It's 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3. I am gradually becoming one with a plush love seat in the VIP section of the sportsbook at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. I am looking on in wonderment as the Houston Cougars squander a BCS bowl bid and Case Keenum plays his way out of the Heisman race. Here, inside the velvet ropes, I am insulated from the common herd, not because I'm remotely important, but rather because I stepped over the rope when the security guy wasn't looking.
But now the jig is up: an officious, balding fellow is asking my fellow squatters, "Excuse me, but do you have a reservation? These seats are taken"—reserved, for "diamond members." If I'd purchased one of those memberships—had I felt confident in my ability to bury it in my next expense report—I would've breezed past the simian bouncers on Friday night and into the nearby Pure nightclub, instead of settling for a virtual tour, during which I learned that Pure's recent guests have included Big Boi, Nicky Hilton, Mims & Chingy and Khloe Kardashian. Which is fine: I don't do well with celebrities, having once mistaken Avril Lavigne for a pro snowboarder at a Winter X Games Red Bull party. For some reason she wasn't flattered, as I would've been.
I bail before Chrome Dome can give me the bum's rush, gathering my possessions, including a $7 latte, with a studied dignity. (From the $14.99 per day Wi-Fi to the $25 it costs to set foot inside the health club, Caesars bows to few resorts when it comes to gouging its guests.) Beyond the ropes I snag a more Spartan chair considerably farther from the dozen or so televisions, and turn my attention back to the Conference USA title game. Southern Miss is dominating undefeated, seventh-ranked Houston, and Keenum is being outplayed by his counterpart, Austin Davis, who will finish with four TDs in a 49--28 win that keeps the Cougars out of a BCS bowl and costs C-USA roughly $13 million.
AS ADMIRAL STOCKDALE once inquired, "Who am I? Why am I here?" I cover college football for this magazine: Why, on "conference championship weekend," have I decamped to the Strip?
The slogan put forward by the BCS, Every Game Counts, has long since been exposed as the sporting world's version of the Big Lie. Even a modest playoff would inject huge interest and significance into late-season games that now have zero impact on the national title. A playoff would dramatically enhance the value of the regular season rather than diminish it, as BCS defenders insist despite clear evidence to the contrary. Seldom, if ever, has that ill-chosen tagline rung more hollow than last week.
Even if top-ranked LSU lost in the SEC championship game (the Tigers didn't, capitalizing on several sensational plays by sophomore defensive back--return ace Tyrann Mathieu to pull away from Georgia, 42--10), they were still all but guaranteed a slot in the BCS title game, to be played in New Orleans on Jan. 9. Their opponent would still be Alabama, a team LSU beat 9--6 on Nov. 5. Suggestion for an amended slogan: Every Game Counts, Except When It Doesn't.
Even if Oklahoma State—third in the BCS—put the wood to Oklahoma that night (the Cowboys did, handing the Sooners their worst loss in seven years 44--10), that still wouldn't persuade voters to vault Oklahoma State over Alabama and into the title game.
So I'd been dispatched not to Atlanta nor to Stillwater but to Sin City to execute, one editor suggested, "a Hunter S. Thompsonesque" essay searching for the meaning, in no particular order, of life, the BCS and the weekend's games. While I didn't end up huffing ether or ingesting peyote, I did deliberately use far too much wasabi on my sushi at lunch last Saturday. And while I don't smoke, I ended up hanging around with people who did.
On Friday night I fell into conversation with Steve Horn, an Oregon fan who'd ventured beyond the velvet rope to avail himself of a Marlboro Light. He had taken the over (66 points) for Friday night's first Pac-12 title game between the No. 8 Ducks and unranked UCLA, which was coming off a 50--0 rout at the hands of USC.
"UCLA runs a pistol offense, like Nevada"—whom the Ducks beat 69--20 on Sept. 10—"so I thought 66 was doable," says Steve, who talks me into making a halftime bet.
