NEW ORLEANS — Picture this: A nail-biter of a Bowl Championship Series title game next Monday night comes down to a long field goal attempt by Alabama’s Cade Foster. The snap is down, the kick is away and it’s … good!
Confetti guns spray the Superdome as the Crimson Tide beats LSU by a point to win college football’s national championship.
Right? Well, sort of.
But then again, maybe not.
Despite its 120 schools, its corporate sponsors, its rabid fans and monster TV contracts worth billions of dollars, one thing that major college football does not have is a clean way of crowning a champion. Because the bowl system is so lucrative and popular — in a made-for-TV sense — the schools at the highest level of the sport have eschewed a season-ending tournament in favor of a single game between the two teams generally believed to be the best in the country.
Many of the 14 years the BCS system has been in place, it has produced a winner most in the college football world could live with. But there’s always a chance for a bug in the system and a split national title — like this year, when many voters for the AP Top 25 say they are not absolutely committed to picking the winner of the BCS finale.
A big part of the reason is Monday’s game between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama will be the first BCS championship featuring a rematch of a regular-season meeting. That Nov. 5 game ended with a 9-6 overtime victory for the Tigers on the Crimson Tide’s home field.
The winner in New Orleans gets the BCS’ crystal ball trophy and will be No. 1 in the final USA Today coaches’ poll, which is contractually bound to have the winner of the BCS in the top spot of its rankings.
But the media members who vote in The Associated Press’ college football rankings are under no such obligations. And for many of them, the choice is not so clear.
What if this time around, Alabama wins 10-9? If this were soccer — and considering how tough it was to score in the first touchdown-less game that seems to be an appropriate comparison — LSU would win the title on aggregate score.
Could there be two No. 1s at the end of the college football season? The last time it happened was 2003. That year LSU beat Oklahoma in the BCS title game, but Southern California, which was left out of the championship game, was voted No. 1 by the AP after it thumped Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
“Awarding a championship to a team that loses its final game is beyond counterintuitive and may be un-American,” said David Teel of the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va. “But if LSU loses narrowly, I will absolutely consider (voting the Tigers No. 1). That’s how good the Tigers’ regular season — five wins over the top 25, four away from Death Valley, including at Alabama — was.”
The AP asked voters who cast ballots for its Top 25 a few questions before the BCS game.
— Do you expect to vote the winner of the Alabama-LSU game No. 1?
— Would you consider voting LSU No. 1 even if it lost?
— Would you consider voting another team — ie Oklahoma State or Stanford — No. 1?
Forty-four of the 60 voters responded, and the bottom line is that there still is some wiggle room.
The most common answer was some version of what Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area wrote in an email: “Anything is a possibility among the top 3. And should be. Otherwise, why would we bother?”
Some were more adamant about where they stood.
Eleven voters said the winner of the BCS championship game will no doubt be their No. 1.
“If Alabama wins, I’m voting the Tide (hash)1,” wrote Garland Gillen of WWL-TV in New Orleans. “Championships are won in January not November.”
Three voters, however, said that in a system that stresses the importance of the regular season and without a playoff to decide who’s No. 1 at the end, LSU already has earned their votes.
“I will vote for LSU no matter what happens in the National Championship game,” wrote Erik Gee of KNML-AM in Albuquerque, N.M. “How in the world can they be the SEC west champ, the outright SEC champ, and lose to Alabama in a “neutral” site game (I guess you can debate the Superdome being a neutral site) after they have already beaten them in Tuscaloosa, have the series split 1-1 and not at least have a share of the National Title?”
Joe Giglio of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., agreed.
“Unless Alabama absolutely dominates LSU and leaves no doubt that it is a superior football team, I will be voting for LSU,” he said. “I am voting for the No. 1 team in the country for the 2011 season, not the result of one game. In the case of this rematch presented by the BCS, you have to consider the scope of the entire season, not the timing of one loss.”
Oklahoma State probably helped voters narrow the field. The third-ranked Cowboys’ 41-38 overtime victory against No. 4 Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl was thrilling but not the convincing performance they needed to swing the electorate their way.
In the final regular season AP rankings, LSU was a unanimous No. 1. The Tide received 38 second-place votes, 1,418 points and no votes lower than third. The Cowboys got 22 second-place votes and 1,400 points and two voters had Oklahoma State fourth.
Still, if the Tide beats LSU in less-than-convincing fashion, some voters will be torn between Oklahoma State (12-1) and Alabama (11-1).
“If Alabama and Oklahoma State both win, I’ll have a hard time deciding between the two,” said Kyle Ringo of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo. “Guess margin of victory might be the deciding factor. I’d probably lean toward OSU in that case because of its superior overall body of work.”
As to be expected, the uncertainty has bumped up the annual calls for a playoff that would be better at settling these issues on the field. College football officials push back against that, citing a desire to protect the importance of the regular season and to avoid overextending student-athletes on the field and in the classroom.
That said, a four-team playoff, the so-called plus-one model, will at least be considered when BCS officials start looking toward the future of the system.
Meanwhile, the coaches in this year’s BCS title see no ambiguity. It’ll be winner take all Monday night.
“The opportunity to go play for the national championship is a completely different scenario” than a regular-season game, LSU coach Les Miles said after the game was set. “It’s the same opponent. But it will be played with the title at stake.”
And, of course, Alabama coach Nick Saban dismissed the topic, pointing out several times that when the New York Giants lost to the Patriots during the 2007 season, then beat the New England in the Super Bowl, there was no question who was the champion.
“He’s right,” wrote Doug Lesmerises of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. “But guess what the Super Bowl comes and the end of? A PLAYOFF. As long as college football has no playoff, that comparison is apples and oranges.”