Spring Preview 2010 - This Year's Big Problem

Posted Mar 29, 2010

The 20 Big Questions Going Into 2010 - No. 13. What's the one big thing you should be angry about going into the season? The way the national title matchup is decided is part of it, but the bigger overall problem could be how the voters might be influenced.

2010 Spring Preview - No. 13
You Should Be Mad About ...

2010 Spring Preview 
- No. 20 Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 1-10) 
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 11-20) 
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 21-30) 
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 31-40) 
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 41-50)  
- No. 19 Is this it for the Big 12? 
- No. 18 Just how close the Big East has come to a BCS title?
- No. 17 Did ACC expansion work?
- No. 16 Why does the Pac 10 need USC to be good?
- No. 15 Just how hot is the Big Ten for expansion? 
- No. 14 Does the SEC title = BCS title? 
By Pete Fiutak

The NFL chose to tweak its overtime playoff format and it was the No. 1 sports radio storyline for a few days.

Tiger Woods, Tim Tebow, a 96-team NCAA tourney, and Brett Favre are always easy go-to topics to generate a buzz, and just saying the word steroids takes over any show/column/feature for as long as anyone wants to keep rolling.

It's also easy, and incredibly lazy, to trot out the pointless, beat-your-head-against-the-wall discussion about the BCS vs. a college football playoff format. Nothing ever gets accomplished and it always ends with some form of "yeah, that would be nice, but it's not going to happen."

So in a day and age when the sporting world is all too happy to jump on the latest tidbit and blow it ten miles out of proportion, why isn't there rioting in the streets with pitchforks and torches about college football's process of deciding its national champion? More importantly, why isn't there a grass roots, tea party-style rally being held in Bristol, Connecticut over how the status quo will never, ever change now that ESPN has the BCS (and after signing a $2 billion deal for the SEC)?

There's a bad, bad, bad mix potentially brewing between a sport whose national championship matchup is decided, mostly, by opinions and judging in a system that thrives and flourishes on chaos and open dialogue, and a network with financial rooting interests and no tolerance whatsoever for even the most minor of controversies. Yes, it will be a problem at some point that ESPN will control the message and the information that those voting for the top teams will be receiving.

Does any ACC coach who votes in the Coaches' Poll watch any Pac 10 football whatsoever? Not unless it's USC against someone big. Does any WAC coach spend his college football Saturday dissecting the Big East matchups before his team has to play? Of course not.

Ask any coach who votes in the Coaches' Poll to name the starting quarterbacks on Boise State, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. None of them will get all three and few will come up with two, yet they'll all put the Broncos, Tar Heels, and Badgers in their ranking of the top 25 teams in America. The Harris Poll voters wouldn't do much better, and it's not because the voters don't care about college football; they just don't have the time to pay attention to every aspect of every team from coast-to-coast (which leads to the eternal beef from those on the left side of the nation when the Toby Gerharts of the world don't win Heismans and the Pac 10 never gets two teams into the BCS).

So how do the voters form their opinions and how do they come up with their rankings (and this also goes for the sports information directors and other administrative types who handle the ballots)? Some read the national web sites and others look at the papers, but mostly, because the coaches have it on in hotels, bars, and when they finally get a chance to kick back at night after a game, they turn on ESPN for the highlights.


Over the past few years when Fox had the big bowls, I'd get a call or five every late September from various higher-ups making sure that CFN (who provides content for FoxSports.com) didn't go over the top when commenting on the BCS. To be fair and thankful, no one ever told me or anyone else at CFN what we could and couldn't write or tried to limit what we could say on TV and radio appearances. That was never a problem (outside of not commenting on some of the announcer teams) since we've made it a point to not get dragged down in all the "BCS Sucks" rhetoric (again, since the ranting goes nowhere), and there was never any discussion of what we could and couldn't write and say when it came to the BCS chase and how the rankings were shaping up. Fire on the process and the system … not really. Go nuts on what was happening within the system … fine. It's extremely doubtful that the ESPNers will get the same leeway and freedom.

ESPN is unabashedly about making money through entertainment, and that's fine. However, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader is to hard-hitting sports commentary what Tiger Woods is to Buddhism. Each throws out the idea of doing something noble in an attempt to distract from what they'd really rather be doing.

