Too many college football fans complain about the lack of a playoff at the FBS tier. They point to the BCS system and note that in most years there is at least one deserving team that is left out of the BCS title game—Texas in the 2008 season; Michigan in the 2006 season; Auburn in the 2004 season.
The anti-BCS crowd argues that a playoff system of some type, or even a Plus-One game, would remedy the omission of deserving teams.
The problem, however, is much more than simply replacing the BCS with a playoff format. A playoff system would still benefit certain teams over other "weaker" teams.
The larger problem here is summed up in one word—conferences!
There are so many "debates" that occur among college football fans. Does defense really win championships? Is establishing the ground game the key to victory? Should Notre Dame join the Big Ten? Is the SEC the best conference in the country?
However, no one questions the legitimacy of the conferences themselves. The problem here is that conferences have become "naturalized." Most college football fans simply accept that conferences are given entities and through that naturalization certain attributes are assigned that can also be naturalized.
Understand where this argument is coming from before thinking that this article is lost. In popular rhetoric, regions are often held as natural and rarely challenged outside of academia. We often speak of the "Middle East" or "Western Europe" or "the South" in the United States unproblematically.
However, there is nothing natural about the "Middle East" as it was constructed relative to Europe (east of Europe). During the Cold War, "Western Europe" included Greece, which is certainly in Eastern Europe. And ask two different people which states compose the U.S. South and you will likely receive two different lists.
In other words, people made up regions to create some form of order and categorization. But the next logical step is problematic as certain attributes are placed on these regions—the Middle East (as well as the Far East) was held as backwards and barbaric; Western Europe was "advanced"; the South is "redneck country."
While we know these to be stereotypes, if we hold these regions as natural and do not problematize their constructions, then what often occurs is these attributes are also made to be "natural."
To bring this back to sports, a similar process occurs with conferences in college football. We try to believe that there is something natural about conference, attempting to root it in geography or "tradition." But in actuality, conferences were constructed as a means of convenience and we have since attached certain attributes to these conferences.
For example, the Southeastern Conference is geographically concentrated, but it also overlaps other FBS conferences (ACC, Big East, Conference USA and Sun Belt). Sure it has "tradition," but Vanderbilt seems out of place in terms of academics and athletics. And even though you could argue that Vanderbilt was a charter member, that is not important because Georgia Tech and Tulane were not invited to rejoin when the conference expanded.
You could also look at the WAC and its inclusion of Louisiana Tech, or the Sun Belt and the inclusion of Denver in all sports other than football. Point here is that conferences are arbitrarily constructed.
To put it bluntly, the conferences were made up! Yet, there is an assumption that the conferences are natural.
Now comes the attachment of attributes. While there is usually a debate over whether the SEC is better than, say, the Pac-10 or Big 12, these debates rarely include conferences such as the Mountain West or MAC. The closest we get to the inclusion of these conferences is when discussing the perceived weakness of the Big East or ACC in relation to the Mountain West.
So, let us line this up properly. BCS conferences are better and non-BCS conferences are weak. And it is this type of naturalization of attributes to conferences and their affiliated teams that keeps teams such as Boise State and TCU from garnering serious consideration in the BCS championship discussion.
Thus, because Boise State and TCU play in "weak" conferences and must play "weak" teams within that conference, neither team deserves to be in the BCS title game, or so the argument goes. And, the anti-Boise State and anti-TCU groups would continue, if they want to play with the big boys then they should schedule more game against BCS-conference teams, which is the standard for which all FBS schools are measured.
Ah, but there in lies the problem. The attributes attached to Boise State and TCU arise from an organizational structure that was arbitrarily created and from a system in which that had little to no initial input. These teams are placed at a disadvantage because of their conferences and this disadvantage begins with preseason polls.
Preseason polls are based on perception, but just like conferences these polls create naturalized knowledge. With Florida being ranked number one, it seemed “natural” that they were the best team and thus, if their wins are unimpressive, they should remain at the top. Ergo, Florida and Texas and Alabama were all handed an easy path to the BCS title by being ranked in the top five!
Meanwhile, Boise State started 16th, with TCU at 17th, Iowa at 21st, and Cincinnati was not even ranked! They began at a disadvantage and had to work their way up. However, Iowa and Cincinnati were able to use their privilege of being in a BCS-conference to jump both Boise State and TCU.
