I was 11 years old the first time I was on ESPN.
Steve Levy led into my segment with a few funny jokes, some anecdotes—it didn't matter, the clip was coming. During a series of highlights, he kept trying to make my bit sound more important, which I appreciated but wasn't in the mood for. After all, it was only for the grace of God that my older brother was a student at Tulane, otherwise I wouldn't have made it on The Worldwide Leader in Sports, and so, I had to focus.
Then all of a sudden, shortly after 8:35 a.m. CT on that Sunday morning, there I was, wide-eyed and beaming at the cameras, as ESPN showed footage of Green Wave quarterback Shaun King leaping into my section as my brother’s future wife and I patted him on the back among throngs of maniacal Tulane fans.
Sure, the viewing audience didn't know about me, but they had just listened to Levy break down Tulane’s definitive 63-30 flattening of Louisiana Tech, finishing the 1998 regular season undefeated in the process. College football’s controversial championship selection method, pejoratively as well as affectionately known as the BCS, began its computerized selection process that season.
While Tulane bested all other college football teams in winning percentage (they went 12-0 that season, so their winning percentage was 1.000), the BCS left them out of the Fiesta Bowl, selecting the undefeated Tennessee Volunteers and one-loss Florida State Seminoles as the top two schools in the country.
The Volunteers would defeat the Seminoles 23-16 to become national champions, while Tulane was left to celebrate a conference championship and victory a few weeks later in the Liberty Bowl but without the feeling of accomplishment sure to come with never having lost.
Tulane never lost. If you play a game, and you never lose, shouldn’t you be called “the best?”
My 11-year-old mind wouldn’t be able to comprehend it, save for my brother telling me that there’s a lot to be said for a team who's the only other team besides the national champions to finish undefeated. He told me that we’ll be talking about that 1998 Green Wave team every time there’s a debate about the BCS.
This year, to absolutely no one’s surprise, it’s no different. Again, an undefeated juggernaut from Conference USA will get the proverbial shunning in favor of a one-loss team from a more credible conference. This year, it’s the undefeated University of Houston Cougars who will be shoved aside for a team of a higher championship-caliber resume.
At the time of this writing, Alabama has finished their regular season, while undefeated LSU—the greatest university ever and, purely coincidentally, my alma mater—prepares for the SEC championship game against Georgia but are heavily favored and currently being compared to some of the greater national championship seasons in NCAA history.
Based on their competitive schedule and remarkable play (including a perfect record against teams not named “No. 1-ranked LSU,”) one-loss Alabama has the inside track to the national championship game, or so say the people in charge of knowing things about college football on television. Unless No. 3-ranked Oklahoma State beats rival Oklahoma by about 50 points, their resume and body of work will likely not merit entrance to the big dance in the Big Easy.
Forgive the pun, but the tide has turned for current Alabama head coach and forever LSU scorn subject Nick Saban, who would benefit from a tougher schedule and resume despite not playing in the SEC championship game (LSU faces Georgia on Dec. 3).
Back when he was head coach for LSU on their way to the national title game against Oklahoma, who lost their conference championship in a 35-7 thrashing by Kansas State, Saban was quoted as saying, “Anyone that doesn’t win their conference has no business playing in the national championship game.”
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Saban said that voters selecting the BCS teams should vote for “the two best teams” and not against a school like Alabama just because voters don’t want an LSU-Alabama rematch or because the Crimson Tide are merely watching the SEC championship game this year.
“If somebody does that, I guess it’s their choice to do it,” Saban said. “It’s a free country. But the whole thing should be based on who’s the best two teams. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be? If it’s not on that, then it doesn’t matter whether we’ve played before or any of that.”
The fact of the matter is, Saban is benefitting from a tough schedule and superior conference, just like the Oklahoma Sooners he defeated in the 2003 title game who didn’t win their conference. If Alabama makes it to the national title game against LSU and wins, that win will be haunted with questions about LSU having already beaten what, at that point, would be the best team in the country.
If LSU beats Alabama, it reaffirms to the country what LSU did when they beat Alabama in November, and the country will wonder about what the Tigers could have done against a different big-name school like Oklahoma State or Stanford. Or Houston.
Undefeated, no losses, perfect-record Houston.
I mentioned earlier that Tulane’s victory was my first time on ESPN. Since then, Saturday nights were about getting texts from my friends saying they had just seen me in HD as the camera panned over the student section in Tiger Stadium. Some of the biggest moments in my life happened there, like Patrick Peterson’s pose or making Tim Tebow cry, and they will forever live among my favorite sports moments.
But when I’m watching LSU play Alabama in the national championship game, I’ll think about undefeated Houston, wondering what if they got their chance to maintain a perfect record, like I wondered shortly after Shaun King’s leap brought me and my Green Wave into the worldwide sports spotlight.
To this day, I'm sure Tulane would have flattened Tennessee.