This year's BCS pairings are an absolute travesty. They are the worst thing to occur in the history of college football, and the Oklahoma Sooners have been cruelly and unfairly deprived of the chance to play in a major post-New Year's Day bowl game against a top-flight SEC team. It's ridiculous and, yes, Kirk Herbstreit, it's a joke. It's clear that the entire system is being driven by greedy, clueless pencil-pushers who care more about paper than about football.
I mean, come on. 8-5 Wisconsin gets to play in the Granddaddy of them All? That's heinous.
Wait, you mean Oklahoma does get to play in a major post-New Year's Day bowl against a top-flight SEC team? My bad.
After half a day of wrestling with all the things which offend about last night's outrageous shenanigans -- and by that I don't mean Northern Illinois' selection to the Orange Bowl, but rather the insensible ravings of people like Kirk Herbstreit -- I'm finally able to formulate my rebuttal sensibly. To me, there's an overall argument which has to be addressed before you can even begin to complain about the bowl matchups, and it's this: are the BCS bids supposed to be for the ten best teams in the country, or are they supposed to be for the people who've earned it by doing the things they're supposed to do? The answer is the latter, and I'm about to bore you to tears telling you why.
The rabid reaction last night fails to take into account one simple detail. You cannot argue that Northern Illinois being included in the BCS is an outrage while ignoring Wisconsin's presence in the Rose Bowl. (Or worse, again picking on Kirk Herbstreit, arguing that that's okay because Wisconsin is... Wisconsin, I guess.) You cannot argue that the BCS bowls should be for the best teams without questioning the presence of Wisconsin and Louisville and even Florida State; hell, if the BCS bowls are for the best teams, you can't even take the camera to argue about how Oklahoma's been screwed over. They're number eleven!
Every argument which can be used against Northern Illinois applies doubly so to Wisconsin, save one which we'll get to momentarily. That the punditry is intent on painting this as a Northern Illinois vs Oklahoma screw job (or a Northern Illinois vs Georgia screw job, in the truly asinine field of play) is nothing more than attempted media control of the entire enterprise. ESPN is angry because ESPN owns the television rights to the Orange Bowl, and they're afraid nobody's going to watch; in response, they found a willing mouthpiece in Kirk Herbstreit to mendaciously lose his reason on national television in order to paint a narrative. But that narrative is nothing but a stinking pile of manure.
If the BCS is about the best teams, Wisconsin screwed Georgia, and Louisville screwed LSU, and Northern Illinois screwed Texas A&M, and Florida State screwed South Carolina. If you believe that the two team limit per conference is fair -- and you must believe this, in the end, as we'll get to in a bit -- then Wisconsin screwed Oklahoma, and Louisville screwed Clemson... and Northern Illinois didn't screw anyone, because they'd be next in line. Take away the automatic qualifiers for conference champions, and keep the two-team limit, and if you go by the BCS standings Northern Illinois gets in anyway.
There is, of course, a giant red flag in front of all this which people simply don't want to consider while they're blathering about what's good and bad for college football. The BCS rules, as they exist, are there for justifiable reasons. The two-team limit, the existence of which is the only valid complaint regarding Northern Illinois (see, told you we'd get to it) is there because whether it's cyclical or not, a period of intense domination by one conference would feed upon itself financially. The SEC doesn't have six teams in the top 10 in a vacuum. They're there because they started the season overrated (ease off, SEC folks, I don't mean "overrated" the way you think I mean it), and they started that way because they ended last season that way, and they ended last season that way because they started last season that way, and so on, and so on, and so on. Is it justifiable? Well, they have seemingly won every national title since the Louisiana Purchase, so that's obviously an arguable point. It's also arguable that a period of actual dominance has led to a long stretch of perceived but mythical dominance as a result of the "our conference is so tough" argument, which may or may not be valid. We'll never know, because we all keep playing chumps in September.
You may be an SEC homer and think your conference is the greatest conference ever to have conferenced. You might even be correct. The problem is that if the SEC were allowed to financially dominate the entire college football landscape to the extent you'd like them to when you complain about Georgia-through-Sakerlina being excluded, it would destroy not only college football entirely, but would have far-reaching impacts on the entire post-secondary educational system.
You have to realize this. You may not care; you may think a 13-game SEC round-robin after which you claim a national championship for the winner is just peachy keen. Rude awakening: college football has more of an impact on actual education than most people want to admit, and I'm about to launch into a digression which I promise has an ultimate point, so bear with me.