Polls and starting position aside, what it really comes down to is what we can call spatial injustice. It is based on the locations of Boise State and TCU in relation to the other schools in the college football landscape. To say that the WAC is weak is also to insinuate that other conferences (say, the Pac-10) are strong.
But there is a problem with that. Because the conferences have been constructed by the powers that be, many teams have little to no say in what conference they belong. Is it Boise State’s fault that they are in the WAC?
To extend that, is it Boise State’s fault that New Mexico State and Utah State and San Jose State and (this season) Hawai’i are miserable? Is it fair to hold that against the Broncos?
The partitioning of the conferences was out of the hands of Boise State and Florida and Texas and TCU (although the Horned Frogs did bounce around from the Southwest Conference to the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West). Thus, Boise State and TCU cannot suddenly leave their respective conferences and join a BCS-conference for a season. They have to play the hand that they are dealt.
Ah, BCS-conferences! What about those? “TCU is not in a BCS conference. So they are not worthy of playing for the title.”
Well, who designed the BCS? The antecedents of the BCS is rooted in the Bowl Coalition. The Bowl Coalition was formed by five conferences (ACC, Big East, Big 8, SEC and SWC). It was later restructured to form the Bowl Alliance, which was still made up of the five conferences and focused on a rotating “championship game” between three bowl games (Fiesta, Sugar and Orange).
Finally in 1998, the BCS was created and added the Big Ten and Pac-10 (the Big 12 was also a part of this system after the consolidation of the Big 8 and SWC).
Ergo, the system that is set up to determine a champion in the FBS was created by conferences that have exclusive access to the system! Even though non-BCS conferences and teams can get into the system, the BCS still gives an unfair advantage to certain teams and conferences by granting that access.
So Boise State and TCU are criticized for not being a part of a system that they had no initial input in creating. It is no different than the reservations for American Indians that were set-up without input from the various nations.
But back to the conferences themselves, and in particular schedules. Both Boise State and TCU are being knocked for their schedules; the Broncos have the 81st “strongest” schedule while TCU has the 46th toughest schedule. A recent e-mail sent to the media by Iowa spokesperson Phil Haddy draws on this.
Boise State is hampered by its conference schedule. But again, this is not Boise State’s fault (as noted above). So, let’s look at the non-conference schedule. The reason for this is that by looking at the entire schedule, we are examining a fixed schedule based on the arbitrary conferences. So, it seems more appropriate to compare the schedules that teams control:
- Florida: Charleston Southern (3-5); Troy (6-2); FIU (2-6); Florida State (4-4)
- Texas: Louisiana-Monroe (4-4); Wyoming (4-4); UTEP (3-5); UCF (5-3)
- Alabama: Virginia Tech (5-3); FIU (2-6); North Texas (2-6); Chattanooga (5-3)
- Iowa: Northern Iowa (5-3); Iowa State (5-4); Arizona (5-2); Arkansas State (2-5)
- Cincinnati: Southeast Missouri State (1-7); Oregon State (5-3); Fresno State (5-3); Miami University (1-8); Illinois (2-6)
- TCU: Virginia (3-5); Texas State (5-3); Clemson (5-3); SMU (4-4)
- Boise State: Oregon (7-1); Miami University (1-8); Bowling Green (4-5); California-Davis (4-4)
So, what makes any of those schedules any better than Boise State’s out-of-conference schedule? In fact, since the BCS conferences are the “standard” for strength, Texas does not face a single BCS-conference team. There is no reprieve because the Longhorns played Ohio State recently because we are talking about this season not the past!
In fact, if you remove annual out-of-conference rivals (Florida State and Iowa State), TCU and Cincinnati are the only teams to go out of its way to schedule two BCS-conference teams. And, between those two, the Horned Frogs were the only one to travel to two BCS-conference teams.
And, before you knock the fact that TCU played two ACC schools, the Sagarin conference ratings places the ACC third, behind the Pac-10 and the SEC. Since this ranking is carried by teams in the middle of a conference and TCU played middle-of-the-pack ACC teams, it should speak to the quality of win.
