I’m not going to pretend I’m happy that Stanford couldn’t even sell out its 50,000-seater stadium for the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday, but there is something deliciously anti-establishment in the fact that, on merit alone, a school that wouldn’t normally get picked for even one BCS bowl is going to be heading to its third in three years.
In 2010 and 2011 Stanford finished the regular season ranked fourth, ensuring that someone had to give it a spot. Just one place further down and even with outstanding quarterback Andrew Luck there would have been no guarantees; it could easily have been overlooked for the No. 14 ranked school.
BCS selection rules state that the top two teams automatically go to the National Championship Game and, if the third-ranked team is guaranteed a place by being the champion of an Automatic Qualifying (AQ) conference, then a fourth-ranked AQ team must be picked. Stanford, which did not win the Pac-12 in either 2010 or 2011, relied on this rule to make consecutive appearances in the Orange Bowl and Fiesta Bowl.
This year, two losses during the regular season meant that even a pair of wins over then-No. 2 Oregon and then-No. 2 USC could not elevate it back to fourth. This year the Cardinal could not even count on the guaranteed media attention of having the top pick in the NFL draft, which would make it interesting property in the BCS marketplace. The only way in was to upset an Oregon team on its way to the National Championship Game and follow that up with a brace of wins over UCLA.
Would it, No. 6 at the end of the season, have made it otherwise? Maybe not., Stanford was ranked in the preseason, but not highly. Languishing down at No. 21 (AP) it lay far away from the dizzying heights of fellow Pac-12 teams No. 1 USC and No. 5 Oregon. Everyone knew who would be in the conference championship game, everyone knew one of the Trojans or Ducks would be off to contest a national title.
Stanford and UCLA–unranked ahead of the season–spoiled that party though. Was this a freak outcome? Was the pre-season prediction really a reasoned, purely analytical analysis of the teams’ prospects, or was there just a little favoritism behind it?
Few have the storied history of USC and unlike the Trojans and Ducks, which can almost always pack their stadiums, the Cardinal and Bruins struggled to fill the stands in their final, crucial home games of the season. Put bluntly, the former two schools are a bigger story and would be guaranteed to travel with strong support to any BCS bowl. It would be a brave selection committee that passed up the chance of hosting either in favor of Stanford.
Elsewhere, Notre Dame has been similarly upsetting the apple cart this year. The AP didn’t give the Irish much of a chance before the first game kicked off; now as the only (eligible) undefeated team it cannot be overlooked, however much SEC- and anti-Notre Dame-bias would prefer otherwise. I know a lot of people aren’t happy about this, but I didn’t grow up in a world where American football existed so I never learned to hate the Irish.
Grudgingly, I think a lot of people may throw their weight behind an SEC team just to see Alabama embarrass Notre Dame in a 40-point annihilation. I want the complete opposite: I would love to see the Irish defend their way to a national title in a tight three-point game.
Why? Because it is great to be messing with the established order of things. Sports should be unpredictable; the undervalued and un-favored minnows should get to eat the sharks sometimes.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban is not a fan of how things have turned out. He would favor both SEC rivals Florida and Georgia getting places in BCS bowls, not just the Gators. But of course he would. Any system that benefits the SEC, directly or indirectly, benefits his team. I’m sure Saban would happily endorse a system where year after year we had two SEC schools facing off in the title game.
Instead, three of this year’s five BCS bowls will feature teams ranked outside the top-14, with Stanford even facing an unranked team, Wisconsin, in the Rose Bowl. If you don’t like that, don’t blame the system, blame what happened at Ohio State and Penn State to ban them from the Big-Ten Championship and blame once-No. 12 Nebraska for being massacred 70-31 by the Badgers in that vacuum.
ESPN’s Mark Schlabach is similarly unimpressed by the fact that No. 12 Florida State and No. 15 Northern Illinois will square up in the Orange Bowl, or that the only thing standing between No. 3 Florida and Sugar Bowl glory is No. 21 Louisville. I suspect he’s not a fan of the FA Cup or U.S. Open Cup either–assuming, that is, he even cares about soccer–because everything about this current situation is what makes those tournaments great.
The FA Cup third-round fixtures were announced on Sunday and among the juicy clashes between top teams are once-in-a-lifetime games between Premier League and non-league clubs. For example, Mansfield Town or Lincoln City, currently ranked 88 and 93 positions below Liverpool, respectively, could yet host the Reds in early January. Liverpool normally plays at 45,000-seat Anfield, far bigger than the 10,000-seat homes of The Stags of The Imps. Liverpool is worth around $850 million, probably a hundred times more than Mansfield Town and Lincoln City combined. But, regardless of Liverpool’s storied history and world-class players, whichever club faces it in the new year will have earned that position fair and square and–whisper it–could even win.
Did all of those teams that Saban and Schlabach don’t rate win their places fairly? Yes. Did reigning national champion Alabama similarly deserve to be in last year’s title game? No, that pretty clearly should have been Oklahoma State.
If this is BCS chaos, then long may it continue. It gives everyone hope, every team a chance.
Back on the West Coast, that should be inspiring Bruins and Cardinal fans to dream; if USC continues to self-detonate, UCLA could easily become the dominant power in the Pac-12 South, and up here in the North, if Stanford can build on four remarkable years, maybe the Ducks can be kept in check. Perhaps USC-Oregon is not the rivalry future predictions should be focusing on.
And maybe, just maybe, if Stanford can keep messing things up for everyone else for long enough there might just be time to finally fill that stadium.
Tom Taylor’s first word was antidisestablishmentarianism and he continues to upset the apple cart whenever possible. Ask him why at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.