I asked my friend Eliot, a very smart person, if he would be willing to write an article about the BCS Bowl Selections. What follows is a result of that request.
First, thanks to AO for giving me a place on his soapbox.
When I first saw the results of the BCS bowl selections, I almost did not believe it. As ridiculous, unfair, and atrocious as the BCS is and has been, the possibility of matching up TCU with Boise State seemed so far from normal human reasoning that I refused to believe it had happened.
Adding to the perplexity of the situation is the scarcity of criticism by ESPN. (Yes, I'm calling you out, ESPN.) There have been solid articles on SI.com and cbssports.com, among a slew of blog posts. Many ESPN writers and analysts claim to be playoff proponents, but it seems like they are afraid to be BCS opponents. The best I could find was here, and I don't think it was from lack of effort on my part that I could not find much criticism (or commentary even) on either ESPN or its website.
A subtle and powerful way for the media to influence the public is in the amount of coverage given to stories. Is ESPN deflecting attention from the Fiesta Bowl selection ambiguities by focusing on things like Colt McCoy's near-blunder? After all, they do have considerable stake in the future of the BCS.
Since I like to know the details of these kinds of things and it seems most people ignore them, let's take a little closer look at how those teams were selected. (I found in Graham Watson's chat that she must be looking at some selection order that is not consistent with the what is on the BCS's website. For the record, after the conference champions are assigned to their bowls, the order of selections this year is Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar. Also for the record I don't have anything against Watson, especially because I think she has one of the toughest jobs at ESPN.)
Each of the BCS bowls has its own selection committee and, presumably, its own interests in selecting the teams that will make the most money for them, filling seats, selling merchandise, and boosting television ratings.
The rules of the BCS bowl selections are given in full here, but there is a lot to sift through, so I will sum up the pertinent information. First, there are seven teams this year that automatically qualified and are guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl: each of the "big six" BCS conference champions (Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, Oregon, Ohio State, and Georgia Tech) and TCU as the top-ranked team from a non-automatically qualifying conference. There are then three remaining at-large bids in BCS bowls to be given out among seven other eligible teams, which are Florida, Boise State, Iowa, Virginia Tech, LSU, Penn State, and BYU. (No more than two teams total can be taken from any one conference.)
The first- and second-ranked teams in the BCS standings, Alabama and Texas, go to the national championship game. Next, following traditional bowl allegiances, the champions of the BCS conferences are assigned to their bowls; the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions to the Rose Bowl (Oregon and Ohio State), the ACC champion to the Orange Bowl (Georgia Tech), the Big 12 champion to the Fiesta Bowl, and the SEC champion to the Sugar Bowl. Since the Big 12 and SEC champions are in the national title game, the bowls associated with them get priority in choosing replacements.
The Sugar Bowl, since they lost the top-ranked team from their bowl game, have the first pick and, as expected, choose Florida. Although the Gators are not the highest ranked team available, they are the runners up in the SEC and having fewer losses than all but five teams in the FBS, they are a reasonable choice.
Next, the Fiesta Bowl must replace the Big 12 champion, and they have a broad range of choices at this point. There are no eligible choices from the Big 12 (OSU is ranked too low at 19th). Undefeated Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State are all available, but as any college football fans, Boise State put on one of the greatest shows of all time in the Fiesta Bowl a few years back. And since Boise State was not guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl, depending on the other bowls' selections, the Fiesta Bowl's second pick may have been constrained to either TCU or Cincinnati. On top of it all, remember just last year an undefeated Boise State failed to bust the BCS because Utah was ranked ahead of them. The Fiesta Bowl choosing Boise State actually makes a lot of sense.
The Orange Bowl picks next, looking for an opponent to play ACC champ Georgia Tech, with options of Cincinnati, TCU, Iowa, Virginia Tech, Penn State, or BYU. Virginia Tech, as an ACC team, would be an uninteresting choice, and BYU would make a strange and unprecedented third non-AQ team in the BCS (at two losses no less). Certainly, the most appealing of the teams would be either Cincinnati or TCU, so why does the Orange Bowl pick Iowa? Is it a more even matchup, to pit a 11-2 Georgia Tech against another two-loss team than an undefeated team? I don't have a good answer to why the Orange Bowl selection committee working in its own interest would have picked Iowa over Cincinnati, relegating the bowl to one of two BCS games not featuring any undefeated team. As a fan of college football, this is the BCS match-up that I am least likely to watch.