So, to the naked eye, TCU’s out-of-conference schedule is better than any of the other six teams. Boise State’s OOC is comparable to the other five teams. So, excluding the conference schedule, it seems that both TCU and Boise State are worthy of being in the BCS title game discussion.
To finish the thought of TCU and their schedule, as noted above their schedule ranks as the 46th toughest. Texas’s schedule is the 42nd toughest. Thus, even taking into account the “power” of the Big 12, Texas’s schedule is only slightly more difficult than TCU’s schedule. So, shouldn’t TCU be taken as seriously as the BCS #2 team?
But wait a minute! Let’s take a deeper look at strength of schedule. The BCS once used strength of schedule as part of its formula. This component was calculated by using the following formula:
SOS = [2*(Opponents Record + Opponents' Opponents Record)]/3
It is a common formula. The records used do not count the team themselves (so Florida would not be included in Troy’s record) and excludes non-FBS schools (so Charleston Southern would not be in Florida’s record).
But let’s remove all conference games and use the formula to determine strength of non-conference schedule. If we use the same formula and figure the opponents’ non-conference FBS record and the opponents’ opponents non-conference FBS record, we have an interesting output.
- Iowa: 0.696
- Boise State: 0.671
- TCU: 0.653
- Cincinnati: 0.587
- Alabama: 0.547
- Florida: 0.537
- Texas: 0.444
So, if we take away the conferences, which again were arbitrarily constructed, and look only at non-conference games, Iowa tops everyone, followed by Boise State and TCU. In fact, the teams that are being argued as the “weakest” have played a tougher non-conference schedule. Does that not warrant Boise State and TCU the chance to play in the title game?
But of course, the complaints about the schedules in general will not cease, even when examining just the out-of-conference schedules. Problem is, as Dan Wetzel notes, the big boys are not willing to sign up to play Boise State or TCU or even Hawai'i.
Lastly, there is the argument that if Boise State and TCU played in a BCS conference they would not be undefeated. There is a fallacy in this argument because it is assuming that Boise State and TCU would be placed in, say, the SEC without any of the historic benefits that comes with playing in the SEC.
For example, what is assumed is that Boise State’s current team, based on its connections with the WAC will suddenly be placed in the SEC. In other words, they were not afforded the same recruiting base and television exposure that SEC teams enjoy. Ergo, this argument purposely puts Boise State at a disadvantage and in a situation that is unrealistic.
Why not reverse this argument? What if Florida was in the WAC or Texas was in the Mountain West? Well, with the same rosters, these two teams would likely run the table, just as Boise State and TCU have done so far. But, that means that Florida is beating Utah State and New Mexico State while Texas beats up on Wyoming (well, they already did that) and UNLV.
Now, Florida and Texas no longer appear to be “strong” as they have beaten up on “inferior” opponents.
Again, this is all based on the arbitrary nature of conferences. Because of circumstances beyond their control, TCU and Boise State were relegated to “weaker” conferences and therefore put at a “natural” disadvantage. Meanwhile, Florida and Texas were “born” into a life of privilege.
The argument of the Broncos and the Horned Frogs not being able to go undefeated in a BCS-conference is flawed. For this to even be considered, Boise State and TCU would need years of access to the recruiting bases of these “power” conferences, as well as the exposure. They would also need facilities on par with the SEC or Big 12 or Big Ten. Give them those things, then bring up this argument.
NOTE: Yes, TCU has the state of Texas, but its lack of exposure and the perception of the the Mountain West Conference hinder the Horned Frogs. They tend to be the fourth, fifth or sixth option for many Texas recruits, if at all.
The reason that Boise State and TCU are not in the conversation (at least, not seriously) is an issue of social justice. It is about the construction of the conferences, the development of the system to determine a champion in the FBS [the BCS], and who is allowed in and who is allowed to grab the crumbs off of the ground. The BCS is essentially an oligarchy that privileges a small elite, excluding teams that are just as deserving, if not more.
There is a very real scenario that could play out with Boise State and TCU are the only undefeated teams in the FBS. If that is the case, those two teams should be playing in Pasadena.
But even if those two teams are the only undefeated teams, the system is working against them.
A major bulk of this article derives from a similar article at Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant, published on November 2, 2009.