Utah out of sight, out of mind
Why didn’t Utah merit consideration to play for the BCS national title?
Why are the Utes, despite their 13-0 record, victories over four Associated Press top-25 teams and the champions of a conference that went 6-1 in the regular season against the Pac-10, watching one-loss teams Oklahoma and Florida play on Thursday?
Just ask some of the voters in the Harris Interactive Poll, which helps determine the title-game matchup.
“I did not see them play [in the regular season],” Bobby Aillet said.
“I didn’t see any live games,” Lance McIlhenny said. “I just [saw] highlights.”
“I don’t recall if I saw them play specifically during the regular season,” David Housel said. “I don’t remember a specific game.”
Alliet, McIlhenny and Housel aren’t alone. It turns out there were a number of Harris Poll (and presumably coaches’ poll) voters who never saw Utah play this season. At least until the Utes manhandled Alabama in a way that Florida could only dream.
That 31-17 victory in the Sugar Bowl didn’t just cap the program’s second perfect season in four years, it left people wondering why Utah wasn’t at least in the conversation for the title game.
How did a team this good wind up a lowly sixth in the final BCS standings?
The answer speaks to the illogical way college football crowns its champion, a system where perception, reputation and media hype can mean more than touchdowns and tackles.
Utah could do the latter as well as anyone. It was non-competitive in the former – suffering from tired stereotypes, a lack of television exposure and the mind-numbing power of group think.
Even by the absurd standards of the BCS, having voters not bother to watch an undefeated team play a single game is a new low.
Whether Utah deserved to be ranked No. 1, 2 or 25 isn’t the point of this argument. The Utes deserved to have voters at least see them.
The coaches and Harris polls make up two-thirds of the BCS rankings. The average of six computer formulas is the other third.
Frustration with the BCS is often pointed at those faceless “computers.” It’s the human opinion polls, however, that are most subject to bias, laziness or disinterest.
The computers can’t help but plug in Utah’s info. One of them even had the Utes ranked No. 2.
The 61 voters in the coaches’ poll and 114 in the Harris weren’t as kind. They often voted on what they thought Utah might be, not what they saw Utah actually was. In a testament to copy-cat voting, almost everyone had the Utes between No. 7 and No. 10 in the polls.
Then many tuned in Friday for what they admit was the very first time and saw reality wasn’t perception after all. This wasn’t some lucky mid-major team; the Utes were big, strong, fast and talented.
“I wouldn’t say I probably was wrong. I was wrong,” said Housel, a former Auburn athletic director who had the Utes ranked 10th.
Utah’s championship hopes for this season were dashed on July 1, 1978.
That day the Pacific-8 Conference expanded. Rather than take Brigham Young and Utah, it went one state south and added Arizona and Arizona State.
It cemented the opinion in the media – and thus the public and thus the coaches and Harris poll voters – that the only big-time sports league out west is the Pac-10. If you’re in it, you matter. If not, you might be a cute story, but you don’t.
It’s the never-ending asterisk; one that Utah and the Mountain West Conference can’t seem to shake no matter how many perfect seasons, No. 1 draft choices or NFL MVPs it produces.
It manifests itself not just in a skeptical eye of voters 30 years later, but in television contracts and media exposure.
Utah played just one game on ESPN this season – a September victory at Michigan. It (and the rest of the leagues’) other games were carried on Versus and the league-owned Mountain West Sports Network, which reaches less than three million homes. Nationally, you needed a satellite system to watch the Utes.
“I think you can find Utah if you want to find it,” Craig Thompson, the Mountain West commissioner, said.
You can. And you’d think the BCS would require voters to do so. Naturally, it doesn’t.
Instead, the BCS spreads the vote out to so many people while asking little in return. (One voter, broadcaster Don Criqui, didn’t even bother to cast a final ballot.)
The BCS has no set rationale for how or why a school should be ranked – is it record, strength of schedule, whom it beat, whom it lost to, how it won, how it lost? The decision is up to each voter.
The Harris voters are selected by conference offices. Most are media, former players or administrators. They are well-meaning but hold regular jobs and have their own busy schedules. This is a secondary (at best) thing and watching all the games is a challenge.
“I don’t think I’m the only one that has that problem,” said Aillet, a retired SEC referee, who had Utah ranked ninth and said he might give up his vote next season. “I suspect most of the folks have that same problem.
“It takes a lot of time to get it right, and sometimes I wonder if I’m doing it right.”
Meanwhile, college coaches are admittedly biased and have little time to scout any team not on their schedule.
In contrast, the 10-member NCAA men’s basketball selection committee meets throughout the season to compare notes and stay on top of hot teams. It demands comprehensive scouting, sets common criteria and even asks committee members to get out and see teams in person. Then they all meet and hash it out.
While not devoid of controversy, the system is about as good as you can design.
The BCS might be the worst.
Thompson could only shrug off the frustration. He believes a 12-0 team from a league such as his will one day play in the BCS title game. This was a step toward gaining long-term credibility with voters and opinion makers.
“Even if we were on national television it’d still be a fight because we don’t have that history,” Thompson said.
The Mountain West had three teams ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS poll (the ACC and Big East each had one). It scored a number of notable out-of-conference victories, including strong success against the Pac-10. Yet reputations die hard.
“I just thought that the Mountain West is not as tough a conference [as others],” McIlhenny, a former SMU player, said. “Apparently I was wrong.”
Thompson knows that if a team went 12-0 in one of the six BCS automatic qualifying conferences, even ones that ranked lower than the MWC, they’d have gotten in without debate.
“Sooner or later they’ve got to take notice,” he said. “You can’t say the Pac-10 was stronger than the Mountain West. The Pac-10 went 5-0 in bowl games, but head-to-head [in the regular season] we went 6-1.
“If they start drilling down on it there’s nothing to say.”
Sure, if you think BCS voters bother to drill down.
The Mountain West doesn’t just suffer from a lack of game coverage on national television. It suffers for the lack of overall attention. ESPN, the 800-pound gorilla of college football hype, is notorious for promoting the games and teams that it broadcasts. This past season that meant lots of Big 12 talk.
“There’s definitely some self-serving there,” Thompson said.
Utah didn’t receive the same attention. Even after the Alabama win, part of the debate on Sunday’s “Sports Reporters” (the ultimate barometer of East Coast media thinking) was how Utah simply couldn’t be that good because, well, because it’s Utah.
“They don’t play in a good conference,” Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe claimed.
In the BCS chase, media is everything since the voters admit to taking their cues from highlight shows and articles.
The networks aren’t above playing favorites. Back in 2006, the CBS broadcast crew for the SEC championship game campaigned relentlessly on the air for Florida to be selected over Michigan.
Color commentator Gary Danielson later said CBS did it only because ESPN was doing the same for Michigan and the Big Ten.
If the Utes had a broadcaster campaigning for them this season it wouldn’t have mattered.
The BCS voters didn’t trouble themselves to watch anyway.