November 22, 2002
Give Me a P-L-A-Y-O-F-F
by Bob Hulsey
I have ten reasons why pro football is better than college football:
10. The cheerleaders don’t look like my nieces.
9. Players don’t graduate.
8. There’s no posturing about "student-athletes."
7. There are no recruiting wars.
6. There’s no Brent Musberger.
5. There are replay challenges in the pros where at least some of the officials’ most brain-dead calls can be overturned on review.
4. There’s no Notre Dame with its own TV contract and their own rules for qualifying for post-season play.
3. There’s no weird from-the-25 quintuple-overtime games.
2. There’s no lame two-yard-halo rules on punt returns.
1. The championship is always settled on the field of play.
Let me expound more on that final point. Say what you want about parity, the tuck rule and the whole Vegas Strip Show that’s become the Super Bowl, at the end of the season, the two best teams are playing for the title.
And there’s usually no question that the challengers earned their right to play in the ultimate game because, even if they weren’t the best teams on paper, they probably had to beat the better team on the field to get there.
Take last year’s New England Patriots, for example. They clawed through the muck of the AFC East to win their division but few took them seriously. They had to beat a better Oakland team in the snow to advance (and while some Raider die-hards may still believe they were screwed, the truth is that better teams are supposed to win by margins that are referee-proof, not just opponent-proof). Then they beat Pittsburgh on the road. Finally, they toppled St. Louis in the Super Bowl. To win the crown, they had to beat three of pro football’s best teams in a row. It takes more than luck to accomplish that.
Yes, occasionally the pros go to bizarre lengths to settle ties when it comes to those last wild card playoff spots but they really don’t rig the system to make it that way. They hope it doesn’t have to come down to net points within the division in games where the weather is 40-degrees or above. It’s just that you have to dig deep to find what separates a bunch of 9-7 teams sometimes.
In college, there used to be a host of bowls all trying to get the best match up for their dollar but, typically, the top two teams in the country didn’t meet on the field. The major bowls feared the NCAA would step in and design their own playoff system, which might leave the bowl games out in the cold or as quarterfinal stepping-stones. To try to solve the problem, a bowl alliance was formed to try to get the top two teams to meet for the unofficial national championship.
They failed the first year because #2 Arizona State was committed to the Rose Bowl while #1 Florida State found itself going to the Sugar Bowl. The Rose Bowl folks were still beholden (by tradition, if not contract) to the two conferences that they had hosted every year since World War II.
Once the Rose Bowl was persuaded to join the group, they formed a system to determine the two best teams called the BCS (Bowl Championship Series). And that’s where things got really screwy.
How easy it would be to take the top two teams from the Associated Press poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and put them on the field? In the rare occurrence that the two polls didn’t agree, strength of schedule could be used to break the tie. Let the rest of the bowls fall back on conference ties, independents and also-rans to settle the remaining berths.
But college is nothing without taking an easy concept and making it ridiculously complicated. The BCS dragged out formulas, adding factors in like "quality wins," strength of schedule and computer polls and wound up making a giant mess that has made almost nobody happy.
Has it generated great #1 vs #2 match-ups? Well, no. It didn’t in 2000 when #2 Miami got overlooked in favor of #3 Florida State (a team Miami beat on the field). #1 Oklahoma choked the underdog Seminoles.
It didn’t work in 2001, either, when #4 Nebraska leapfrogged both #2 Oregon and #3 Colorado to play #1 Miami for the title, even though Colorado had crushed Nebraska less than 40 days before. And the Cornhuskers were stomped by Miami, as well.
But it gets even crazier each time they tweak the formula in an attempt to make things fairer. Most objectionable to me is the use of computer polls that claim to be more objective than the two "human polls" usually cited by the media.
A couple of weeks into the 2001 season, somebody noticed that the eight computer polls did not agree on who was the best team in the land. The computer based in Oklahoma had Oklahoma rated #1, the computer in Seattle had Washington as #1, the computer in California had UCLA #1 and the computer in Florida had Florida ranked #1. Yup. Those computers are totally unbiased.
If the computers were completely objective, they should all agree with each other. But they don’t. Each uses a different formula to come up with their varied calculations. So how can they claim to be any less subjective than the press and the coaches?
A few weeks ago, Oklahoma fell in some computer rankings. That happened even though their opponent that week was the University of Bye. Texas, meanwhile, recently beat Baylor (which is only slightly stiffer competition than Bye), 41-0, and fell three spots in some polls. Yet last year, when Colorado destroyed Nebraska, 63-36, some of those same computers dropped the Huskers from #1 all the way down to #2. Go figure.
There are some things I like about college football. I enjoy many of the traditions handed down from generations and the often insane enthusiasm they represent. I like the fact that, in college, you can actually hit a quarterback without receiving a nasty letter from the commissioner’s office and a $10,000 fine. It’s certainly a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Or evening. Or (gulp) morning. But when it comes to getting serious about deciding a champion, the NFL has the zany BCS beat hands down.
Now, if pro football could just do something to upgrade those Super Bowl halftime shows.
Bob Hulsey wants it on the record that he could write an entire column without once mentioning Jermaine Lewis. Doh!
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