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Beyda: Conference championships have lost their luster in the BCS era

Tyler Gaffney said something at Monday’s Pac-12 Championship press conference that would have been obvious 20 years ago, but that borders on controversial in the era of the Bizarro Championship Series.

Asked about the November comments by Oregon’s Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas, who were disappointed about the prospect of playing in the Rose Bowl instead of the National Championship Game, the Stanford running back was direct.

“You can’t disrespect such a touted bowl game, and sometimes, when you do, it may bite you in the butt,” he said, referencing the Ducks’ upset loss to Arizona the week after Huff and Thomas’ comments. Later, Gaffney made it clear where the Cardinal stood on the matter.

“In no way, shape or form is this a disappointment,” Gaffney said. “If you could tell our team before the season we were going to have 10-plus wins and go to the Rose Bowl, I think everyone would take that deal, no doubt.”

Of course, Stanford still needs to notch one more ‘W’ this Saturday to make it to Pasadena; that was a verbal slip by Gaffney, not a sign of brazen overconfidence. Still, the contrast between the attitudes of the two Pac-12 North powers is as strong as that between the Ducks’ blinding highlighter yellow and Stanford’s deep Cardinal red (or any other color, for that matter).

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard a sentiment like Gaffney’s on the Farm. Cardinal head coach David Shaw has said before that he wants his team to focus on winning the Pac-12, not the national, title. “Control what you can control,” the old mantra goes.

But how does that sentiment translate to a future without the BCS? Coincidentally, the same week that Huff and Thomas made headlines, Shaw hinted to ESPN that he felt a playoff system would give a team control of its own national championship destiny. He has said before that an eight-team bracket consisting of the six major-conference champions and two at-large berths would be ideal.

Let’s say that Shaw had his wish: an eight-team playoff. In the lead-up to Oregon’s showdown with Arizona, then, Huff and Thomas would have nothing to worry about. Win out, and the Ducks would ride their Pac-12 title to a playoff berth.

Then, let’s say that Oregon did all of that, and then lost in the first round of the playoffs to Central Florida. (Pardon the schadenfreude.) Would that be a disappointment?

By Huff and Thomas’ logic, the answer is yes. Remember Thomas’ complaint from a couple of weeks ago: “We already won a Rose Bowl, so it feels like, ‘Whatever.’” In a playoff system, the Ducks dynasty would be more than accustomed to reaching the first round.

Shaw is absolutely right that a playoff gives a team more control over its own national title destiny — had Oregon beaten Central Florida in that scenario, it would have a chance for a special finish even by Huff and Thomas’ standards — but to players who aren’t satisfied by just reaching the playoffs, the value of a conference championship doesn’t increase one bit.

If anything, it will dwindle season by season, just as it has under the BCS. Though the BCS didn’t invent the “national champion,” it did invent the “national championship game.” In a couple of years, we’ll have college students who were born after the BCS started in 1998. These young adults learned to speak words such as “AQ” and “replacement pick” at an early age, and never lived in a world where the Rose Bowl was the ultimate goal for any Pac-10/12 team.

Some of those same people will be taking the field on Saturdays. Those players were raised to see a conference title as a means to an end — just one more thing to check off on the way to a national championship.

At the same time, they’ll be representing generations of fans who still hold dear the regional supremacy that a conference title and a traditional bowl entail. There’s a notable gap there. It’s the same one that Huff and Thomas tripped over with their comments, and that Gaffney skillfully avoided with his insistence that winning the Pac-12 does really matter.

The gap will only get wider. College football players of tomorrow: Watch what you say. If you don’t, it may bite you in the butt.

Joseph Beyda would put the opening line of Central Florida-Oregon at UCF minus 20. Let him know why he may be a bit too down on the Ducks at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the Football Editor at The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.