Thursday, December 12, 2013

In the Last Nine Seasons (2005-2013) in Major College Football, Only Four States Will Have Produced BCS National Champions

From the 2005 major college football season through the 2013 season (9 football seasons), only four states will have produced national champions---those states being Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama.

The BCS champions (or potential champions) from the 2005 season through the 2013 season are listed below.

2005: University of Texas
2006: University of Florida
2007: Louisiana State University
2008: University of Florida
2009: University of Alabama
2010: Auburn University
2011: University of Alabama
2012: University of Alabama
2013: Either Florida State University or Auburn University

Regarding this small club of BCS champions (or potential champions) from the last nine football seasons (2005-2013), it is worth noting that, during the 2009 season, Alabama defeated Texas (the 2005 champion), and during the 2011, Alabama defeated LSU (the 2007 champion).

When Florida State and Auburn face each other in the BCS Championship Game on January 6, 2014, each will do enjoying the status of being prior BCS national champions--FSU in 1999, and Auburn in 2010.

For nearly a decade college football's coveted crown has been worn only by a handful of teams from a smaller handful of states---all of these states being former members of the Confederacy.  This fact might raise the question for some universities as to whether big-time college football is a worthwhile path for certain universities to travel upon, particularly for non-Southern universities in areas where football enthusiasm in general is lagging.

Admittedly, BCS championships are not the only factors in measuring a given program's success, utility, and viability.  If that were the absolute case then, in a given year, only the BCS national champion could be said to have played a season worth playing. Most, however, would say that such a perspective would be over-doing it.

In major college football, there exists a plethora of bowl games, each bestowing a measure of glory to respective teams who participate, and especially to those who win.  Moreover, the college football regular season provides a large number of teams the opportunity to produce a "big win" warranting national attention and publicity.  Not to be ignored as well, is the fact that major college football games of whatever match-up and status, provide a measure of entertainment for thousands of people.  Some college football programs, though modest in terms of winning and fame, send players to the NFL from time to time, thus bringing a bit of notoriety to the school.  To some extent, college football can and has served to build some sense of community on some college campuses. In short, major college football has its virtues, and only some are mentioned here.

What then, is to object about the current nature of big-time college football?

Some of the problems facing major college football are beyond the purview of this post.  The matter of football-related brain injuries, for example, might prove to be a danger to the viability of football in general.  Put another way, American football just might be facing an existential threat due to inexorable safety issues.  If the data continues to break in such directions indicating that football is inherently,  irreversibly, and intolerably dangerous, then American tackle football might well be on the road to extinction.  But that jury, per the proverb, is still out.

Another objectionable matter facing big-time college football that likely has not been fully played out is the contradictory nature of college football economics.  Simply put, big-time college football is a multi-million dollar industry in which all but unpaid laborers (i.e. the football players) generate millions of dollars of revenue for football programs and licensed vendors. But like the issue of football-related brain injuries, the depths of college football economics is beyond this post's scope.

The matter of big-time college football and its relationship to the central academic mission of institutions of higher learning is not under the microscope here as well.  As big-time college football has grown in prominence, it remains a very open question as to whether high-profile athletics are compatible with the fundamental purpose of a college or university.  But…again, that matter is beyond the breadth of this post, though all three of these controversies deserve in-depth attention, and sooner rather than later.

While these above-mentioned issues should be of most pressing concern, I do contend that big-time college football faces additional problems, and one of them--as I see it--warrants a brief discussion here.

Here's the claim:  Major college football, as currently structured, will probably continue to produce a very limited number of successful programs, while the vast majority of college football programs will languish in on-field and financial mediocrity...or worse. And like a society in which extreme inequality of wealth can undermine social stability in general, so can such disparity of on-field results render instability in the viability of the overall big-time college football system.

Given time, some universities just might conclude that maintaining a highly expensive football program is an exercise in futility.  They might, in turn, tire of being homecoming opponent cannon fodder for larger and more powerful football teams.

In an era of skyrocketing salaries for high-end coaches, high-profile recruiting of elite high school football prospects, extravagant stadiums and facilities (a recruiting-boosting endeavor), the arc of major college football appears to be bending in a direction in which high-end high-profile programs further separate themselves from middling and lower-end programs.  Seemingly, the football rich are getting richer, and the have-nots possessing fewer avenues for getting ahead. College football, in short, seems increasingly a system of caste, not conferences. Such a situation, as I see it, should motivate the NCAA and its member schools to seek reforms to bring greater parity to major college football.

I am not arguing here that everyone should get a trophy; nor I am arguing that college football quit keeping score.  Any sports league will have winners and losers; it's inherent to competitive sports.

But I do contend that the college football world should seek to implement prudent reforms that would tilt the playing field toward greater parity among the 100-plus major college teams.  Such reform has happened before.  A little over 30 years ago, the NCAA instituted scholarship limitations on football programs, a move that did much to democratize college football.  The limitation of football scholarships created greater parity in college football by disallowing programs from stocking its football program with a disproportionate amount of good players--a practice that heretofore had kept less prominent programs from significantly upgrading their stock of talent.

By the 1980s, the breadth of good major college football teams had expanded.  No longer were a handful of teams disproportionately dominant. The reforms had worked, to some degree.

But trends in the last several years suggest that problematic levels of inequity are back, a point indicated  in the first part of this post.

Athletic leagues of whatever type are at their best when there is a high level of competition between teams. Such leagues have achieved something special when all teams possess a reasonable chance to compete for the brass ring. The rules of the league, as such, should be designed to bring about such parity.

The NFL has demonstrated that reasonable parity can be achieved between teams in an American football system, all without resorting to giving everyone a trophy. Few would argue that such a relative parity has undermined the popularity of professional football.  In terms of TV viewership, the NFL's Superbowl is America's largest sporting event.

Arguably the two great factors in facilitating greater equity among NFL franchises has been the player draft and player salary caps.  Through the player draft, losing teams routinely get the first shots at college players, and as such, allows a recently low-performing team to stock up on talent.  Via the salary cap, it is very difficult for a large-market franchise with high revenue to go out and simply purchase a championship team made up of high-priced free agent players.

One can only imagine the talent disparity that would result in the NFL if the best college football players could choose the NFL teams on which they would play.  But that's largely how the college football system works: The best high school football players get to choose which program they wish to play for.  For the most part, in big-time college football, winning teams get the advantage to re-stock their rosters with players that will allow them to stay dominant.  In the NFL--the highest level of football that there is--it is just the opposite.

In short, I believe that some sort of geography-based college draft might go a long way to bringing greater parity to the college game.  Such a draft will undoubtedly be complex and clumsy, but I see no reason to believe that it can't be done.

Regarding salary caps, the college game does not have as strong of a comparison, regarding players at least. But I would argue that, in terms of coaching salaries, the NCAA should implement reforms that restrict the salaries of coaches in the member schools.

Under the current rules, a given school of means can offer tens of millions of dollars to a coach that the school feels will enhance its football fortunes.  Other schools that might like the services of that same coach, however, cannot compete in that market.  The have-not school, though, will be expected to compete--from time to time--with the schools that can afford the top-shelf coach.

I contend that the further democratization of major college football is a worthwhile goal, assuming that medical science does not find reason to shut down the sport in general--thus rendering other reforms moot.  But such a democratization of the sport is unlikely to happen organically.  To get there, the NCAA and member institutions have to embrace significant reform, and become--oddly enough--more like the NFL.

----Mark Leavins

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