College football: Mountain West hoping to bowl over BCS

Issues about title-game access, the distribution of revenue have stirred up controversy.
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Ever since they won the national championship, the 1984 BYU Cougars have generally represented everything that was wrong about a major college football system that determined the winner by voting.

By not appearing in the national championship game in January, the 2008 Utah Utes have become the symbol of what's wrong with the current Bowl Championship Series.

When he recently testified before a Congressional subcommittee about the lack of opportunity for a school such as Utah to win a national title, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson cited the '84 Cougars as evidence that the modern method is even less fair to all schools. "Indeed, even BYU won a national championship under the old system," he said.

Issues about title-game access and the distribution of revenue from BCS games have stirred controversy and legal and political action, particularly in Utah. State attorney general Mark Shurtleff is preparing an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has spoken out against the system and Thompson, representing the presidents of BYU, Utah and seven other MWC schools, has made two trips to Washington in support of the league's BCS reform proposal.

"You could come up with a worse system, I'm pretty sure, but you would have to be creative," said Utah president Michael K. Young.

A letter from the MWC board of directors targets a system that "the public overwhelmingly views as rigged and corrupt."

The BCS began rather innocently, compared with the current controversy. Designed in 1998 to create a meeting of the two top-ranked teams in a bowl game, which rarely happened because of traditional bowl affiliations, the BCS has accomplished its purpose over 11 seasons. It brought together six conferences and four major bowl games -- Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange -- and created an annual title game. In recent years, the other games in the "Series" have provided unprecedented access to the big bowls for Utah, Boise State and Hawaii.

In terms of money and recognition, the BCS has been very good to the Utes, who beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl in January 2005 and upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl four years later. Of course, they had to go unbeaten to get those opportunities. And because of Utah's coinciding success, Boise State has made only one BCS appearance during three unbeaten seasons in five years, with no title shot. "How many more years to do we have to go undefeated before we get a chance?" BSU athletic director Gene Bleymaier testified.

The MWC members and other schools from outside the original six BCS conferences contend that the system of polls and computer precludes them from reaching the championship game, and that revenue distribution connected to automatic qualifying status also helps create a "permanent underclass," Thompson testified.

Each of the six "AQ" conferences is guaranteed a BCS game payout ($18 million this past season), while the money Utah earned for the MWC was shared with four other conferences.

And as the only remaining unbeaten team after the bowl season, the 13-0 Utes at least would have liked to keep playing until they lost.

Half the schools are eliminated from national championship contention because polls and computers limit their rise in the BCS standings, giving them "no realistic chance" to compete, Thompson said.

While Utah athletic director Chris Hill stops short of that declaration, title-game access is "very, very difficult," he said. "It's like starting a 100-yard dash at 100 yards, and everybody else is at 90 yards."

Instead of polls and computers, the MWC wants a committee to rank the BCS teams. Thompson's testimony cited quotes from voters in the Harris Poll, used in the BCS standings, who acknowledged never having seen Utah play before the Sugar Bowl. In that piece, Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel observed, "In contrast, the 10-member NCAA men's basketball selection committee meets throughout the season to compare notes and stay on top of hot teams. It demands comprehensive scouting, sets common criteria and even asks committee members to get out and see teams in person. Then they all meet and hash it out.

"While not devoid of controversy, the system is about as good as you can design. The BCS might be the worst."

University presidents, most notably those in the original six conferences, have never supported a playoff format. Florida's Bernie Machen, formerly Utah's president, pressed the issue in the Southeastern Conference in 2007, but was so rebuffed that he said, "I'm done."

Still, in February, Machen addressed the athletic budget inequity between Florida and Utah in an Orlando Sentinel interview, citing the "unfairness" of BCS economics.

The MWC is pushing the revenue issue, which Thompson testified is "grossly inequitable," even more than the competition aspect. The BCS defense is basically that the television rights fees -- ESPN has agreed to a $500 million contract for the bowl games of 2011-14 -- would be unaffected without the MWC's involvement, but would suffer greatly without the Southeastern Conference, for example.

