“You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”
— Vizzini in “The Princess Bride“
As it turns out, I know all three of the authors of the new book “Death to the BCS,” and because I do, I know that none of them is Sicilian. Despite this small inconvenience, I can still say without hesitation you don’t want to go in against them when death is on the line.
“Death to the BCS,” in case the title does not quite give it away, is not a desert cookbook. It’s also not a measured look at the current Bowl Championship Series system that selects 10 teams to play in five high-profile bowl games, including two teams for a BCS national championship game. The book is also not a carefully considered examination of college football and the, er, unique way it attempts to determine a national champ.
No, that’s not what authors Dan Wetzel, Jeff Passan and Josh Peter are going for here. This here is a rant, a metal chair to the head, a no-holds barred, no-mercy, none-dare-call-it-treason tirade — J’Accuse for jocks. If they could have, you get the sense that the authors would have nailed this book on the doors of every college president in America.
This sentence, taken from the introduction, more or less describes the tone of the book:
“So for now the BCS survives, a roach amid a typhoon of Raid, emanating coldness, ignoring the measured consideration of old coaching icons and dismissing fans’ bellows. Even the unyielding push of common sense is held off with mistruths and misdirection that turn the entire issue into a river or red herrings.”
Yes, this is what they are going for — page after page after page of hitting the BCS in the head with garbage cans. There is a theory I’ve heard from prosecuting attorneys that what you want to do in an argument is present the opposing point of view as fervently and honestly as possible and then tear it apart. This is absolutely NOT what “Death to the BCS” does. The arguments for the BCS are not presented with much enthusiasm here. But the arguments that the BCS is corrupt, emotionally bankrupt, unsporting, unwilling to cash in a $750 million annual payday so that all the power remains in the hands of few are all made with great relish and great power.
And while this may not make the book fair, it certainly makes the book a lot of fun to read and and as irresistible as a caged match. Poll after poll shows a vast majority of college football fans — 90% and higher — despise the BCS, and the basic concept of picking two teams for a national championship using awkward polling and highly questionable computer rankings. Many college football fans have been longing for a voice, preferably a voice at the top of its lungs, shouting down the injustice and unreasonableness of this system. “Death to the BCS” is that voice.
I cannot go into all the arguments of the book here — you’ll really need to buy the book and read for yourself — but I have chosen three of its most powerful. And then I follow up by talking about the “Death to the BCS” playoff solution, and my one beef with the book.
D2BCS Argument 1: The BCS argument that the current system gives us sports best regular season is a garbage argument.
I have to admit that, as a sports fan, I’ve had some affinity for the BCS argument that the college football season is the most meaningful in American sports. We all know the NBA and NHL regular seasons are a $5 cab ride from worthless. College basketball games in November and December are fun but relatively without meaning. The NFL season is significantly better but still tenuous enough that good teams will rest their starters at the end of the season. The baseball season is 162 games and as such should be decisive, but with the addition of the wildcard and talk of even more playoffs those games mean less and less all the time.
The college football season is indeed meaningful. If you lose even one game, there’s a pretty good shot that you are out of the championship picture. If you lose two, you are almost certainly out. I like the fact that the most important game of the season might have been South Carolina’s upset of Alabama in October. It makes every week feel important.
BUT … the D2BCS authors do a great job of destroying this argument by making what only afterward seems like an obvious point: Because NOT LOSING is all that matters, college football has been robbed of its big non-conference games. There’s no point in playing a good non-conference team. Quite the opposite. The intelligent way to become a national championship contender is to play a non-conference schedule of patsies so that you can be sure you enter the conference season undefeated. Bill Snyder figured this out years ago at Kansas State, where he turned around the worst college football program in America with terrific recruiting, brilliant coaching and careful scheduling. This was before the official BCS, but the idea was the same. The more easy games on your schedule, the better chance you have of going undefeated. When Bill and Kansas State would get ripped for its easy non-conference schedule, Bill would shrug: He knew he was doing the right thing. And sure enough, in 1998 Kansas State was a fumble away from being in the national championship game. A decade later, Kansas almost rode a ludicrously easy schedule into the national championship game.