The better to blend in with my subjects, I wager that Oregon will outscore UCLA in the second half by 15. Both teams score 14. Oregon wins 49--31, and Steve wins his bet comfortably. I'm out $100—enough to keep me from doing any more gambling for the rest of the weekend ... other than the few hands of blackjack I played at the tables beneath the Pussycat Dolls pole-dancing area, where scantily clad dealers would prove distracting, I felt sure, to players less focused than this reporter.
In the same lobby in which Zach Galifianakis's Alan complained that he could not get a "sig on my beeper" in The Hangover, I take a call on Saturday morning from Oliver Luck, athletic director at West Virginia. I'm hoping he can explain for me what needs to happen for the Mountaineers to clinch the Big East title and reach the BCS. What it comes down to, he says, is that Cincinnati has to beat Connecticut. "A friend of mine sent an e-mail that pretty much summed up our feelings: 'Ich bin ein Bearcat.' Today, we're all Bearcats."
The Bearcats did prevail, resulting in a three-way tie between Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia. Based on its higher BCS ranking, the Mountaineers earned a trip to the Orange Bowl—which will end up costing Luck's department a seven-figure sum. Caesars could take gouging lessons from the bowls, which require teams to purchase sometimes as many as 17,500 tickets. "It's not so much the number," says Luck, it's the price. The prices are way over market value; even loyal fans snap them up much more cheaply online.
It's insane that in a depressed economy, when schools are cutting entire sports and jacking up student fees to stanch the hemorrhaging of red ink from athletic departments, administrators are still outsourcing their most lucrative product—postseason football—to a third party that then merrily screws them over with these shameless ticket guarantees.
The $22.3 million West Virginia earns for the Orange Bowl goes to the Big East, to be split evenly among its eight members. The trip comes after the Mountaineers bailed on that troubled conference to join the Big 12. The chaotic conference realignment plaguing FBS schools over the last two years is the result of financial insecurity. It doesn't have to be this way.
A 16-team playoff would generate, conservatively, an extra $750 million. Last month the commissioners of the 11 conferences met in San Francisco. Among the items on the agenda: a discussion of postseason proposals they intend to present to the school presidents.
The Mountain West rolled out an overhauled version of the playoff proposal it put forward in 2009. The plan calls for a 16-team tournament in which a conference champion must finish the season ranked in the top 20 (with limited exceptions) to participate.
Rather than undermining them, this system exalts such cherished bowls as the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar. Those games would serve as quarterfinals and would be played on the same day—Jan. 1. New Year's Day would be restored as the most insane, orgiastic football-watching, hangover-mending day of the year.
Such a system would roughly triple the number of games that actually do have an effect on the national championship. As it is now, the BCS diminishes the importance of many games by eliminating scores of teams early. Most important, a playoff would add revenue, removing much of the impetus behind conference realignment.
While idle Alabama rested, so did Larry Ryles, a 60-something Crimson Tide fan who nodded off in his chair in the Caesars sportsbook, just as my saintly mother, Patricia, does occasionally in church. Once he was fully awake, Ryles harks back to a September afternoon in 1990 when Brett Favre led Southern Miss to a 27--24 comeback victory over the Tide. "We don't remember all our wins," says Ryles, "but we remember our losses."
The Tide's 9--6 overtime loss to LSU is fresh in his mind, as are 'Bama's four missed field goals in that game. "This is the first year I can remember where we haven't had a great placekicker," says Ryles.
The retired sergeant major must periodically raise his voice to be heard over shouts of the brothers Sabula—Jim and Nick—from Youngstown, Ohio. The over-under on the C-USA game is 75. They put money on the under. After three quarters the Golden Eagles are up 42--21. Nick now lives in Houston and supports the Cougars. He regrets having to root against them at this moment, but a bet's a bet.