That's what John Swofford, the Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner who's taking his turn as the BCS coordinator, meant when he testified that the system "represents the marketplace."

When the Fiesta Bowl chose Ohio State over higher-ranked Utah (and Boise State) to oppose Texas in January, that was further evidence of how the traditional, name-brand schools drive BCS matchups and TV ratings. In turn, Young seized on Swofford's "marketplace" defense, saying, "I'm a lawyer; give me that case in a heartbeat."

After the May 1 Congressional hearing, Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News concluded, "Don't expect anything to change soon. ... Any court challenges would be most likely shot down. Unless the presidents have a change of heart, what you'll see is what you get."

Previous antitrust inquiries have not gone anywhere, BCS officials say, but the threat of Congressional intervention helped spur the changes that gave Utah qualifying access in 2004. The system has become more accommodating since then, with the creation of a fifth BCS game.

The MWC still wants guaranteed access and more money, which it hopes results from some combination of Congress, the courts and an appeal to the BCS power brokers. Young wonders how administrators can preach fairness and equitable treatment on their campuses, yet endorse this system. Apparently, other than Machen, that has not bothered them.

"He seems to be pretty much the lone voice," Young said. "I have a lot of admiration for Bernie for speaking out on this."


Q. Who's to blame?

A. The NCAA is run by its member schools. The "BCS" has only one employee and labels itself an event, not an organization. So the 120 presidents of Football Bowl Subdivision schools are responsible for the system. The presidents have never considered a vote about adopting a playoff format or formally examined the issue. "We study everything on college campuses," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill, "but we're not studying this. Nobody's saying, 'What is the best thing to do for the competition?' "

Q. What are the pluses/minuses of the MWC's BCS proposal?

A. Basing automatic-qualifying standards on results against the current "AQ" conferences makes sense, eliminating the polls and computers, but the proposal makes no distinction for the quality of opponent. In 2008, MWC schools beat Michigan, Washington, UCLA and Tennessee, programs that have strong reputations but fielded poor teams that season.

Q. Under the MWC 's proposal, what would the quarterfinal pairings have been for 2008?

A. The MWC wants a committee to rank the qualifying teams, but going by the BCS standings and the traditional bowl tie-ins the proposal would honor (and avoiding intra-conference matchups), here's the lineup: No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 6 Utah (Fiesta), No. 5 USC vs. No. 8 Penn State (Rose), No. 2 Florida vs. No. 7 Texas Tech (Sugar) and No. 3 Texas vs. No. 4 Alabama (Orange).

Q. Why has a playoff format succeeded at other levels of college football?

A. Partly because home sites are used until the championship game, and no other bowl games are involved or affected. That enables the playoffs to be staged in front of built-in audiences. A top-level playoff would require fans from both schools to travel for three games, potentially.

Q. If nothing else changes, will the MWC ever have automatic BCS access for its champion?

A. Very possibly. The 2008 season, when the MWC had three teams in the top 16 of the final BCS standings, launched a four-year performance cycle based on the top 25 and the average ranking of every team in a conference. If the trend continues, the MWC champ will be included in 2012 and '13.

Doing it on the field

In 2007 and '08, the Mountain West Conference posted the best record in non-conference, regular-season games against schools from conferences with BCS automatic qualifying access for their champions.

Conference Record Pct.

Mountain West 16-13 .550

Atlantic Coast 22-18 .550

Big Ten 10-9 .526

Pac-10 10-9 .526

Big East 14-15 .483

Big 12 12-14 .462

Southeastern 13-16 .448

Western Athletic 6-28 .176

Mid-American 11-57 .162

Sun Belt 5-43 .104

Conference USA 4-44 .083

Where the money is

BCS revenue by conference (2007-08 seasons):

Conference Revenue BCS contestants

Big Ten $46 million 4

Big 12 $46 million 4

Southeastern $46 million 4

Atlantic Coast $37 million 2

Pac-10 $37 million 2

Big East $37 million 2

Mountain West $13.5 million 1

Western Athletic $12.4 million 1

Conference USA $5.3 million 0

Mid-American $3.6 million 0

Sun Belt $3.6 million 0