BCS restrictions fuel matchup issues

NEW ORLEANS -- It's time to give the BCS bowls more freedom, not less.

Yes, you read that right. More freedom. Take the shackles off of the at-large selection process. Eliminate the two-teams-per-conference limit in the big bowls. While we're at it, DQ the AQ.

Otherwise, everyone needs to start accepting matchups like Virginia Tech-Michigan, the widely panned pairing in Tuesday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl. There are many reasons why the Sugar Bowl went with the Hokies and Wolverines, two at-large teams not ranked in the top 10, rather than No. 7 Boise State or No. 8 Kansas State.

Most of the reasons will never be accepted by those who love college football. Most of the reasons also aren't changing. BCS bowls make it pretty clear who they are, even as the outside world demands them to become something they'll never be.

"Our charter mission from the day this organization was founded was tourism-based," Sugar Bowl chief operating officer Jeff Hundley told ESPN.com. "We're here to help and benefit college football, but the organization was started and its mission continues to be an economic-impact mission. There are a number of factors you have to weigh in order to please all parties involved."

It's fair to debate whether Virginia Tech and Michigan are benefiting New Orleans tourism more than Boise State or Kansas State could have. There's little debate that a Sugar Bowl featuring Boise State, Kansas State or even an RG3-led Baylor squad would move the needle nationally more than Virginia Tech and, to a lesser extent, Michigan.

The Sugar's selection stems from a process that provides just enough wiggle room and just enough rules to result in matchups that create more angst than excitement. The setup limits leagues to two teams in BCS bowls and requires bowls to take automatic qualifiers, but it also allows the bowls to select at-large teams ranked in the top 14.

The system doesn't serve anyone as well as it could.

While many would love to see a nonpartisan selection committee create the best bowl pairings, it's a fantasy at this point. The more realistic aim is to go the other direction: Remove the restrictions and torpedo the AQ status. If it results in a plus-one or some type of playoff, all the better.

The Sugar Bowl has had an SEC team in its game for each of the past 11 years. But after LSU and Alabama qualified for the national championship game and closed the window on the SEC's BCS selections, the game had to look elsewhere.

Would there be the same outcry if the Sugar Bowl had selected No. 6 Arkansas, which has only lost to LSU and Alabama, or even No. 9 South Carolina?

"If the rules were different, it would have been an entirely different game," Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.

The fact that the Sugar Bowl is double-hosting -- running both its traditional game and the national title game -- also might have played a role in the process. In a year when resources are stretched, the bowl selected a Virginia Tech team that has participated in the game three times since 1995. Michigan has been in the game only once, in 1984, and neither Kansas State nor Boise State have been before.

Hoolahan said the familiarity with Virginia Tech was a factor, but Hundley downplayed double-hosting as being instrumental in the selection.

"Having the two SEC teams [in the championship game] was unique but something that has not hurt," Hundley said. "In fact, it has been unbelievable how the hotel rates [are high], you can't get a restaurant reservation in town right now for the championship game. In terms of the two weeks together, it's a home run."

Some might describe the Sugar Bowl as a bloop single, although the game itself could end up changing perceptions.

The Sugar Bowl is the first BCS game to lose two teams from its affiliated conference to the title game, but it's not the first to make an unpopular at-large selection.

After the 2007 season, the Orange Bowl took heat for picking Kansas ahead of a Missouri team that had beaten the Jayhawks to win the Big 12 North championship.
The Tigers went on to lose the Big 12 title game to Oklahoma, which ultimately earned a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. Even though Missouri finished No. 6 in the final BCS standings, two spots ahead of Kansas, it stayed out of the BCS bowls -- in part because of the Orange Bowl's at-large selection but also because of the two-team-per-league limit and the automatic-qualifier rules.

Five teams ranked behind Missouri in the BCS standings made BCS bowls that year. Three were automatic qualifiers: USC, West Virginia and Hawaii.

"You had two teams from the same conference, and you had one that beat the other at the end of the regular season but went to a championship game and was decisively beat by the ultimate Big 12 champion," Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said. "It was a very difficult decision.

"That's what at-large picks are there for, to give the bowls the discretion … and to balance between what's best for the bowl game and what's best for the system."

What's best for everybody is to change the system. And almost everyone seems to agree that changes must be made.

Because of AQs and the conference tie-ins, the Discover Orange Bowl pairs No. 15 Clemson and No. 23 West Virginia on Wednesday. Of the past six Orange Bowls, four have included at least one team ranked outside the top 10 of the BCS standings.

"The bowls have always been advocates of as much flexibility as we can possibly get within the framework of what the BCS commissioners decide," Hundley said. "The more options we have, the better in terms of what we're able to deliver for our city."

The BCS commissioners seem to be on board, both those who represent leagues with AQ status and those who don't but have benefited from AQ rules. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said last month at the IMG Forum that they favored getting rid of AQ status.

As colleague Gene Wojciechowski reported, BCS members are considering a proposal to eliminate AQ designation.

"What's interesting to note is that Craig and Britton -- those who ostensibly would seek it -- would prefer that it be eliminated," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "So if they don't care about it, I don't care about it. I don't know what the group will say. I just know that the notion or the concept doesn't have any meaning to me.

"The only thing that has meaning to me is whether or not the historic relationship with the Rose Bowl will continue."

The Rose Bowl's relationship with the Big Ten and Pac-12 is viewed as one of the biggest problems with the BCS selection process, and certain Rose picks like 9-3 Illinois as an at-large in 2007 fuel the belief. But all three parties value the traditional matchup and will go to great lengths to protect it.

"We love our traditional game," said Kevin Ash, the chief administration officer of the Rose Bowl. "We believe in everything that it brings. We think that's what makes us who we are."

And that's the point. The BCS bowls have told us who they are. They have shown us with their selections in the current system.

Major reform is a nice idea, and maybe we'll see it someday.

But a realistic step toward better BCS bowl matchups is to loosen the reins.

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.