ESPN sticks the controversial discussions and the most in-depth pieces on at times when most stations are running test patterns and informercials. Why ruffle feathers when Keyshawn Johnson can do yet another enabling "interview" with a guy who doesn't know that 85 in Spanish is ochenta y cinco? That's no problem for 95% of the programming hours, but it's a huge issue when it's time to put on the big boy pants and examine the controversial items like steroids and HGH (a topic that ESPN has been embarrassingly inept at covering and shameful in its lack of integrity when it comes to delving into the question marks surrounding stars like Barry Bonds, Usain Bolt, Lance Armstrong, Albert Pujols, Michael Phelps, and any other athlete whose performances appear to be way too good to be true), or Ben Roethlisberger's alleged transgressions (at least the first time around). And it's also a problem when the job of the analysts is to be a major influence peddler for a sport that relies on the judges.

No, college football's national champion isn't really decided on the field. Boise State, Cincinnati, TCU, and 114 other teams had no chance whatsoever of playing for the title in 2009 if Texas and the Florida/Alabama winner went undefeated. None. It wouldn't have mattered if the Bearcats beat everyone on the slate by 40 points. As long as the SEC champion and Texas were unbeaten, they were going to play for the national championship because the pollsters weren't going to budge the top teams out of the top spots as long as they kept winning.

All it took was a jab here and a bad word there from all the media outlets (not just ESPN), and Boise State never had a chance (and would've been out of the BCS games entirely had Nebraska beaten Texas or if Oklahoma State had beaten Oklahoma), while TCU was seen, maybe, once by the pollsters, if at all (the Versus kitten fight with DirecTV didn't help matters), and that became obvious when the final BCS rankings came out and Cincinnati jumped up to the No. 3 spot.

In a case like last year, opinions mattered in the jockeying among the unbeaten teams, and if Texas PK Hunter Lawrence's 48-yard field goal against Nebraska went a few feet to the left, then the only information the voters in the polls would've had to go by was the analysis they heard on TV and the few highlights here and there they were able to catch. And now that ESPN has the BCS, how it covers college football, and how it delivers those highlights, will be more meaningful than ever.

What college football needs is for the biggest source of information and influence to be an objective, educated, entity that the pollsters can follow and pay attention to so that they actually know what and who they're voting for and why (we're trying!), and ESPN is likely going to be out of the running now that it has the BCS. More importantly when it comes to a conflict of interests, after it dropped the two-bildo on the SEC for the next 15 years, it's going to have to go out of its way to appear impartial, which will create a whole slew of other problems.

Remember, this is a network that ditched Harold Reynolds for giving a woman a hug, Steve Phillips for having a taste for porky chicks, and suspended Tony Kornheiser for being the one to say the empress had on the wrong clothes when he called out Hannah Storm's Forever 21 ensemble. Do you think for a single, solitary second that the big-wigs are going to allow the college football analysts to say one negative thing about the BCS? If you thought things were bad during the Bonds on Bonds fiasco, just watch and see if the ESPNers stammer and tap dance when they have to answer the question of who's better, the dominant Big 12 team, the juggernaut Pac 10 team, or the very good team from a conference that's getting $2 billion. And it's unfortunate.

Of all the ESPN talking heads, the best talent is on the college football side. It'll be a shame if Mark May, Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis, and Chris Fowler are muzzled, or have to talk cryptically, under orders to keep the debate and the BCS discussion as vanilla as possible. More importantly, it'll be unfair to the sport if the ones doing the judging for two-thirds of the BCS rankings aren't getting the full message and aren't voting with all the information they should have.

However, I promise to be fair and I hope I'm wrong. Oh yeah, now that Fox doesn't have the BCS and we're allowed to thunder away, watch the other CFNers go ballistic with the vitriol. However, I promise to not only give it a chance when the BCS moves networks, but I'll give the fist bump if and when ESPN does a solid job of being fair and even-handed when it comes to the coverage. But if the network's recent history is any guide, I'm not holding my breath. Neither should anyone outside of the SEC and the cream of the other BCS league crop. Neither should the fans who know more about the landscape of the sport than the people in the most important voting positions.