The scheduling turns September football, for the most part, into mush. Just as an example: One week this year, every single Big 10 school played non-automatic qualifiers, the new name for cupcakes. This is a system that rewards playing teams you know you can beat. That’s not a system conducive to a great, good or fair regular season.
D2BCS Argument 2: The bowls are fun, but they are also evil.
I have to admit the authors viewpoint on bowls left me a bit frayed. On the one hand, they love the bowls. They are upfront about this. They are big college football fans, and so they want as many December and early January games as they can get. “We love bowl games,” they write. “The major ones and the little ones, the unusual matchups, the crazy comebacks, the nothing to lose finishes … while critics cry about too many bowls, we disagree. More football is never a bad thing.”
OK. But perhaps the most powerful stuff in the book DESTROYS the bowls. When you read the book you are left with this: The bowls are corrupt. They are money losers for schools. They waste taxpayer money. They are non-profits in name only. They do not serve their communities. They give a pittance to charity. They are run by self-serving executive directors who take ludicrous salaries for almost no work. They are used to line the pockets of coaches and athletic directors who work bowl bonuses into contracts. And so on. And so on. It is almost impossible to read the well-reported, body-slamming chapters on bowl games without thinking: “I want these bowl games dead.” Which you would think would serve the point since, as mentioned, “Death” is in the title of the book.
But the authors keep insisting that despite all this, bowl games would and should survive with a playoff system … in fact the authors think a playoff system, with the huge flow of money, is the best chance to keep the bowls going.
I think this was an overreach, an effort to have cake, eat too. Yes, one of the BCS’ main arguments is that a playoff would indeed eliminate bowl games, and all the good they offer. The book manages to hit hard the conflicting points that:
1. The bowl games don’t offer a lot of good.
2. They would not be eliminated with a playoff.
This left me confused as a reader. I have little doubt that the bowls COULD be kept going even with a playoff*. But after reading this book, I was left with a one-word question about that: “Why?”
*Another thing the book does well is knock down the argument that the bowls themselves could be used as a playoff. The authors think this is unworkable, and they make their case well: I believe they are right.
D2BCS Argument 3: Everything about the BCS is illogical from its methods of choosing teams to its very existence.
This is the thing most people talk about when talking about the BCS: The system itself isn’t fair. More to the point: It CANNOT be fair. Last year there were five undefeated teams in college football (the undefeated numbers keep going up as teams seem to play easier and easier schedules, see D2BCS Argument 1). In alphabetical order:
— Boise State
— Texas Christian
Obviously the five did not play each other. They did not play many common opponents either. Their schedules were of varying degrees of difficulty, but even this is somewhat hard to determine because there are so many college football teams. The point is, that you can’t KNOW which of those undefeated teams was best because they are all undefeated. You can only GUESS. And the authors, as you might expect, score many points by hammering away at the BCS system. Chapters titles like “Nonsense Math” and “Fooling the Voters (Who Are Often Fools)” give you an idea of those arguments.
There’s much more, of course, but for our purposes the point is that Wetzel, Passan and Peter do a powerful job of demolishing the BCS. They leave very little standing upright.
The authors also offer their own playoff solution, a solid-sounding proposal. More than that, I think it’s the best playoff proposal I’ve seen anywhere. The authors recommend:
— A 16-team playoff.
— Eleven of the 16 teams would be conference champs; the other 5 would be at-large teams picked by a committee. The teams would also be seeded by a committee.
— The first three rounds would be played at home sites; the only neutral site game would be the championship game.
— They have talked to various experts who say this playoff system could earn more than $750 million a year.
And … so we come to my one beef with the book: The authors don’t turn their immense powers of deconstruction on their own playoff system. Among the issues that are not explored deeply enough for me:
1. More than 70% of players polled in a recent ESPN poll prefer the current system to a 16-team playoff. That’s not entirely revealing because the question specifically stated that a 16-team playoff would REPLACE the bowls, and the D2BCS authors have made it clear they would keep the bowls going.
