I have a great fondness for the writing and editing of Bryan Curtis, whose (sadly dormant) Middlebrow column at Slate far outshines the other brows they have over there and who commissioned and edited some of my oddest and most ambitious pieces there. It is in the same borderline-perverse spirit in which he had me write a deep appreciation of Jerry Bruckheimer (and in which he himself appreciates Jerry Bruckheimer) that he argues on behalf of the current BCS system in college football in Saturday’s Times Op-Ed page:
The part of the sport to savor is not the finale but the regular season. In college football, every game has the fierce urgency of now. The uncertainty of what lies at the end makes the 12-game gantlet all the more nerve-wracking. Lose once, and your team finds itself at the mercy of the voters and the dreaded computers.
I have to admit that this speaks to a sort of aesthetic weakness of mine – i.e. a weakness for aesthetics as such, as an outlook. Like rigorous formalists, the BCS defenders often invoke the season-as-a-whole, and not a single team’s season but everyone’s. It’s as if a year of college football is to be savored, as an exquisite totality, in a single backward-looking moment of Wordsworthian tranquility. One, apparently, recalls the many small tensions and surprises – Penn state’s surprising run, USC’ early season loss to Oregon St. Ah, the drama of the roiling whole. From the primordial moment when everyone is 0-0, the single organism of NCAA Divison IA football struggles to reorganize itself so as to reveal whether one team might Go Undefeated.
But, to recur to a different sort of aesthetic discourse, this argument is ideological. It rests on a strenuously maintained nostalgia that is blind to the actual workings of the system. In many ways, the current system is not just competitively but aesthetically retrograde. For starters, the big argument that the current system emphasizes the whole season misses the damage that the current system does to one’s appreciation of the season as a whole. Having lost to Oregon State, former #1 USC has been perversely relegated to also-ran status, despite the fact that others still in contention, primarily Florida and Texas and Oklahoma, have one loss. So, instead of making every game count, the current system shunts almost every game subsequent to a loss into something like the loser’s bracket. (Exceptions apply to teams that have the good fortune to lose their one game later in the season, when there are fewer or no remaining undefeated teams, which means they drop fewer spots in the polls and retain some hope of getting into the final game.) I know this season-death from having followed Michigan football much of my life. A system in which teams with one loss can play themselves into the four- or six- or eight-team playoff would make every post-loss game a life-or-death affair. It would, in other words, make the whole season count for contenders who lost early. In a playoff system, people would still be talking about football west of Norman, Oklahoma.
The current system also undervalues season-long improvement. Teams get better over 12 games. An early loss that sends a team below the top 10, and then a change of outlook, or a substitution at a key position, and the team goes on a tear and shows itself to be truly elite team by mid-November and…never mind, because it was never able to make up the ground lost in its initial demotion and make it into the subjective top two. How’s that for appreciating the season as a whole? (And, wouldn’t it be great if, instead of gazing upon this atemporal specter of the season-as-a-whole, as if it were a painting, we could provide the season with a real climactic momentum, as if it were a play (or a movie or a novel). Maybe when viewed as a painting, the BCS season has a certain charm, but when viewed as belonging to a narrative form, it kinda sucks. It has, as you might say while walking out of a movie, a sucky ending. It’s often at least either arbitrary or boring, and its often both.)
The current system also fetishizes the Undefeated Season. This alone is a good index of the ideological nature of pro-BCS sentiment. It is a vestige of the old days when only a small number of schools could even imagine contending for a national title, and when the schedules of national powers were filled with gut games and one or two true challenges. A perverse result of this fixation is that we are forced to consider whether an undefeated team from a sub-elite conference – which now includes the Big Ten – should have a spot in the title game despite the fact that nobody actually thinks its one of the two best teams in the country. This Perfect Season fetish is merely a habit, which has become a bad habit. Elevating the perfect season when nominally elite (i.e. BCS) conferences, and thus schedules, vary widely in quality is an anachronism, if it ever made sense. If Penn State had not lost to Iowa, after having squeaked by Ohio State, who was blown out of the water by (now beside-the-point) USC, they (Penn State), as the only remaining undefeated team (assuming that Alabama will get destroyed by Florida in the SEC title game), would have a great shot at getting into the national title game, despite the fact that nobody ever thought they were one of the five best teams in the country. Then, in the national title game, they would be blown out.
No wonder Bryan says we shouldn’t bother savoring the season finale.