After watching last night's BCS Selection Show on ESPN, I was a bit surprised at just how outraged the panel was at the assignment of NIU to the Orange Bowl. Not entirely surprised, of course, because we are all quite familiar with the level of respect the MAC and other non-BCS conferences get from the network and the pollsters. But for Kirk Herbstreit to show this sort of emotion about NIU being chosen to participate in this game was a bit alarming. This is the Orange Bowl, not the National Championship.
Herbstreit tried at times to mask his takedown by claiming this was a complaint against the system, not the team, but it was plainly obvious to the viewer. Herbstreit, and the rest of the panel on the show, do not believe that the Huskies deserve to be anywhere near a BCS bowl, and his distaste for the situation does not stop at the two-time defending conference champions, but instead includes the conference as a whole:
"I love MAC football, but to put them in the BCS is an absolute joke to the rest of those teams that are more deserving. I can't believe we're even having this discussion," Herbstreit said. If Herbstreit and ESPN have such a problem with Oklahoma or Texas A&M or other "more deserving" teams than NIU being left out, they should support a system that would be allow for all teams to compete for a championship, not just the establishment.
Those Oklahoma and A&M teams this year are victims of the same system that victimized teams like Boise State for the past decade. They may all deserve to play for the title, but we won't know that with the BCS or the ESPN-sponsored four-team playoff still around. The thing is, NIU is deserving. They went 12-1 and won their conference championship. Yes, they have a bad loss on their record, but last time I checked, there are only two undefeated teams in the country, and one can't play in the postseason. All other NCAA sports reward teams that win their conference, so why doesn't football?
That quote has a very interesting idea in it, however: Teams that are "more deserving." In the FBS, we determine who is "best" by having someone else select teams who "deserve" to play for that title. When the selection is performed in a way that does not treat every team the same, you devolve into the chaos that we know as the BCS.
So who are truly the most deserving teams? We have over 120 schools playing vastly different schedules that are determined by the NCAA to be competing within the same umbrella for the same prize. This is obviously not the case, as we see every year when the best teams from the MAC, or Mountain West, or the other non-auto qualifiers get ignored by the BCS bowls. If we want to continue to claim that all of these 120+ teams play on the same level for the same purpose and goal, a system needs to be implemented to allow them to all actually compete for this prize. Otherwise, we should stop lying to ourselves and instead support restructuring the D1 subdivisions.
The easiest answer is an expanded playoff structure. Give us a 16-team bracket where conference champs get an auto bid. This would leave six at-large spots open for teams like Notre Dame or Florida or whoever so the best non-champion schools get their say as well. What it definitely does is provide an environment where the national champion proves it on the field, rather than being handed a one-off game against a team chosen by computers based on past performance.
I know there are plenty of roadblocks to actually implementing this system, but we are getting closer. As for Kirk Herbstreit and ESPN, they can hate on NIU and the MAC all they want. They have their right to an opinion. When they do, though, they should realize that they are part of the problem, and keeping NIU out of the Orange Bowl is not the solution.