Justice, Alabama, and the BCS: Part 1

Written December 6th, 2011 by Eric

Objectivity, Balance, and Power. Two of these are not possessed by the BCS.

This is the first of a two part article on this year’s BCS problems.

When you think of justice it obviously brings to mind the concepts of the court of law, lady justice, and a jury of your peers. Rarely do people consider justice in college football. They may use words like “fair” and “just” or their antonyms freely, but never in any rigorous context.

What the last 48 hours should have demonstrated to college football fans is that the current bowl system is inherently unjust – meant in the strictest philosophical sense.

What is the definition of justice? Dictionary.com suggests (irritatingly as the fifth definition) “the administering of deserved punishment and reward”. This gets at the very heart of the matter.

The BCS as a system was designed to solve the age old problem of determining who is the college football national champion in any given year. Where in previous years the AP and Coaches polls – and a laundry list of other polls before that – occasionally chose different teams, the BCS was supposed to be the unifying consensus. That, of course, went out the window in early 2004 when the AP poll decided to vote USC #1 over LSU, the team that won the national championship game that year.

But the ludicrousness of the BCS doesn’t even begin there. It begins with the very concept of using a poll to determine anything of importance at all.

On Sunday, the BCS standings were announced based on the computer component, the Harris Poll, and the Coaches poll. Let us step past the issue of a computer component that is based on man-made (and easily debatable) algorithms. Let’s also ignore the Harris poll which is probably composed of a collection of people who shouldn’t even be voting in the local talent show, let alone a national college football poll. The Coaches poll by itself is a complete travesty not even worthy of the electricity required to put it together, but it is a great example of the injustice inherent in the system.

For those that don’t know, the USA Today/Coaches Poll is a compilation of Top 25 lists from the 59 members of the “Board of Coaches”. The membership of the board changes occasionally, but often the top coaches in the country are members of the poll. The rub is that if a top team is coached by a member of this board there is an inherent conflict of interest in whatever poll the coach submits. Early in the season this doesn’t make a huge difference, but late in the year – particularly right before bowl season – opportunities abound for shenanigans. This is something we’ve seen repeatedly the last few seasons.

This year was no different. Even before Alabama and LSU played the so-called “Game of the Century” for the year there was talk of a rematch in the BCS championship game. You may remember in the 2006 season, especially since everyone is already talking about it, there was similar talk after Ohio State and Michigan duked it out to a 42-39 finish in one of the greatest 1 versus 2 battles in recent recollection. Michigan ended up getting voted out in favor of Florida – a team who eventually went on to win the Championship in one of the most easily forgotten games in Buckeye memory.

What? They didn't pick us? But I'm a man!

Alabama, of course, lost to LSU in a 9-6 decision that featured only field goals all game long. They dropped to number three behind then unbeaten Oklahoma State, who was cruising in most of their games. But then Oklahoma State lost to a much less impressive Iowa State team, dropping them in the rankings and bringing back the “rematch” talk when Alabama climbed back up to number 2.

It seems fair that the Cowboys losing would cause them to drop in the polls. This is also not the first time that the BCS has had a quality team drop a game to a mediocre conference foe and end up missing out on the National Title because another, weaker, team lost earlier. Remember 1998? Ohio State loses to Michigan State in their 8th game and miss the National Title, despite being easily one of the best two teams, because one loss Florida State was defeated much earlier in the season.

But this time there’s a difference. Alabama already had a shot to take out LSU and lost. In 1998, the Buckeyes weren’t overshadowed by a possible rematch between Tennessee and Florida State. That situation was at least equitable, and you can argue that Florida State got the bid because they had a longer streak of success, and were therefore the more “improved” team. (Yea, I don’t buy it either). One way or another, 1998 created a game between two of the better teams in the nation and allowed us to crown a national champion.

But this year, LSU has already demonstrated on the field that they are better than Alabama. Why should Alabama, a team that didn’t even win its division, let alone its conference, get a second shot at LSU when Michigan, in the same position, didn’t get a second shot at Ohio State in 2006? I believed then, as I believe now, that rematches in the National Championship are an error. The national championship is supposed to be a battle between two teams that are rightfully deserving. If you have already lost to your opponent in the championship game, you haven’t earned it and shouldn’t be there.

One way or another, the polls decided that Alabama was number two. Oklahoma State went undefeated through the rest of the season, and went on to absolutely kill top-ten ranked Oklahoma and win the Big 12. Ostensibly this was an attempt to appease the voters and get a shot at the national title. Long story short, Alabama and Oklahoma State seemed to have an equal argument, by the current rules of the system, for a chance. It was up to the polls to decide which one it would be.

On Monday, we were reminded that Nick Saban, head coach of Alabama, was also on the Board of Coaches for the USA Today poll. Obviously Nick Saban has a clear conflict of interest in this situation. He’s the head coach of one of the very teams trying to break into the national title game.

To allow Saban a vote is a ridiculous farce, on the level of a judge presiding over his own murder trial.

This is not the first time a head coach has been faced with a similar decision. In 2006, Jim Tressel was on the Board of Coaches and chose to abstain from the vote because of his conflict of interest.  That decision was made even in the face of the displeasure of the USA Today. I’m not saying that he would have abstained if having to choose between putting Ohio State or some other team in at number two, but it’s worth pointing out that Coaches have taken the moral road before despite the rules of the coaches poll.

Nick Saban should never have been allowed a vote with such a conflict of interest. Obviously USA Today will suggest that 1 vote out of 59 has minimal impact on the outcome of the poll, but when we’re talking about a hundredth of a point in the BCS every single vote matters.

Unsurprisingly, Saban voted Alabama at number two in the nation. The shock comes from his vote for Oklahoma State behind Stanford at number four, and that he was the only SEC coach, of the 6 on the board, to do so. Each team earns a number of points for how high in the poll they finish. By dropping the Cowboys to four – despite a huge victory over Oklahoma – Saban was obviously intentionally depriving the Cowboys of much needed votes to overtake Alabama for the number two spot in the final averaging.

Oh hello, didn't we already meet this year?

Admittedly, that’s a strong allegation for a one spot difference in rank.  Consider though why he chose number four instead of, say, 15.  If he had chosen 15th, it would have been obvious to the casual observer that he was trying to suppress Oklahoma State’s point totals.  If he had raised them to three, he would have risked being the one point the Cowboys needed to jump the Tide.  By dropping them to four, he could conveniently penalize Oklahoma State while maintaining an innocent appearance simply by claiming that he had them at four in all his previous polls – polls that were not released to the public, mind you.

Even if you argue that Alabama deserved a second shot at LSU because of how close the first game was, there is no way you can argue that this method of choosing a national championship contender is truly just. A coach voting with a clear conflict of interest is a single-handedly unjust system of determining rewards for a season of excellence. There is a reason why judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and others involved in court cases are required to step aside due to a conflict of interest. Their decisions and actions cannot, in any possible way, be considered impartial.

So, too, with voting for teams in a poll when you are a direct beneficiary of it.

Look for part 2, the solution to the current issues, later today.

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