Friday, January 2, 2009

College Football: Where the Homers Rule All

I used to think that the most homerific fans in American professional sports could be found in the legions of National Football League fans. But I was wrong. Very, very, very wrong. That lofty mantle hangs around the collective shoulders of us college football fans.

Even those of us who count ourselves among the objective bear some of the blame since, as Edmund Burke said, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing."

Make no mistake, evil is being done by the Bowl Championship Series and the dollars in the pockets of the fanbases to which it caters. Evil in the sports' sense of taking CFB's ultimate prize out of the hands of the competitors on the field and putting it in those of the observers, networks, and computers.

That sounds all fine and dandy—objective, blah, blah, the whole nine—except it's not. Far from it.

The truth is that the system allows greed to masquerade in objectivity's skin.

As Lisa Horne pointed out in her excellent article regarding ESPN's heavy hand in the process, when the matter is not decided on the field, all sorts of prejudices and biases come into play. I tend to agree with Ms. Horne's assessment of the Sports Bleeder, but, whether you do or not, there is simply no arguing that the system has been manipulated.

I won't pretend to know if it's intentional or not, whether it's calculated to land the big money schools in the bright lights instead of the most competitive (synonymous for most deserving) squads. But that's certainly what's happening.

For the past several years, the injustice has unfolded in almost the exact same way. The season begins with the memory of the preceding campaign's bowl games fresh in the voters memories.

Then the new season's games start and, all of a sudden, people begin forgetting the previous year (several years at this point). The homers deny that such results are relevant, which is ridiculous since there simply isn't enough turnover in college football for things to shift so seismically as to render the previous calendar year irrelevant.

A couple schools will rise and fall, but not enough to change the landscape that drastically.

Yet conferences, whose veils were pierced just months ago, rise again. The Big Ten and, often, the Big XII start gaining steam from the hype generated by those with pretty obvious ulterior motives. Motives best served by seeing schools from those BCS conferences in lucrative, high-profile finales.

Fans, analysts from networks that televise those conferences or those bowl games, coaches, etc. They all play a part in the skew that takes over the rankings and eventually allows the BCS to place those schools with reputations for traveling well, spending money, and watching closely in the biggest games.

That's great except it doesn't mean they are competitive.

How else to we explain the sentiment that Penn State was on equal footing with USC? Or that Ohio State deserves a shot at Texas rather than undefeated Utah or even Alabama? Or the outright dismissal of the Trojans from the National Championship discussion? Or how about undefeated Boise State getting jobbed right out of the whole bonanza?

Every fan is guilty because the biased powerbrokers know that there are legions of blindly faithful homers just begging for the chance to lap up transparent and fatuous hyperbole. If the audience were discerning and critical, there'd be no market for their snake oil.

But we allow it to exist.

If you want proof, just virtually thumb through the archives of this fine site—a site that's light-years ahead of others in terms of objectivity and reasonable analysis.

Even it is rife with fans of the Big Ten and Big XII swearing up and down that perception is reality. The Big Ten homers will tell you they're still relevant to the national title picture and the Big XII homers will tell you theirs is the best conference in college football.

False on both accounts. Really, really false.

We're in the process of seeing that right now. The Big Ten has managed only an Iowa victory over South Carolina and has seen its best team get blown out of the water in two quarters. Meanwhile, Ohio State still must march to the guillotine against Texas.

That game could be even uglier than the Penn State massacre at the hands of USC. Consider that Pete Carroll blatantly took his foot of the pedal out of respect for Joe Paterno. Who thinks Mack Brown will spare Jim Tressell (himself no stranger to rubbing his opponent's nose in humiliation) such indignity?

Especially when Texas still thinks it can get a slice of the title if Oklahoma manages to upend Florida.

When the dust settles, it's highly likely that the Big Ten will have suffered humiliation and/or defeat at the hands of Kansas, Georgia, USC, Florida State, Missouri, and Texas. That's the Big XII, the SEC, the Pac-10, and the ACC.

So I guess the Big Ten can still claim bragging rights over the Big East. Woohoo! Raise your hand if you think that makes them significant to the Crystal Football. Exactly.

Meanwhile, the Big XII is probably the second best conference in America. But it's a distant second. Its record in this season's bowl games is much better than the Big Ten's and better than most of the power conferences.

Unfortunately, if you want to be the best, you've gotta beat the gorilla in the room—the SEC. That means doing more than posting wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, and Clemson to go with a loss by one of its elite teams to Oregon.

Oh, and an evisceration at the hands of Ole Miss. An evisceration of Texas Tech, one of the Big XII's tri-champion jewels. Those of you who watched the Cotton Bowl probably have the same sneaking suspicion I have, a suspicion that Oklahoma is in big, big trouble.

Still, even if Oklahoma wins and Alabama stays flat against Utah, I'd only be wrong about the margin by which the SEC outpaces the Big XII. Even if the Sooners annihilate the Gators, it just means that perception is reality at the top.

All year, objective observers have marveled at the Big XII's spectacular offenses while remaining skeptical of its defenses. Now, it looks like those doubts are being confirmed on the field.

Northwestern put 23 points on Mizzou. Minnesota—21 on Kansas. Clemson—21 on Nebraska. Ole Miss topped 'em all by hanging 47 on the aforementioned Red Raiders. Granted, a bundle of points were scored by the opposing defenses, but points are points.

Again, most people agree that Oklahoma and Texas are a cut above the rest of the conference.

But to be the best conference, you must be more than a two-trick pony. Just ask the SEC, a conference that has posted wins by Vanderbilt (yeah, Vandy) over Boston College, LSU by 35 over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia over Michigan State, and the Mississippi victory that has been covered. The lone stumble was South Carolina's ugly loss to Iowa.

Kentucky's currently going toe-to-toe with an East Carolina squad (and may be pulling away) while the SEC's two prize ponies have yet to take the field.

The extremely frustrating part, though, is that it happens every year.

You can already see the homers positioning themselves for 2009's iteration. They'll tell you it was just an unfortunate match-up, a bad break here, a blown call there, an injury to this guy, and/or a mental mistake by that guy.

And it just makes me shake my head because we've all seen this and heard it before. Several times.

Maybe not as blatantly, maybe not by the same actors, but the storyline is the same—the Big Ten resurrected from the grave in which it belongs, another conference claiming equality with the SEC, USC suffering unfairly for the perceived weakness of its conference (that perception was reality until this year), and the mid-majors getting boned in favor of heavy-hitters having down years (cough, Buckeyes).

Then it's wash, rinse, and repeat.

I think we all need to agree something needs to change and the BCS needs to go. Yet, for that to happen, the market for the money men/women has to dry up. Fans need to remember that any challenge to dominance will be gradual. We need to remember that battered conferences will take several years to recover. We need to remember that it's almost impossible for any school to survive its conference unscathed, regardless of its perceived quality.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the previous year IS relevant. It will continue to be relevant until junior defection to the NFL is an epidemic and that of sophomores is at least common.

Most importantly, we need the homers on board. That's the rub because they are many and devoted.

But a future scoured of the BCS stink may very well depend on it.

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