Still, I do think this is fairly consistent: College players (much more than fans) seem to be very skeptical of a big playoff like this. And since college football players already are largely excluded from college football riches — Reggie Bush felt compelled to return his HEISMAN TROPHY for taking money for his family from an agent — I think we need a powerful reason to go against what appear to be the players’ wishes or what may be in their best interests. The authors really needed to delve deeper into this, I think.
2. The home-field concept sounds good — this way we will have full stadiums and home fans will not have to travel week after week — but if college basketball is a model, well, in college basketball they have constantly tried to get AWAY from homefield advantage. People get angry when highly ranked teams get to play TOO CLOSE to home. How will people respond to home playoff games in college football? Is that a workable plan?
3. Having every conference champion in the playoff is smart and probably the only way a playoff will work. That said, this means that last year East Carolina, Troy and Central Michigan would have been in the playoff. People accept small-conference champions in basketball because there are 64 teams. But will fans at Nebraska, Arkansas, USC, Wisconsin and various other places really buy into a 16-team playoff where East Carolina, Troy and Central Michigan are playing and they are not? Questionable.
4. Where will all that extra money go? The authors show well throughout the book how corrupt things are NOW. Imagine another $600 million being thrown into the picture. Will the players get no part of it? Will coaches salaries skyrocket even higher? Will television and advertisers have an even greater hold on the sport?
I think there are probably good answers to these issues … but there are a lot of loose ends. And frankly, you can’t have any loose ends when it comes to the BCS and a playoff. The last poll of coaches I saw showed that more than 90% of them prefer the current system to a playoff. I imagine a poll of university presidents or athletic directors would show similar numbers. The ESPN poll of 135 players in August was fascinating but largely unhelpful to the playoff cause.
— A majority of players — 62.2% — do want a playoff.
— BUT, as mentioned a bigger majority — 70.4% — prefer the current system to a 16-team playoff with no bowls.
— And 77% of players said they would prefer to play in a bowl game three times than replace it with one playoff appearance.
In other words, this is a huge uphill battle. Yes, there are individuals in the system who want a playoff, but at the moment they’re outnumbered at every turn. “Death to the BCS” makes a vivid and almost indisputable case that the BCS is a bad system. Maybe that will begin the process of change. But, realistically, with all the hurdles out there, a playoff is not very likely. Either way, when you finish reading, you are guaranteed to be mad as hell.
* * *
Update: My friend Dan Wetzel, one of the authors, sent along some answers to my questions above. I have included those here.
1. Referring to ESPN poll where more than 70% of players chose current system over a 16-game playoff.
Dan: “This poll asked: do you prefer a playoff or the bowl system? This is a question based on a false premise. You can, and will, have both. Of course the majority are going to say bowl system because 70 teams will play in a bowl this year and they have no idea how many could make a playoff — most probably thought just four. This poll result is worthless because the question is worthless. Naturally the BCS cites it ad naseum anyway. “
2. Referring to whether or not people would accept home field advantage in a playoff:
Dan: “Home field advantage is what will make the regular season matter even more. Does anyone in the NFL propose we move the playoffs to the Alamodome? Of course not. Deal with it. Playing games on sold out, historic, on campus environments is better in every way than half-filled municipal stadiums. You don’t like playing on the road? Have a better regular season.”
3. Referring to having small-conference champions in the playoff:
Dan: “Including the weaker teams may be counterintuative but they serve a couple of purposes. The biggest one is continuing to make the regular season so vital. By offering an easier first round to the highest seeds (in addition to homefield advantage) then winning every game is still a major reward. If you simply take the top 16 teams and play at neutral sites, then the difference between being a 1 seed and 5 seed isn’t great. It is in this case. This would drive interest and excitement in the regular season. It also invites Cinderella into the playoff. At some point, one of these teams will spring the upset, the exact kind of magic men’s basketball has cashed in on.”
4. Referring to where the extra money would go:
Dan: “In 2008 Division I-A schools needed over $850 million in student fees and general university funds to fund their athletic departments. That’d be a good place to start. Compensation for the players is a separate argument (an entire book really) and an idea we certainly support. This just wasn’t the place to hash it out.”