They're not the only guys in this dimly lit, smoke-filled room who took the under on this game. When Southern Miss linebacker Ronnie Thornton scores on a pick-six with 2:41 to play, a profane chorus goes up. A bullet-headed man in an Arizona Cardinals windbreaker seems especially aggrieved. Another TD by either team will lose the wager for them.
Jim wants to talk about Matt Cavanaugh and Ron Calcagni, who played in the same backfield at Youngstown Chaney High, then went on to star at quarterback at Pitt and Arkansas, respectively. Cavanaugh led the Panthers to the national title in 1976; Calcagni engineered an 11--1 season, capped by an Orange Bowl victory over No. 2 Oklahoma, the following year. Had benighted AP voters not awarded that season's national title to Notre Dame, two quarterbacks from the same high school might have led their teams to national championships in successive seasons.
A playoff takes the decision out of the hands of pollsters, I point out. Nick posits that Alabama and LSU are far and away the two best teams in the country.
"That said, Alabama doesn't belong" in the BCS title game. "I don't believe in rematches—Tackle him! Keep him inbounds!"
The Cougars, you see, are marching smartly down the field. On first-and-goal at the nine and with time running out, a Houston running back is dropped for a four-yard loss. The threat has passed, or so it seems. "We're gonna make it," says one of the Unders. But with 10 seconds left Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin calls a timeout. Near bedlam breaks out around me.
On the final snap of one of the most brilliant quarterbacking careers in NCAA history Keenum fires a 13-yard TD pass to Justin Johnson. The Caesars sportsbook goes nuts.
"Son of a bitch!" shouts Bullet Head.
"What's he trying to prove, scoring like that," says Jim Sabula.
A guy in a Yankees cap sitting in front of us didn't have the under, but offers his sympathy:
"That is f----- up."
Must. Get. Outdoors. After watching the Honey Badger take over the SEC title game, I head for the exit, seeking fresh air.
I'm always blown away by the metamorphosis of the Strip at sundown. The eye is drawn up, to all those amazing lights, rather than down to the panhandlers and the guys on street corners handing out cards for escorts. To fully enjoy Vegas, it helps to suspend one's disbelief—I'm on a heater, I can't lose!—to check your cynicism at the bell desk.
The same holds true for college football, a sport that captivates in spite of the adults in charge of it. Any moment now, we can expect a self-congratulating memo from BCS executive director Bill Hancock, who will dismiss criticisms of the system as "balderdash" and repeat the canard that "Every Game Counts."
Oklahoma State looked every inch a national-title contender in manhandling the Sooners. But the Cowboys won't get a chance to play for that honor. It's not that Alabama's less deserving. It's that we all deserve a better, fairer system.
The game is rigged, as Oklahoma State learned on Sunday night, when the Cowboys found out that they were headed for Glendale, Ariz., rather than New Orleans. Life isn't fair. The house always wins.
WHILE I DIDN'T END UP HUFFING ETHER, I DID DELIBERATELY USE TOO MUCH WASABI ON MY SUSHI AT LUNCH.
IT'S NOT THAT ALABAMA'S LESS DESERVING. IT'S THAT WE ALL DESERVE A BETTER, FAIRER SYSTEM.
Photograph by CASSI THOMAS
COWBOY UP While Joseph Randle (above) and the Cowboys put a Bedlam beatdown on Oklahoma, the author hit up Caesars and the Strip, where games rendered meaningless by the BCS found meaning.
MIKE STONE/REUTERS (RANDLE)
[See caption above]
Photograph by CASSI THOMAS
HONEY DO After Mathieu (above) sparked LSU's comeback with this punt return for a TD that replays showed wasn't, the author left the sportsbook for some smoke-free air.
SIMON BRUTY (MATHIEU)
[See caption above]
Photograph by CASSI THOMAS
GOING GREEN James (above) gashed the Bruins for 219 rushing yards and three touchdowns, which helped gamblers who bet the over but not the hard-luck writer.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (JAMES)
[See caption above]