Breaking news from Denver – the Colorado State Rams won’t be hoisting the crystal ball in Miami Gardens, Fla. in January. Even though the Rams managed to pull out a 22-17 victory against in-state rival Colorado in Saturday’s Rocky Mountain Showdown, they’re looking at an impossible road to the 2013 BCS National Championship.
But Rams fans knew that already. Perhaps that’s why there were so few of them in the stands at Sports Authority Field at Mile High yesterday. By official count, Colorado State sold just 18,169 tickets for the season opener – not even enough to fill Pepsi Center for a basketball game.
It’s not because they’re returning multiple starters from a team that went 3-9, including eight consecutive losses to end the season in 2011, that the Rams have no chance at a national title. Or because they’re led by a first-year head coach in Jim McElwain. Or because their quarterback, Garrett Grayson, was making just his fourth start at the NCAA Division I level on Saturday.
And while each of those factors will likely combine to keep the Rams from sniffing the top-25 this year, let alone compete for the national championship, they’re mere footnotes as to why CSU won’t be vying for this year’s BCS trophy.
In reality, the Rams didn’t have a chance even before they took the field for the first time under McElwain. Though the program has been in dire straits of late, suffering through 3-9 marks in four of the last five seasons, the struggles on the field are truly meaningless when they’ve got no chance at playing for a national title, no matter how well they perform.
CSU knows as well as any other school that a team from the Mountain West Conference, even an undefeated one, would need a virtual miracle to find itself playing for the crystal ball in January. During the past decade, CSU has watched as then-Mountain West Conference peers Utah (2004 and 2008), TCU (2009 and 2010), current MWC short-timer Boise State (2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009) and new MWC arrival Hawaii (2007) have compiled a combined nine perfect seasons, only to find themselves on the sidelines at kickoff for college football’s biggest game.
Playing in a non-BCS (non-Automatic Qualifying) conference, Colorado State effectively starts every season with as much chance to compete for a national title as the Mile High Sports flag football squad (Steve Quinne, tailback). So I really can’t blame CSU fans for not getting behind their team 100 percent as of late.
No one wants to play in a game where the odds are stacked against them. You don’t sit down at a poker table where four-of-a-kind can’t beat a flush; perhaps CSU fans are starting to understand that. More so, they are starting to show it. In sports, fans vote with their feet. And the verdict at CSU seems to be in favor of anything other than a football environment where being perfect won’t be enough.
It’s no secret that the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I football is alone in major college or professional athletics in that their national championship is not decided 100 percent on the field. And while the move to a four-team playoff beginning in 2014 is a start towards making a more level playing field for college athletics’ most-lucrative sport, the 12-year term of the new agreement does not bode well for programs and conferences like CSU and the Mountain West.
Even a four-team playoff is not enough to completely level the field. Take 2008 for example, when Florida (12-1) faced Oklahoma (12-1) for the BCS National Championship. Both Utah and Boise State finished the regular season undefeated, while Alabama had suffered just one loss, a 31-20 defeat at the hands of eventual national champion Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Considering the BCS brains gave us a rematch of the SEC title tilt as the BCS National Championship last year, it’s safe to assume that the 2008 Alabama squad (who had been ranked No. 1 in the country prior to the Florida loss) would have been granted one of the spots in the playoff, leaving either Utah of Boise State standing hat in hand.
Sure, the likelihood of two undefeated teams being left out of a playoff is slight, but I’d be willing to bet the Rolex that Willie Nelson gave me that we’ll see another instance where a non-AQ school misses out on the chance to play for a national title despite having a better record than one coming out of the automatic qualifiers. In the end, it’s still a subjective system that gives the benefit of the doubt to teams playing in “big boy” conferences, even when top teams playing in weaker conferences “play up,” as TCU did in 2009.
Even though they went on the road to defeat both Clemson and Virginia and defeated their opponents by an average margin of 31 points, TCU was denied a chance to face Alabama for the title. That honor went to Texas, whose out-of-conference schedule featured Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP and Central Florida that season.
TCU has since jumped ship, becoming the 10th team in the revamped Big 12, and will now be among college football’s favored when it comes time to decide who’s playing in that final game in January. By all accounts, the prospect of moving to an AQ conference is not on the horizon for CSU. Instead, they’ll remain in the Mountain West, which is set lose Boise State to the Big East and taking with them the only elite program still remaining in the conference.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots in college football has widened. CSU doesn’t have an athletics apparel brand named after a Greek goddess outfitting them with the latest in Day-Glo fashion. Nor do they have a natural gas magnate willing to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into shiny new facilities. And there’s no big TV payday looming for the conference that boasts markets like Laramie and Albuquerque.
Mountain West football appears headed in the same direction as the WAC, Mid-American and Sun Belt Conferences – a no man’s land lost somewhere between the Automatic Qualifiers and Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) and filled with patsy opponents for powerhouse programs. It’s not a future any fan of college football on the Front Range wants to see for the Rams, but it’s one that CSU fans seem to have already realized.
Like the Washington Generals, fans of the guys in green know their team simply has no chance. Even when they win, they lose.