Yes, it's that time of year again. The time for broadcasters, sports analysts, alumni, and fans to debate the worth of the BCS system that provides college football a supposed national champion each January. The adherents and the detractors will once again battle it out, weighing the relative merits of polling, computer formulas, playoff possibilities, strength of schedule, bowl tradition, and sponsorship deals.
Is the system in the best interest of college football as a whole and student-athletes as individuals? Has college football sold-out tradition in the name of the almighty dollar? Have we left deserving teams out of the BCS? And, most importantly, have we determined the "true" national champion?
These questions will continue to be debated through Monday's championship game and beyond, but I can't help but think that we are missing the point completely.
Although the NCAA claims noble goals in the pursuit of college athletics, realistically, the true purpose of college football (besides being a minor league for the NFL) is to entertain the masses. Without the support of fans and alumni, college football would be relegated to the ranks of other athletics like gymnastics and curling. Its stature as one of the most highly watched sports in the U.S. is due only to the support of fans that seek compelling entertainment, storylines, and excitement. We don't tailgate for hours in the cold, the rain, the snow, to have the game distilled down to a set of polls and computer formulas.
What the BCS doesn't understand is that we don't care who is the "best team". Statistics and records can provide that. What we want is to watch athletes battle it out on the field; to overcome all challenges until a winner emerges. We want to root for the big underdog, to watch a completely overmatched team find its way to victory through sheer will and determination. We want a story to talk about around the water cooler, a video clip to watch over and over on SportsCenter. While a #1 versus #2 match up determined through complex formulas provides a tidy ending to the season, what it doesn't provide is excitement, surprise, or emotion.
Ask some casual sports fans about last years NCAA basketball tournament, and I guarantee you will hear a lot more about George Mason than you do about eventual champion Florida. The very reason the NCAA tournament is so popular is the idea that any team can win. A 12-seed, around the 45th best team in the country, can and often does beat a team ranked as high as 17th in the very first round. If only the top 4 teams were invited to the championship tournament, it would lose all of its luster.
Likewise, the BCS championship game has yet to be played, but we have already witnessed the most memorable bowl game of the year, the upset of traditional powerhouse Oklahoma by a lightly regarded Boise State team, who many thought had no place on the field with the Sooners yet provided us with big plays and gutsy calls that we never could have anticipated or even imagined.
Were the Pittsburgh Steelers the best team in the NFL last year? Not by any generally accepted standard, yet we bestow the title of champions upon them. Why? Because when it mattered, they went on the field and succeeded. They pushed themselves to the limits, to the point that the "better" team couldn't. They performed at the peak of their abilities when it counted, and walked off the field victorious.
Maybe the BCS gives us the "best match up". Maybe the BCS is the most accurate way to determine the most superior team each year. But it will never gives us the huge upset, the team that has gone against all odds and left it all on the field in pursuit of being called champions. It can't provide the compelling Cinderella story that we will remember for years, the chance for any team to prove its worth over 60 long and grueling minutes on the gridiron. What it can never give us is the excitement and inspiration that is at the heart of all sports.
A playoff can.