December 29, 2011
That was ESPN doing its part this morning to stoke whatever embers remain over the controversy of Alabama's BCS Championship rematch with LSU, with a little help from a shrewdly edited quote from LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell. On the other side, frankly, Nick Saban just does not see what the big deal is:
Alabama coach Nick Saban also took an opportunity when asked about preparations for rematches in general to kick the door open and to remind anyone listening that rematches happen frequently in most sports and often with different results.
He said the first meeting with LSU was a "great, physical, outstanding college football game," and that this is another opportunity to play in a "classic."
"I've been a little bit sort of amazed that because in every league, in every league, NBA, college basketball, the NFL, people always play the same team again and nobody thinks twice about it," Saban said. "And now all the sudden this is like some unique thing in sports."
Something else they do in other sports: Play lengthy, interlocking schedules that make rematches inevitable (or at least extremely likely), as opposed to the brief, non-overlapping corners that confine college football schedules. Another thing they do: Stage a playoff that requires teams to win their way into the championship game/round on the field, rather than being arbitrarily selected through some byzantine conflagration of polls and computers.
Something they never do in other sports: Defend any aspect of their postseason system by arguing, "That's how they do it in big-time college football." Then again, people in other sports don't spend much time arguing about their postseason systems, do they?
This is an official anti-BCS harangue, so it comes with the official disclaimer: The Big Problem is not with the second golden ticket to the BCS Championship Game going to Alabama as the No. 2 team in the nation instead of Oklahoma State (or Stanford, or Boise State, or [insert contender]). The problem is not a rematch. The problem is not even that the system arbitrarily selected a rematch over equally viable alternatives. The problem is that it had to make the choice in the first place.
This year, Alabama and Oklahoma State are identically qualified for the second ticket, and split the final vote for it roughly down the middle. When a strong contender that effectively earned 50 percent of the vote is rewarded with zero percent of the opportunity, the system has failed. In this case, it would have failed equally if that team had been Alabama. On a larger scale, though, the real failure is that we're still voting on the question in a sport that keeps score.
Now: To the extent that a rematch is a problem, it has less to do with a principled stand against do-overs in general than it does with the simple fact that there is almost nothing the Crimson Tide can do on Jan. 9 to prove their superiority to LSU. Regardless of what happens there — short of an unholy beatdown that no one sees coming after the slugfest on Nov. 5 — there is no result that can make Alabama's season better than LSU's season. In a system that continues defers to polls and resumés, it can only pull even.
For the sake of argument, let's say Alabama beats LSU in another generally competitive game, by a margin of anywhere from one point to two touchdowns. In that case, the Crimson Tide will finish the year 12-1 with two or three wins over teams ranked in the final polls (give or take Penn State). LSU will finish 13-1 with four or five wins over teams ranked in the final polls (give or take West Virginia). They'd be be 1-1 against one another, with LSU's win coming at Alabama. LSU will still be the SEC champion.
Under the circumstances, that's a formula for a split championship, at worst. (The Coaches' Poll is contractually obligated to vote the winner of the BCS title game No. 1; as LSU fans are well aware, the Associated Press poll is not.) That wouldn't be the case if the rematch came as a result of the Tigers and Tide eliminating the competition head-to-head, on the field, leaving no questions and no alternatives. If there happens to be a rematch at the end of a playoff, it's between two teams who have decisively earned it in a way that Alabama, in the current system, has not.
That's not to suggest that Oklahoma State or anyone else has earned a stronger claim on a second chance, either. But as long as that opportunity exists for some teams at the expense of others, the current system belongs in the scrapheap.