Forty years ago, the institutions in this country perceived to be the cream of the crop academically were not comprised of the Ivy League and a mass of public institutions that happen to be good at football. There were some, but a degree from Haverford was universally understood to be superior to one from Michigan. It's different now, and that's because the ubiquity of college football coverage has resulted in people thinking that if a school isn't a member of one of the big conferences, then it must not be a very good school. Very, very few exceptions rise above the average person's bias -- the Ivies, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Caltech. People who didn't attend Carnegie Mellon don't give Carnegie Mellon tons of money because they're enamored with the school's football program. People who didn't attend Alabama give them millions.
True story: as a team technical lead at a previous job, I was assisting a manager with going over resumes. One guy had a degree from the University of Chicago. The manager in question wrinkled his nose and said -- I am not kidding -- "Never heard of them." (And even to this day, people express surprise that Chicago currently has a football team, but that's another topic altogether.) Meanwhile, he was excited about a resume from a West Virginia graduate, and with all due respect to the Mountaineers, WHAT?!
Now, imagine if one conference rose so far above the rest in football that all the others were basically relegated to minor-league status. Imagine an idiotic mindset that basically relegated 2/3 of the country to "places where dumb people go to school", because that's what would happen in the end.
College athletics exist for a reason. That reason is not to entertain you, nor is it to make money for media conglomerates, nor is it to make your heart swell with pride over the accomplishments of 100 kids who attend a school you attended -- or, if we're being really honest about this statistically, one you never did attend. (I realize that the audience here at SB Nation does seem to tend more toward actual alumni than on many other sports community sites, but you get my point.) Those are all ancillary benefits, albeit very real ones which have taken on a great deal of importance for every school in the country. The real purpose for college athletics is the same as any other extracurricular activity on a college campus. They exist for the students, primarily and above all other considerations.
Which finally brings us to the point of this digression. The rules we have -- not just the BCS rules but all the NCAA's rules as well, including the ones regulating amateurism -- are in place to promote a level playing field among the member institutions competing within the same division. Further, the structure of the NCAA itself, wherein schools choose the division they wish to compete in based on their ability to do so financially (or refusal to get caught up in all of that, if we're talking about D-III), exists for a reason which everyone conveniently forgets when they start griping about things like Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.
Top-tier college athletic programs are massive for-profit industries... which don't pay taxes, people. And the primary reason the government allows this? Re-read the last paragraph, and then stop to consider that the very rule which granted Northern Illinois an automatic BCS bid was instituted specifically in order to get Congress to STFU and back off. The free association afforded to any accredited program which meets the necessary criteria is the strongest bulwark against government intervention that collegiate athletics possesses. Nothing else even compares. You give every school the freedom to try, succeed, fail, or not give a damn, without artificially attempting to turn the entire thing into an exclusive club of elitists, and the government's going to be far more inclined to leave you alone.
There are only three solutions to your problem, if things like Northern Illinois getting a BCS bid offends you so very deeply. One is for the cream of the college football crop to separate from the NCAA entirely and run big-time college football the way you'd probably like them to run it... but in so doing, they would immediately lose every bit of anti-trust protection they currently enjoy. They would become an exclusionary business operating for reasons outside their current charters, and the government would immediately step in, regulating the hell out of you with one hand while taking tax money out of your pocket with the other.
The second option is for another divisional split, slicing FBS pretty much in half based on given resource allocations; perhaps you force all schools over a particular minimum average attendance and/or a particular athletic department budget into the new division. The problem with that idea is that it ultimately won't fix the problem; any school which really, really wanted to could still find a way to meet those criteria and crash the party. That plan might still be problematic, and schools potentially left out would probably raise enough hell to cause the government to step in anyway.
The third option? A promotion/relegation scheme, which we'd all love in the end. It will never, ever happen. Big schools live in terror of the prospect of having a disastrous year (or worse, getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar and being forced to vacate a season, which under a promotion/relegation scheme would result in immediate relegation). So dream on there, champ.
There are no easy answers. There is no action which can be taken to rectify whatever problem you think college football has which doesn't involve driving a cheap station wagon across a dusty field loaded with land mines.
You think Northern Illinois playing in the Orange Bowl is horrible for college football? Northern Illinois playing in the Orange Bowl is part of what's saving your precious sport. You should be thankful for that rather than losing your mind (Kirk Herbstreit).