But the Orange Bowl as it is set up has a certain right feeling to it. It puts two teams together that are wildcards in my book, a unique Georgia tech offense and an Iowa that managed to come from behind in nearly every win this season, and even though I would be more interested in seeing Cincinnati than Iowa playing Georgia Tech, I am much more interested in seeing Cincinnati measure up against Florida. It seems to me like this is evidence of the BCS bowls acting in concert, but I would be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
With the BCS selection up to this point looking mostly on the level, we come back to the Fiesta Bowl's second selection. TCU and Cincinnati are the only remaining choices, since they must fill the two remaining voids. It seems like the Fiesta Bowl, the patron BCS bowl of BCS busters, would want to recreate a game like the epic saga against Oklahoma and so would pick a BCS conference foe (i.e. Cincinnati) to put Boise State to the test, rather than match them with the same team that was a consolation for the slight they received last year by being the lower-ranked undefeated non-AQ. The game last year was one of the better bowls, but who really wants to see that rematch, especially since neither team has lost during this regular season? Maybe there is a distant concern over the potential lame-duck coaching situation at Cincinnati, but does that make them less competitive or their postseason any less watchable even if it does happen? It certainly could affect the game, but the effect is not necessarily negative, and I doubt it would keep fans from watching or attending the game.
Last year, the attendance at the Poinsettia Bowl featuring TCU and BSU was 34,628. Of course, the Fiesta Bowl is a bigger bowl, and TCU is undefeated this year, but that is an absolutely dismal attendance number. (I don't know how well Cincy travels, but I can't imagine any model of projecting attendance that would make Cincy worse than TCU, even considering the longer distance.) According to this, the four BCS bowl games featuring non-AQ schools are among the eight lowest in TV ratings among all BCS bowl games. That is not to say that this Fiesta Bowl will not be more watched around the country or that with Cincinnati the ratings would be significantly better, but all the tangible facts suggest low ratings. Imagining myself a Boise State fan (which is painful), the matchup with TCU would discourage me from making the trip. In other words, if the Fiesta Bowl is looking to make money, and using my gut reactions as market research, it almost certainly made the wrong choice.
If the capitalistic model fails to explain why the Fiesta Bowl chose TCU, the only other reason that makes sense is to create a game that fans would want to see. While I will definitely watch the game, and an ESPN poll shows that interest in the Fiesta Bowl is second only to the title game, it's not the game I wanted to see. The whole debate of the merits of a BCS busting team is centered on the fact that they play an allegedly different level of competition. The reward for a season of dominating the WAC or the MWC should be a chance for a team to prove itself against a national powerhouse, not a non-AQ meta-conference championship.
In the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, Utah got to measure up against 8-3 Pitt. They won the game, but Pitt was no top-tier opponent. Two years later, Boise State edged Big 12 champion Oklahoma (10-2 before the game), but they needed gimmicks to tip the scale against the Sooners, who were in a bit of a down year. Hawai'i disgraced the BCS busters the next year, confirming what the pundits had been saying all along as they got shellacked by a strong Georgia team in the Sugar Bowl. But last year Utah shocked Alabama and much of the college football world in that same bowl. This was a BCS disaster, although it's either amazing or predictable that the talking heads on ESPN still routinely explain it away as Alabama coming out flat after a disappointing SEC championship game a month earlier.
With the growing size of the statistical sample of BCS busters, it will only become harder for the BCS profiteers to ignore the little guys. Without controlling the games themselves, how could the BCS avoid another shame this year? TCU was guaranteed a game, and there would likely be an uproar if Duck-killer Boise State were to be snubbed for a second consecutive year after an undefeated WAC schedule. If TCU could knock off, say, Florida, and Boise State handed Cincinnati its first loss, how could the BCS justify a national title Texas over two other undefeated teams? The possible BCS meltdown scenario could actually bust the BCS.
If you buy into the fairness and benevolence of the BCS, you also have to assume that the people in charge of the Fiesta Bowl have no reason for picking TCU, as I think I demonstrated above. They might as well have flipped a coin to pick between Boise State and Cincinnati. Fiesta Bowl director Jeff Junker says, "We think it's a matchup that's credible." When you have to say something like, I think you've already recognized that it's not a credible matchup. In any case, TCU players apparently cried when they heard the news, and Boise State fans were similarly disappointed.
The BCS clearly wants to protect its public image, as evidenced by the hiring of a punching bag named Bill Hancock. If you make a simple assumption that the BCS exerts some undisclosed influence over the individual bowls, the Fiesta Bowl makes perfect sense. By taking Boise State, the BCS exhibits its fairness, at least on a superficial level. But even better, by matching them up against fellow BCS buster TCU, the BCS insulates themselves from the potential flames that a pair of upsets could spark up. The threat to the BCS is warded off until next year.
The best of the many descriptions I have read in the last few days called it the Separate But Equal Bowl. Unless there is information out there that I haven't seen, it appears conclusive to me that either the Fiesta Bowl organizers are incompetent or corrupt.
In the face of all of this, TCU and BSU coaches have taken the high road, and you have to give them credit for that. I honestly think that the best thing to be done for the situation would be to get the AP voters to vote the Fiesta Bowl winner at the top of their ballots. I don't expect it, but I would like to see TCU split the national championship after they dismantle Boise State.