigger problem. College football, especially Div.1, is indeed a massive business-as Ray mentioned a farm league for the NFL-that is run by a high-paid CEO (head coach), under the umbrella of an institution of higher “learning”. How can this be? IMO the whole system has become distracted from it’s mission and terribly tainted.

    Enough said. Thanks for letting me rant:-)

  8. Charlie Says:
    January 6th, 2009 at 5:05 am

    Oops. I didn’t mean that “your discussion” is a symptom of the bigger problem, only the points that you called out. Slight grammar glitch.

  9. Steve Says:
    January 6th, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Hi Ray,

    I think that the number of players who actually move ahead from college to the professional ranks is actually pretty small. Should the entire system be based on acting as a farm system for a relatively small number of players? There are some fantastic college players who will never make it at the professional level. I just think we have the whole thing upside down. I watched the Texas game last night. How is it not good enough to have just won the Fiesta Bowl? What I am trying to say is that we are so stuck on who is number one that we can’t enjoy the accomplishments of anything less.

  10. Ray Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Steve, you and I actually agree, I think. My point is that college sports in many ways is part of the infrastructure of professional sports. In fairness, I don’t think it was meant to be that way, but that’s the way it has evolved. Our universities are designed to move business students into corporations or entrepreneurship…biology students into medical schools…education students into teaching careers…etc. We ought to quit the pretense that college sports is about “school spirit” as you mentioned earlier, and redesign the whole thing so that it works to the benefit of those students who wish to pursue careers in professional sports. And as to your point about the small number of students to whom that applies, it’s probably about the same percentage as those who aspire to med school as compared to those who actually get in. I’ve strayed from my original comment, which was about a playoff. But my “Pet Peeve” has to do with the unrealistic restrictions college sports programs have to deal with regarding money, recruiting, contact with pro organizations, etc. Sports programs ought to have the ability to develop the same relationships with the professional sports community that our science or business departments have built with their respective real-world counterparts. You and I agree about the who is number one question. It’s not really that imporant an issue…but a playoff is the best way to answer the question.

  11. Steve Norris Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    God bless you all to heck for posting a video that shames the Trojans. Your Harvard heart may in fact beat for the Bruins as well, it must be your Mom!



Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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