Can a mid-major conference team ever play for a national championship under the current BCS system?
In past years, I would cynically think that it is impossible for a team outside the Big Six to have a chance at the biggest game of the year. But as I re-examined the requirements for the top two teams in the BCS standings, I see no reason why, with the right scheduling, a mid-major team couldn’t play for a national title.
With that realized, it seems apparent that most of these schools do not want to play for a national title.
Some BYU fans, and fans of other mid-major teams, claim the BCS was set up to ensure that another national champion did not come from a “lesser” conference, like when BYU took the crown in 1984.
Though I was not old enough at the time to read, let alone analyze the controversy, all the articles I have read from 1984 that criticized the Cougars’ title criticized their strength of schedule. Yet the Associated Press and the USA Today polls both voted BYU number one, and their votes gave the Cougars the title.
Today, each team’s BCS ranking is comprised of one-third USA Today Poll, one-third Harris Interactive Poll, and one-third computer rankings. The USA Today Poll is the roughly the same as it was in 1984. The Harris Interactive Poll took the place of the AP Poll and is deemed to be fairer because its voters statistically represent all 11 conferences.
With two polls comprising the majority of the vote, there should be no argument that the BCS uses polls to keep out a mid-major team, since the polls are what gave BYU the title in 1984.
The remaining third variable that was not a factor in BYU’s title year is the computer rankings. The computer measures statistical variables such as strength of schedule, performance against ranked opponents, etc. More of this is explained at the BCS website, along with links to the seven different computer formulas used to determine the BCS computer rank.
With so much emphasis put on the two polls, there seems to be as much of an opportunity for a mid-major team to rise to the number one spot now as there was in 1984. In fact, with the inclusion of unbiased computer formulas, there seems to be an even greater chance that a mid-major team could rise to the top with quality wins.
One key factor in most of the computer ranking formulas is wins over ranked opponents. Some formulas use top 10, top 25, top 30, top 50, so essentially, teams are rewarded for wins over good teams. Similarly, the members voting in the polls will also reward a team for beating another good team.
Thus, the way to play for a national championship is...schedule and beat good teams! Brilliant, right? This was a long road to the obvious, but if the answer is so simple, then why are so many fans complaining that the BCS is unfair and does not give everyone a shot?
The answer is that the four BCS Bowl games are unfair to everyone (except the ACC and the Big East), but the BCS Title game is based on performance and statistics. Any team can help their chances of getting there based on scheduling.
If any mid-major team could play for a title, then why don’t we see it happening? Most mid-major schools don’t want to play for a shot at the title.
To get to the title game, a team would need to schedule as many top teams as possible to increase their strength of schedule. This increases the chance that the team could lose. It is possible that at places like Boise St., Utah, and BYU, the boosters and the fans would rather see check marks in the win column than witness losses to good teams in an effort to raise the team’s stock.
This is one explanation I can think of. Why else would BYU schedule Northern Iowa (I-AA or Championship Subdivision) in their non-conference schedule for this year?
Why would Utah schedule Weber St. (also Championship Subdivision), or why would Hawaii also schedule Weber St., or why would Boise St. schedule Idaho St. (again, Championship Subdivision), or why would Houston schedule Southern, or why would Tulsa schedule Central Arkansas, or why would Ball St. schedule Northeastern, or why would TCU schedule Stephen F. Austin?
The list of mid-major contenders scheduling Championship Subdivision teams amazes me. I understand that teams want a warm-up game, but why schedule a team outside the top 120 when you know your conference opponents will be lucky to break the top 50? It is a plan for mediocrity.
The only exception to this list is Fresno St. With the exception of perhaps Toledo, they went out and got the best opponents they could play. If Toledo is their worst non-conference team they played, then they are many steps ahead of the above named teams that each played a team outside the Bowl Subdivision.
Fresno St. also has the well known “anyplace, anytime” motto that they proclaim and invite any challengers to their home for a game, and offer to travel to any school to play. This strategy did not pan out this year, as Fresno St. lost several games, but they seem to be one of the few teams attempting to raise their national perception.
Some will argue that small schools like Central Arkansas need games like those to test their programs and provide funds for the school. I agree, but why can’t they play those games against the other 110 Division I football teams that are not in the peculiar situation that the top mid-major teams are in?
Teams from the Big Six conferences can afford to play games against Championship Subdivision teams because Big Six teams can expect to face ranked opponents through in-conference play. Teams at the bottom of the stack in conferences outside the Big Six can also afford to play the small schools because they are not looking to place their programs in the top 10.
Others will argue that big teams refuse to play mid-major teams because if they lose then it looks very bad, and they cannot run that risk. I do not think this is a valid point. Many well-known programs, such as Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Florida, Oregon St., Oregon, UCLA, Washington, Michigan, and Stanford, lined up across the ball from teams representing the MWC and the WAC this year alone.
These types of non-conference games are happening. I am arguing that mid-major teams are each squandering one game a year and could make these influential games happen one more time each season.
Imagine if BYU, TCU, Utah, or Boise St. added Miami, Florida St., Boston College, or Nebraska to their schedule. An additional win over these top 30 ranked schools would provide additional leverage and respect from the polls and the computers.
Imagine if the 2004 Utah team had shellacked Pitt in the regular season rather than in the Fiesta Bowl. Urban Meyer’s team may have had a chance to line up against USC or at least SEC Champ Auburn, rather than an unfulfilling beatdown of the Big East placeholder.
What has happened is that mid-major teams have all followed the Notre Dame strategy and have taken the coward's way out.
Notre Dame receives an automatic berth to a BCS Bowl and a huge payout if they are in the top eight at the end of the year. Therefore, it is not to ND’s financial advantage to overachieve. Number eight pays just as well as number one, so they schedule decent teams and hope to minimize their losses.
Mid-major conferences are guaranteed a BCS Bowl—and of course, the big money—if a team finishes in the top 12, or if a team is in the top 16 and its ranking is above that of a champion of a conference that has an automatic berth.
Based on history, a team from either the MWC or the WAC will be ranked the highest if undefeated. Therefore, there is no financial incentive for a team to finish higher than 12th as long as that team finishes highest among the mid-majors.
Does anyone find this ridiculous? Are all these students just playing for money? According to the BCS, they are. Why not stick it to the suits and the computers and go for the gusto? Get the boosters on board, fatten up the schedule with as many high quality teams as possible, and then try to run the table.
If it works, and the cards fall right, we could experience a Cinderella story in college football for the first time in 24 years.
The formula is known to all the teams who play D-I football, so why not use it to your advantage? I don’t think that most of the teams I mentioned aren’t trying. I believe they are. I just think if they want a national title, they only need to try a little harder to be given a shot at the crown.