BCS National Championship Game Preview: The Case for a Split National Championship (In Certain Circumstances)

Part of a series previewing the big game

The idea of a split national title depending on the results of the BCS National Championship Game on Monday was almost inevitably going to pop up. After all, it's not like the idea of two teams playing against each other a second time opening the door to questions about the outcome wasn't brought up even before the first LSU-Alabama game kicked off.

When it comes to the possibility of a rematch, though, it's best to let that argument go away now. The rematch is going to happen on Monday night, no matter what you or I think about the merits of it. But if Alabama wins this second game, there are at least some scenarios that would and should make AP voters think very carefully about whether they want to cast their No. 1 ballots for LSU.

First, let's be clear about something that might be misinterpreted: I don't think that any Alabama win means that the championship should be split. The way I see it, there are three scenarios that we have to talk about when dealing with the outcome of the game Monday:

1. An LSU win
2. A narrow Alabama win
3. An Alabama rout (by more than one score)

In cases (1) and (3), the winner should absolutely be the unquestioned national champion. If LSU wins, it has two wins against Alabama, the only undefeated record in college football and one of the most impressive resumes in recent years. And if Alabama defeats LSU by more than a score, it has essentially "canceled out" the loss to LSU in the first game and has a slate impressive enough that it ought to be considered the champion.

But what if we are instead faced with the second scenario? Alabama wins by three points, for example, in a closely-fought game and no major officiating controversy or blunder helping either team.

Under the BCS contract, the coaches' poll has to recognize Alabama as the national champion -- and no one is really challenging that. It's the AP poll we're talking about, and they have no arrangements with anyone requiring them to give their No. 1 votes to the winner of the game. So if you're a sportswriter with a ballot, what might you consider aside from the results of Monday's game? The respective resumes of the two teams.

I tried to come up with a resume that would represent that scenario. I put in an Alabama win at 24-21, because while I do not endorse the idea of the first LSU-Alabama game as boring, I think it's fair enough to say that most of us would like to see a few more points this time around. I based the placement of the teams solely on their strengths as opponents. I think that might actually simplify things, though I usually take the margins into account when I vote in the BlogPoll.

LSU Alabama
Alabama, 9-6 (OT) LSU, 24-21
vs Oregon, 40-27 Arkansas, 38-14
Arkansas, 41-17 at Penn State, 27-11
vs Georgia, 42-10 at Auburn, 42-14
at West Virginia, 47-21
at Florida, 38-10
Auburn, 45-10 at Mississippi State, 24-7
Florida, 41-11 Tennessee, 37-6
at Mississippi State, 19-6 Vanderbilt, 34-0
at Tennessee, 38-7 Ole Miss, 52-7
Kentucky, 35-7 Kent State, 48-7
at Ole Miss, 52-3 North Texas, 41-0
Western Kentucky, 42-9 Georgia Southern, 45-21
Northwestern State, 49-3 N/A

This gets to why I think it's a more difficult decision than a lot of people realize. LSU has five wins against teams that I would consider quality opponents. Even under this scenario, Alabama might have three wins of that variety. Auburn is the fourth-best win on Alabama's schedule -- and if anything the Tigers deserve to be higher than that -- but they are No. 6 on LSU's resume. Against common opponents, LSU's margin of victory is higher in three cases while Alabama's is larger in one.

The main thing that Alabama fans would have on their side is branding. The game that will be played Monday night is called the national championship game, so the team that wins it is supposed to be the national champion. But there is nothing that says that the team that wins that game is any more the better team than the team that won the game in Tuscaloosa earlier this year. (And it wouldn't change my mind a bit if there were a playoff involved; even if you have a tournament that the Tide would have to go through to earn its chance to face LSU again, the idea that you should ignore the result of the earlier game strikes me as nonsensical.)

In most sports, there's no way to handle it when there are two championship-worthy teams or when there's a split result. When the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, for example, they were the undisputed champions of the NFL not simply because they won the official championship event -- though there's that -- but also because there was no alternative way to recognize that the Patriots had defeated the Giants in the regular season and had a far better record and an arguably stronger resume.

We don't have that problem in college football. The coaches are contractually obligated to vote for the winner of the BCS National Championship Game, and every voter in that poll absolutely should vote based on the results of the game. But there's no reason for the AP to vote based on that game if they aren't bound by contract. Alabama, if it wins, will already have a trophy that represents that accomplishment. Why shouldn't someone recognize that LSU also won one of the two games and that the Tigers also had a great season?

Too often, the split national championship has been seen as one of the negative aspects of college football. But in this case, it can be a positive way to address a unique situation. Two teams have gone on extraordinary runs this season, clearly setting themselves apart from the rest of college football as the best in the game, but a narrow LSU loss following a narrow Alabama loss would prove that the two are unable to gain any separation from each other. Why should only one of them be called champions?

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