Saturday, January 14, 2012

What if the BCS was more like the ABA? Goodbye ACC; hello BSU.

College Football
Two of my favorite subjects are legal education and college football.  And, as it turns out, the two might have an interesting commonality.  In legal education, membership in the American Bar Association (ABA) makes or breaks a school.  If a school is an ABA member, its graduates are qualified to take the bar exam of any state, and the school has a chance to be a national player in legal education.  Similarly, in college football, membership in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is the gold standard.  Why?  Because when a school wins a BCS conference’s regular season title, it gets an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game—the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose, or national title game.  This translates into incredible prestige and, possibly but not always, money.  So what does all of this mean for schools that are not ABA or BCS members?  Simply put, non-ABA and non-BCS schools are second-class citizens in their respective peer groups and find themselves on the outside looking in.  But what would happen if, with regard to membership, the BCS was just a little more like the ABA?     

The ABA, despite its recent rejection of Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, admits new schools to its ranks on a regular basis.  In fact, it has opened its arms and expanded its membership dramatically in recent years—the number of ABA accredited law schools now sits around 200.  However, while some argue that admission standards are too easy, the ABA also takes steps to insure at least a minimum level of competence among its members.  That is, it is also possible—although admittedly not easy—to lose ABA accreditation. 

While there are many possible ways to get kicked out of the ABA club, one way is to fall well behind your peers in your state’s bar exam passage rate.  That is, if a school’s graduates’ bar passage rate, roughly speaking, is within 15 percentage points of the average bar passage rate of its peer institutions’ graduates, the school’s ABA club membership is safe.  But if the school falls below that level, it could have issues with the powers that be.  (For the actual ABA rule, instead of my oversimplified version, click here.  And for recent, actual bar passage rates of law schools in the state of California, click here.)

In college football, however, the process for becoming a BCS-member conference (or for getting an invitation to a BCS bowl game) is far more class-based and far less egalitarian.  And to make matters worse, once a conference is in the club, there is little to ensure that it and its member schools maintain any level of competitiveness with its peer conferences.  The result is that there are some non-BCS schools—most notably Boise State University (BSU)—that continually beat BCS members and prove, time and again, that they are better than the schools of the Big Ten, Big Twelve, ACC, Big East, and Pac-12.  However, because schools like BSU don’t belong to the BCS club, they often get excluded from bowl games, while inferior schools get invited to the party just because they are the product of proper breeding, i.e., they belong to a BCS conference.

But what if the BCS was just a little more like the ABA?  What if the BCS reviewed performance by conference and, like the ABA does with its bar passage rule, required its members to exhibit a minimal level of competence (or in this case, competitiveness) in order to keep its membership in the club?  Let’s have some fun with this and suppose the BCS, in its inevitable annual tweaking of its mathematically precise but meaningless formulas, instituted this hypothetical rule, ex post facto

To continue to receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game for the 2012-2013 season, a BCS conference’s overall winning percentage in prior BCS bowl games may not fall more than thirty percentage points below the overall winning percentage of the next best BCS conference.  If a BCS conference loses its membership and its automatic bid under this rule, the bid will be transformed into an at-large bid and will be awarded to the best non-BCS conference-winning school. 

This rule is similar to, but much less demanding than, the ABA rule on bar passage rates.  This rule doesn’t require a conference to be anywhere near the average of its peer group.  Instead, this rule requires only a bare minimum level of competitiveness, relative to a conference’s closest competitor, to stay in the club.  So what would happen if the BCS actually instituted this rule?  Well, here are the BCS conference records and winning percentages in BCS bowl games since the inception of the BCS:
Win pct
Big East
Big Ten
Big Twelve
Granted, this chart probably understates the SEC’s already Herculean strength because it includes LSU’s loss to Alabama, another SEC team.  And, granted, this chart might overstate the PAC-12’s strength because it might include one of Southern Cal’s now-vacated wins.  But, as you can see from the list, the top five BCS conferences are, roughly speaking, all in the same ball park.  And certainly, no top five conference winning percentage falls more than thirty points below the next best conference, or even thirty points below the best conference.  But the sixth conference, the ACC, is abysmal.  It has only mustered two wins in fifteen BCS bowl games, and isn’t anywhere near the next best BCS conference, let alone the best BCS conference.  Put another way, the ACC makes the Big Twelve, the Big East, and the Big Ten look good.

So what would happen if the BCS became just a little more egalitarian, like the ABA?  What if the BCS didn’t grant membership (or a BCS bowl bid) merely because a school comes from the right bloodline?  What if the BCS awarded membership and gave bowl invites to schools that earned it, rather than to schools that have merely received it in the past?  What if the BCS required conferences to maintain a bare minimum level of competence to keep their club membership?

Answer: Goodbye ACC; hello BSU. 

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