Sleeping with the enemy: How the BCS wrecked the rivalry

By REED NELSON

Charles Woodson (here in 1997) provided some of his best collegiate moments during rivalry games, a concept that the BCS is slowly strangling. (Photo: Associated Press)

On Dec. 4, 2011, the BCS Selection Show aired on ESPN, tacked with all the bells and whistles, the cute graphics, the overly made-up analysts and former players — the ones who are still slightly uncomfortable without the veil of a helmet and pads to protect them from the cameras — that the Worldwide Leader has to offer.

Like all that has to with the BCS, it was a production, and one shrouded in cryptic grandeur. But as the countdown began, as the minutes became seconds, the impossible seemed inevitable: LSU and Alabama, the SEC teams behind the most awfully executed, over-hyped game of the regular season, would meet again in the BCS National Championship Game. And then, with all the glitz, glamor and tact that is to be expected from ESPN, we were then expected to be excited about this rematch of a 9-6 November game that featured 2011’s worst display of offensive execution this side of Pop Warner fields.

Oh Mighty BCS, how we thank thee.

We thank thee for establishing a selection system that allows for infinite hope yet all-too finite realities. We thank thee for preaching parody prior to jamming seven straight SEC-tied champions down our gullible little throats. We thank thee for the most boring National Championship in years. And most of all, we thank thee for making it possible, nay requisite, for us to cheer for our most hated rivals. Thank you, oh thank you, Mighty BCS.

In sports, as in life, there are inextricable truths. In life, dogs hate cats. Weasels and snakes get along like water and oil. Same goes for lions and gazelle. Park rangers and bears enjoy each others company in the same way gun powder enjoys the company of a lit fuse.

In sports, Red Sox fans hate Yankees fans. As do Celtics and Lakers fans. Ohio State and Michigan = baking soda and vinegar. Oregon and Oregon State? It’s called the Civil War, for God’s sake.

Prior to 1998, the rifts among rivals were deep, creased with time, eroded by heartbreak and populated by nostalgia. They meant something year in, year out, regardless of standings. A season was punctuated by a victory, or redeemed by the upset. The underdog win is what they were called.

Now? Those teams play the role of “The Spoiler,” as if having the audacity to  attempt to win a college football game late in the season is malicious, as in, “Oregon State could play spoiler if they knock off Oregon this week, by ruining their chances to play in the Pac-12 Championship game.” Yes, teams are motivated by breaking their opponents hearts, but a spoiler? Hardly.

Moreover, teams fill pre-assigned roles and when they break the mold, i.e. Utah defeating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl or Boise State beating Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, we feel a need to create a new one. Utah and Boise State, winners of more BCS Bowls than Florida State, Virginia Tech Tennessee, Penn State and Arkansas combined1, were somehow known, until very recently, as “BCS Busters” — teams that bucked the establishment of SEC/Big 12 dominance in the ’00s, yet nothing more.

But now the rivalries matter more than ever, which means the hatred matters much less. Somehow, during one of the top secret meetings of the BCS roundtable, held in the creepiest spire of the tallest castle just West of Mordor, the devil-eyed warlocks in charge descended from their perch in the middle of the night with the sole mission of making it imperative for us to cheer on our rivals.

I don’t know when it happened (some time in 1998, I suppose), but it has happened, and it is as comforting as pillow made of yellow jackets.

Oregon State has kicked off the season 2-0, and climbed to #18 in the polls. They avoid USC and have already defeated two of their four ranked opponents on the 2012 schedule. In the coming weeks, Oregon State takes on Arizona, Washington State, BYU, Utah, Washington and Arizona State. It is a winnable stretch of games — opponents records are just a combined 14-8 — and one that Ducks fans should be as invested in as those in Corvallis are. Oregon needs Oregon State to win those games more than Oregon State needs Oregon State to win those games, because the Ducks need the Beavers to be as highly regarded as they possibly can be when they travel to Corvallis in November. And after USC lost to Stanford, the Ducks now need Stanford to keep their losses to a minimum as well (the Cardinal-Beaver showdown not withstanding).

On Saturday, proud Ducks fans will need to cheer for the Beavers.

It is blaspheme. It’s gross, it’s disturbing, hell, it might even be criminally negligent. But it’s the truth. It’s the crux of the BCS, the dirty little secret of fanhood, and the most recent example of the strange relationship within coalitions comprised of warring entities fighting for the same goal.

For centuries, coalitions have prevailed in government. They produce results in British Parliament and reconcile differences within the ongoing battle between Germany’s Angela Merkel and the European Central Bank.

But competitive sport was supposed to be a coalition-free environment (save the now-defunct and admittedly ill-conceived Bowl Coaltion4). It was the one avenue in which we could project unfiltered, unrequited, unjustified rage and hatred toward a group of people, of which we know very little about, save logo preference, and feel comfortable about it.

