Stewart Mandel is a frequent target of this blog, because I think he writes conventional wisdom and often fails to analyze such critically (and because I think he has a limited understanding of the sport he covers). But this post is not to bash him (which I most certainly could, for a number of his writings over the last week or so), but rather to use one of this posts today as a jumping point.
Mandel, in a column at CNNsi, writes about one of the underreported problems with the BCS. The fact that the goal of having a 1 vs. 2 National Championship Game has led to less compelling matchups in the other BCS bowls.
But you can't blame the bowls for most of those choices. In nearly every case, they were simply following selection protocol -- Pac-10 champ to the Rose Bowl, Big 12 champ to the Fiesta Bowl, ACC champ to the Orange Bowl, etc., etc.
He's right about this. #1 is playing #2 in the BCS National Chamionship Game, but then the next 4 teams in the final BCS rankings do not play each other. #3 Oklahoma plays #11 WVU. #4 Virginia Tech plays #8 Kansas. #5 Georgia plays #10 Hawaii. #6 USC plays #13 Illinois.
Mandel uses this problem to divert on a tangent regarding the tension of retaining traditional bowl matchups and how a "plus one" model might solve some things.
I take a different approach. See, I think you can necessarily blame the bowls for the weaker BCS bowl matchups because of the selection protocol. The BCS is a system in place to elevate 2 teams to a National Title Game. This is its primary goal and there really isn't a secondary goal. There are other concerns (such as maintaining traditional bowl matchups), but those are tensions against the goal - not a goal in and of itself. Whatever works against the prospect of elevating 2 teams to a National Title Game is necessarily against the interest of the BCS.
And because there is just one real goal to the BCS, the selection procedures are set up in a manner such as to prevent a compelling matchup in the other BCS bowl games. See, if the 3rd place team were to play the 4th place team in the Rose Bowl or some non BCSNCG game, then there's a significant opportunity for a split title, resulting from the AP Poll.
I can't stress this enough: a split title is the worst case scenario for the BCS. The worst case scenario isn't the current one, where a host of teams have reasonable arguments to play in a game but the process has selected one - in fact that's the precise raison d'etre for the BCS, to make a choice out of reasonably similar teams. No, the worst case scenario is if the selections take place, and the BCS gets it wrong.
Let's use a hypothetical. Assume Ohio State and LSU play in the BCS NCG and the two combine for 8 turnovers in a 13-10 joke of a game that neither team plays well in. A few days beforehand, say USC and Oklahoma played in the Rose Bowl and USC absolutely annihilated Oklahoma 57-7. Most reasonable people would think that the BCS certainly got it wrong - and there's an almost definite chance that USC would be awarded at least one poll's title. This was the case in 2003. If the system gets the choice wrong (and that's the only job the system has to do), it calls into question everything.
The BCS knows this. And that's why it is completely in their interest to dilute the other BCS bowls. If the 3rd best team is playing the 4th best team, it's too much of a showcase for those teams - and a great result by either of them calls into question whether the BCS got the right selection for the BCS NCG. But if the 3rd best team is playing the 11th best team, well, that's not as much of a showcase for the 3rd best team. Even a big victory might not be enough to raise the suggestion that the BCS NCG did not include the right teams.
The goal is not to have 5 good matchups. The goal is to have 1 good matchup - and the other 4 can very well be sacrificed in order to keep that 1 good matchup. That's why the BCS NCG keeps moving later and later into January. Separate this game from the others. Eliminate the suspicion that the BCS NCG is just a game like all the others. Set up a system that works in a way so that the remaining good teams do not play each other. Use the "promotion of traditional bowl matchups" as a method to prevent actually good games.
Don't think the weaker BCS bowl matchups are unintentional.