Coastal elitism in college football

Or, The case against USC as #1.
You can blame the following on my friend Francisco, who got me started earlier this evening during an instant messaging chat.
Looking around college football, I continue to be amazed at how USC can be consistently ranked as the number-one football team in the country, given the conference they play in. It is very similar to the 1980s and 1990s, when Miami and Florida State were consistently picked as the #1 team any given year. I have deduced it is a form of coastal elitism on the part of the poll voters, much like the coastal elitism one has found recently in national elections and politics.
The majority of your sports media are concentrated on either coast of the nation. Their attention, therefore, is drawn to the teams likewise concentrated on either coast, to the detriment of the quality teams in the quality conferences in between the two coasts, a la “flyover country.” These quality conferences are the SEC, the Big 10, and the Big 12.
It’s very easy to go undefeated in the Big East when you’re playing against such powerhouses as Rutgers or Temple. Viz: Florida State K.O.’ed Duke today, and that’s worthy of their #11 ranking. At least now we have FSU, Miami, and Virginia Tech all in the same conference, the ACC. Too bad they are the only quality teams in the ACC, which means one of these three will, for the foreseeable future, always win the conference championship and contend for a national title. Miami’s presence was the only reason the Big East was ever in the BCS, since they were the only team from the Big East ever contending for the national championship. Now that Miami is in the ACC, the BCS needs to dump the Big East as an automatic BCS bowl-eligible conference.
USC is to the 2000s what FSU and Miami were to the ’80s and ’90s. They are the lone dominate team in their conference, so they go undefeated while beating up on the likes of Washington and Arizona. Then they have to worry about a single tough game at the end of the year, and having been built up by their success over mediocre teams and by the national sports media, they prevail.
Looking back at the 2003 season, it is a complete joke that USC, and the national sports media which backs it, should insist on a shared national title with LSU. (Disclaimer: I grew up in Baton Rouge and am a LSU alum, so yes, I’m biased. At least I admit it.) I agree that it was a travesty that USC did not get to play against LSU in the Sugar Bowl. I believe the same national sports media which lauds and supports USC today was also blinded by a declining Oklahoma program, and gave that team more votes than it deserved. Be that as it may, the BCS determined that LSU and Oklahoma would square off for the national title. The BCS used the same polls the national sports media voted in to make this determination. LSU won the Sugar Bowl, and was crowned college football’s national champion.
But the AP and USA Today poll voters rebelled against the BCS, and anointed Rose Bowl winner USC the number one spot. USC, and the national sports media which voted for them, thus claims a shared national title with LSU, the very thing the BCS was created to prevent.
This is despite, counting their respective bowl game opponents, that LSU beat four Top 20 teams during the course of the year while USC only beat two. You can make the argument LSU beat five Top 20 teams, but the BCS doesn’t credit LSU’s SEC championship victory over Georgia, since that was the second time that year the Tigers were victorious over the Bulldogs. This is despite the fact that Georgia was ranked higher at the time of the SEC championship than they were earlier in the year when they first lost to LSU. Using the BCS’s strength of schedule statistic, Georgia was a tougher opponent the second time around, and LSU beat them by a larger margin of victory. LSU also played one more game (the conference championship) in 2003 than USC did.
Statistically, LSU was the superior team. They played in the BCS championship game, and they prevailed. The Fighting Tigers of LSU are the sole national champions of college football for 2003.
Let us allow, for a moment, that there is a shared title for 2003 between LSU and USC. I, for one, would then like USC and the national sports media to acknowledge a shared national title for 2004 between USC and Auburn. Each team went 13-0. Including their bowl game opponents, Auburn beat five Top 20 teams to USC’s three. Again, the SEC team has the strength of schedule argument firmly in its camp. Auburn was denied the BCS shot, just as USC was the year before, by a national sports media still enamored with Oklahoma. You would think USC would have some empathy for Auburn, but no.
USC worshippers’ argument against a shared title for 2004 is that USC both won the BCS championship game and got the poll votes. My contention is that the poll votes are only useful as part of determining who is in the BCS championship game. After that particular game is over, who cares what else happened in the other bowl games? Hence, my contention that USC has no claim to a shared title in 2003.
That brings us to the 2005 season, and the end of week 9. USC is still #1, with Texas #2. (Disclaimer: I am a resident of the state of Texas, though I have no personal affiliation with the University of Texas, other than I would like to see the schools of my home state do well. Again, at least I admit to bias, little though it may be.) Up to this stage of the season, both teams have played the same number of Top 20 teams: three. However, Texas’s opponents have been higher ranked, and given those opponents, the wins more impressive. I look at Texas’s win over Ohio State as more impressive than USC’s win over Notre Dame. Certainly, the win by the Longhorns over Texas Tech today was more impressive than USC’s victory over Washington.
This is not to say that I think USC is a mediocre football team. I think they are a very good football team. A very good football team in a mediocre conference.
If I were voting, and in control of college football rankings, I could easily see a two-way tie for first. USC is neither of those teams. My two-way tie would be Texas-Georgia. USC comes in at #3, with Virgina Tech trailing them, not at their current #3 spot.
Looking at the history of college football over the past 30 years, it is consistently harder for an undefeated team to emerge from the SEC, the Big 10, or the Big 12, because a majority of the teams in those conferences are quality teams. Conversely, in the PAC 10, ACC, and Big East, in the past 30 years, a minority of teams in those conferences have been quality teams. Yet there is a disproportionate amount of these minority teams claiming the national title.
The PAC 10 is a stronger conference in 2005 than it was in 2003 or 2004. California and UCLA have both stepped up their game, and UCLA holds the same record as the Trojans of USC. (Yet they’re ranked down at #9; what does this say about the Trojans’ ranking at #1? That it’s overrated and undeserved, that’s what.) Yet saying the PAC 10 is a stronger conference in 2005 is like saying the ACC is a stronger conference in 2004, when Miami joined to form the championship triumvirate with FSU and Virginia Tech. As conferences, these two are not in the same league as the SEC, Big 10, and Big 12. And that fact should carry some weight when it comes to poll voting.
The BCS isn’t a perfect system for determining a national champion, and I have admitted as much in the past. Nick Saban, who led LSU to their championship for the 2003 season, stated he would like to see something on the order of “BCS plus one.” That would have eliminated the debate over a shared title with USC. (What would have eliminated the debate over a shared title is if the poll voters and the BCS would have gotten it right and put USC against LSU in the first place.) Auburn coach Tommy Tupperville echoed Saban’s sentiment a year later, when his team was denied a shot at USC. What is hinted at in this statement is something I have long contended: it’s time for a playoff system in college football, the only major sport without one. Rankings can be used to determine seeds, and you can use the bowls as the setting for the playoff games, continuing to rotate which bowl is the championship game.
In the end, you have a single team standing, and no one making a claim for a split title.