It was our dog chasing cat Moment of Id.

In professional sports, the Id still reigns supreme. Away from the sports books, a rival’s loss can balance out a loss of your own. The 2011 Red Sox collapse made the Yankees early playoff exit a blip on the Radar of Sadness. The collapse was about as bad for the Red Sox as a World Series victory would have been for good for the Yankees, a hook on which to rest a hat for the entire off-season2.

In Jan. of 2007, Tony Romo tripping in Seattle redeemed an entire 2006 season for the Giants. When an archrival’s quarterback/posterboy/Jessica-Simpson’s-boyfriend drops the ball — literally — in a season-deciding moment, it is almost tantamount to a Superbowl victory from your own side. The joy is unlike anything else, probably because its vindictive nature ripens in the primordial ooze of hatred.

It used to be that way in college football, and to the umpteenth degree. Now the only one’s who are allowed to enjoy the hate are the teams that the rest of the country, in fact, hates: Alabama, LSU and the SEC.

By creating a system that rewards strength of schedule almost as much as it does results, they have also created a handicap for the teams in tougher conferences. Should strength of schedule come into play? Absolutely, 100 percent. But is the notion of strength of schedule (SOS) as warped as the BCS’ vision itself? Absolutely, 100 percent.

Consider this: The SEC owned five of the top ten spots in the AP Top 25 to open the season, a number that figures into the SOS. The Pac-12 owned two. The Big Ten had one. So did the Big 12 and the ACC. Now, in Week 5, the numbers look like this: Four SEC teams, two from the Pac-12, two from the Big-12, one from the ACC and Notre Dame. Of the SEC teams still in the top ten, only Alabama has beaten a team in the Top 25, and it was a nauseatingly overrated Michigan team (currently unranked).

But the respect that the SEC commands is even more nauseating. Their dominance has made it imperative to cheer for your rivals, to make it so when your team faces that hated combination of colors, tradition and overall ugliness, the game means as much as possible. It can no longer just be the Civil War; it needs context. It doesn’t matter unless there is something on the line (See: 2011).

That didn’t used to happen. At one point, there were three seasons in college football: The regular season, rivalry week and the Bowl games. Rivalry week could trump all else. Michigan and Ohio State used to captivate the nation; now they have trouble captivating the stadium. It just isn’t the same.

When Michigan played Ohio State in 1997 — the final season before the BCS strapped dynamite to tradition, and, after steamrolling the plot of land where tradition once laid, put up a corporate structure dedicated to all that is confusing3 — Ohio State had already lost to a #2 Penn State, who then lost to Michigan. Michigan was undefeated and Rose Bowl bound if they could win. OSU had a slim-to-none shot at the Rose Bowl, Penn State owned the tie-breaker from earlier in the season. But still, Coach John Cooper had everything to play for. The Rose Bowl mattered, beating Michigan mattered, pride mattered. Luckily for 9-year-old me, the evil Buckeyes were defeated handily, 20-14 (It wasn’t as close as the score would indicate), and the game was certainly not trivial. Unlucky for 10-year-old me, 1997 was the last gasp of what was. It was never the same.

The rivalry was supported in the following years by the consistent contention of the two teams, but it couldn’t last forever. Now it feels contrived. Just like the Holy War or the Civil War or USC-UCLA or Miama-Florida State or Notre Dame-Anybody.

And I blame the BCS.

Footnotes

  • In fact, only Texas, Miami, West Virginia, LSU, Florida, Oklahoma, USC and Ohio State have won more than Utah and Boise State (two apiece), and they have all played in AQ conferences from the BCS’ inception.Jump
  • Furthermore, this season has been manageable, even with a collapse of the Yankees’ own, due, primarily, to the slipping sanity of Bobby Valentine. Unless Joe Girardi decapitates a parrot in the dugout and then tries to feed it to Robinson Cano, the Red Sox take home the win in the “What the fuck just happened to us?” category at next years ESPYs. Note to ESPN: Make that a category. Jump
  • They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Ooh, wop wop. Jump
  • Ironically enough, the first iteration of the BCS was called the Bowl Coalition. It decided the national champion from 1991 to 1994 and in its three years of operation featured Nebraska twice (they won once), Alabama, Florida State and Miami twice (who never won). The format was very similar to the pre-2007 BCS, except the now defunct SWC was one of the AQ conferences. The Orange Bowl hosted twice, the Sugar Bowl hosted once and the Powers that Were didn’t try to fool fans with a democratically ambiguous title like “Bowl Championship Series.” They called a spade a spade, and the nation ate the slop for three years. So, just for the record, the BCS is actually the third go at this thing.  Jump


Categories: Analysis, Features, Reed Nelson

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