In college football, it's politics over playoffs

When she first uttered the phrase that would help Louisiana State win last season's BCS championship, Kathy Miles was just trying to get her husband to look at the bright side.

Les Miles' Tigers had just blown the inside track to the BCS title game, losing on the day after Thanksgiving in triple overtime to Arkansas. LSU's only other loss had also come in triple overtime, at Kentucky back in October.

"You know, Les," she said that night, "you're undefeated in regulation."

Miles' ears perked up. To a coach a win is a win and a loss is a loss, but this was a different way of looking at it.

He knew that with the confounding way college football crowns its champion, nothing is as it appears. The Bowl Championship Series, with its heavy reliance on opinion polls, has turned the sport into a game of perception and publicity as much as tackles and touchdowns.

The BCS is a farce. To win it, you need to treat it as a farce. So LSU immediately began using athletic department brains, not simply student-athlete brawn, to figure out how to become the first two-loss team to ever reach the title game.

Because the BCS sets no criteria for voter consideration in either of the polls that make up two-thirds of the rankings, the Tigers simply needed to redefine the parameters of the debate.

"We had to argue to people, 'Yeah, we've got two losses, but look how they came,' " said Michael Bonnette, LSU's associate athletic director in charge of media relations.

He had to make a loss (or two) not seem like a loss.

Miles had shared his wife's line to Bonnette, who was immediately impressed by the simplicity of the argument.

LSU knew it was about to drop from No. 1 in the BCS standings to No. 7, but both coach and publicity man understood anything could happen in the final weekend of the season.

While apologists often hype the BCS as a weekly playoff, LSU knew that isn't the case. Every week is, however, a chance to spread a political message.

Despite the losses, LSU (10-2 at the time) had the best team in the country. But unless it could convince voters of that, it wouldn't matter. With a game against Tennessee in the SEC title game upcoming, the Tigers decided to set up their argument just in case the dominoes fell right.

Kathy Miles' marketing line began getting pitched to the media. Les himself mentioned it at his weekly media conference.

"[LSU] hasn't lost a game in regulation," he said. "There has not been a team that has beaten us in 60 minutes."

Later LSU tried to get the argument used by CBS, a sympathetic broadcast partner, which would telecast the SEC title game.

(Just a year before the network repeatedly made the case for Florida being more deserving of a BCS title berth than Michigan. One of the broadcasters, Gary Danielson, later said in an interview with a Detroit radio station that CBS only campaigned for the SEC because ESPN/ABC does the same for the Big Ten.)

When LSU won the SEC title and then the top two teams in the BCS rankings, Missouri and West Virginia, both lost, LSU tried to saturate the debate with Kathy Miles' slogan.

On the team's charter flight home Bonnette worked the phones to key media and got Miles a live interview on that night's SportsCenter.

Once back in Baton Rouge, Bonnette and his staff put together a brief fact sheet for the coaches who vote. While LSU had a mountain of statistical information and comparative charts, they saved most of that for the media.

Bonnette felt the busy coaches wouldn't read all of that and suspected other schools had already drowned them in numbers. "We didn't want to overload them," he said.

Instead he put together a simple email with four bullet points, the key being a central, emotional plea based on the now oft-repeated campaign slogan – "LSU is undefeated in regulation."

"We sold it," Bonnette said. "We did the best we could to get it out there."

Sunday, on the strength of jumping a stunning five spots in the coaches' vote and finishing No. 2 in each poll, the Tigers were given a berth in the BCS title game. A month later they handily beat Ohio State for the championship.

It was a masterful PR campaign.

"I know this," Bonnette said, "I wish I could take credit for the line."

This is what the BCS has wrought, an American Idol-style political contest where victory and defeat are not always determined on the actual field of play.

Just last week Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops used circular logic to claim his team should be ranked higher than Texas even though Texas beat OU last month by 10 points.

He essentially claimed that if everyone has a loss, then the loss no longer matters. Or, as LSU had once essentially proven, a loss isn't a loss.

"If it's logical for one, then it's logical for the other," Stoops said.

It worked. Oklahoma moved ahead of Texas in both human polls and, should it defeat Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Sooners are expected to make up enough ground in the computers to beat out the Longhorns for a berth in the Big 12 title game.

Stoops, with his argument already paying dividends, said this week he would now take the high road and no longer lobby voters – which itself might be a shrewd campaign tactic.

One thing was for certain: Texas might be able to beat Oklahoma in football, but in a marketing contest the Sooners routed them.

The silly Longhorns thought the BCS actually cared about football.

This was just the first battle in a two-week political brawl where previously anonymous media relations directors become as valuable as All-American quarterbacks.

Right now there are seven programs that can make a legitimate claim to play in the BCS title game – Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Penn State, Southern California, Texas and Utah.

Whoever sets the terms of the debate will make it.

Consider long-shot Utah, 12-0. If it could somehow convince voters that it shouldn't be considered the undefeated champion of a non-"Big Six" conference but rather the undefeated champion of the fourth-best conference (superior to the Pac-10, Big East and ACC) who also defeated the probable Pac-10 champ (Oregon State), then it's quite possible even the Utes could be playing for the title.

It's the same for the others; each has an advantage if it can get a voter to consider the right question before voting.

Is this about whom you beat or who you lost to or whether you didn't lose at all? Is it how you're playing now or is your body of work for the season the key? What's a conference's overall strength worth? Do you even have to win your conference, let alone your division?

Is non-conference play important or margin of victory or margin of defeat or statistical rankings or anything else you can dream up?

Does it matter if you never lost in regulation?

Naturally the BCS offers no guidelines on the single most important thing it is supposed to do. Thus the voters are open to being swayed.

That means seven publicity departments are trying to reach 114 Harris Poll voters of various levels of commitment (two weeks ago one guy forgot to even cast a ballot) and 61 college coaches who are often unapologetically biased.

History shows just about anything can work. A year ago, after appearing dead in the water in the season finale, Kathy Miles struck marketing gold, her husband won the title and LSU proved that in college football, the game isn't really about the game.