Politics & Policy

We’re Number One

Football by the numbers.

When in the course of human affairs your favorite team gets stiffed by the BCS …well, there isn’t anything to do but to go to the barricades. Some injustices are simply insupportable, and denying the Michigan football team an opportunity to play Ohio State (again) for the national championship is plainly one. Revolutions have been ignited for less.

For those who don’t follow college football, some background: Ohio State is the nation’s only undefeated major college football team. The Universities of Florida and Michigan each lost one game. The question became, Which of those teams would play Ohio State for the national championship? There is no structured playoff system in college football; no tournament with conference champions playing each other in an elimination format. What college football has, instead, is something called the Bowl Championship Series — the BCS, initials that to many college football fans are as loathsome as “IRS.”

The BCS employs a formula that blends polls, computer standings, and, who knows, maybe even the study of chicken guts under the light of a full moon, to come up with a ranking of college football teams. The system aims for mathematical precision, but detractors — and there are multitudes of them — think it is fundamentally flawed, subjective, and probably created by dweebs who were sub-contracted out from some special corner in Hell. These fans view the conclusions of the BCS with the same affection your average Democrat has for the results of the presidential election in Florida in 2000.

A couple of years ago, there were three undefeated teams still standing at the end of the season. One of them, Auburn, didn’t get to play in the championship. Auburn’s fans still nurse their grievance. In other years, there have been no undefeateds, and the question became, Which two one-loss teams most deserve to go head-to-head for the championship? The element of subjectivity — that is, the human element — leads to endless rants on call-in radio and tiresome sermons from television commentators. “Unfair,” they cry. “College football must have a playoff system to put an end to all this controversy.”

Well…maybe so; but for some of us, half the fun of sports is the controversy. If you took the controversy out of it, all those call-in shows would be out of business, the internet message boards would all shut down, and Jim Rome would be looking for work. Participation isn’t the whole point (contrary to Rome et al.), but it sure makes for some spicy lagniappe.

This year, the argument had all sorts of interesting themes. First, there was the incontestable fact that Michigan had already played Ohio State and lost by three points in a thriller. So a Michigan/Ohio State matchup in the Whatever Bowl would have been kind of like a do-over. Didn’t that game establish, however narrowly, which was the better team? Aren’t we getting into the realm of recounts here?

And then, Ohio State and Michigan are both members of the Big Ten Conference. So a game between them would have been sort of a parochial affair. The winner could legitimately claim to be champion of the industrial heartland, but national champion?

Advocates of the Michigan position claim that playing Ohio State so close, on Ohio’s home turf, conclusively established that Michigan is the next best team and, hence, deserving of a rematch on neutral turf. Talk about subjective.

The case for Florida as Ohio State’s logical challenger rested on the fact that it played in the South Eastern Conference, which is widely acknowledged as the nation’s toughest, top-to-bottom, as they say in sportsworld. Florida, then, played a tougher schedule and beat all but one of the highly ranked teams on its dance card, losing only to Auburn. But, then, it lost that game by a wider margin than that which separated Ohio State and Michigan. Subjectivity, again. And controversy. Dread controversy.

Still, it seems a little more…oh, inclusive (to use a measure favored in the Zeitgeist) to have a team from the Sunbelt playing one from the Rustbelt for supremacy.

Regardless, Florida got the call, and controversy followed. It was all just the usual fun and games until a couple of disgruntled Michigan legislators got into the act. Michigan’s economic woes — GM and Ford losing money almost as fast as citizens are leaving the state — would seem severe enough to keep the folks in state government busy, but not so. Seems that Sens. Mark Schauer and Mike Bishop, the incoming Democratic and Republican leaders of the Michigan senate, found time to introduce a resolution calling for a playoff system to correct the grave injustice that led to Michigan not getting the rematch with Ohio State.

“The BCS system is clearly not working and consumers in Michigan and around the country are paying a very real price,” the Democratic leader said. The price, according to his calculations, comes to about $10 million in lost revenues to Michigan for going to the Rose Bowl (where it will play Southern Call) instead of the BCS championship game. He added that this grave injustice will also cost Michigan a possible rise in enrollment and “merchandise sales that come with a national title.”

With that much on the line, you’d think the Michigan team could have sucked it up and scored one more touchdown against Ohio State when it had the chance. But never mind; wherever there is injustice, the pols will rectify it. This is Michigan, after all, where the university has enshrined a system of affirmative action admissions that the voters rejected by a large margin in a recent referendum. The response of the university was to say to the voters: “Go to hell, we know best.”

The prospect of the national championship being decided — even at arm’s length — by the politicians is almost too doleful to contemplate. Every powerhouse football college would be hiring lobbyists to twist arms to advance its cause. Just imagine the revolting speeches from the floor of the United States Senate. Teams from schools in Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York are never in contention, so we would, mercifully, be spared speeches in their favor from Durbin, Kennedy, and Schumer. But West Virginia has a team that could be in the mix. Ponder the federal money that Robert Byrd might be willing to spread around to make the Mountaineers number one. Or consider Barbara Boxer waxing sentimental in behalf of the University of Southern California. And, come to think of it, what about the logs that Nancy Pelosi could roll to advance the Trojan’s cause. It is enough to reel the mind, even of football fans.

Then, there are the possibilities for investigations and hearings. Oklahoma lost a chance, arguably, to play for the national championship this year on an egregiously bad call by officials. We might be treated not just to instant replay but also to endless replay. We could even go back and deny the Colorado Buffaloes the fifth down that got them a national championship a few seasons back. Call it “reparations” or something.

However screwed up the BCS might be now, the pols could, beyond question, make it seem like the soul of reason. They might even appoint (and lavishly fund) a blue ribbon commission to study the whole issue and make recommendations. One hears that Sandra Day O’Connor and James Baker have some time on their hands. Why not give them a shot?

Meanwhile, fans can enjoy this season of controversy, and Michigan boosters can sullenly endure the indignity of playing out in Pasadena. As for the $10 million, they probably would have just blown it on lawyers to fight the will of the voters, so no big loss there. Go USC.

— Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.


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