It Was The Best Of Times

Before 1998, college football’s national champion was not determined on the field, but in the polls. It was a pretty anti-climactic way to end a season, especially when it produced back-to-back split national championships between Colorado (11*-1-1) and Georgia Tech (11-0-1), then Miami (12-0) and Washington (12-0) in 1990 and 1991. This football catastrophe lead to the creation of the Bowl Coalition, forcing a game between the top two teams in the country at the end of the season. This was the system that eventually lead to the first iteration of the BCS, which combined a team’s ranking in both the AP and coaches poll, a computer average from three different ranking sites, and a strength of schedule factor to produce one final number that was said to be more indicative of their actual merits than traditional polling.

BCS 1.0 was not without its flaws. In 2003, LSU and Oklahoma played in the BCS title game, but voters awarded USC the #1 ranking at the end of the season. In 2001, (#15) Colorado pasted then (#1) Nebraska 62-36 in the final week of the season, beat (#3) Texas in the Big 12 title game 39-37, then finished third in the BCS; a fraction behind (#2) Nebraska, who would go on to serve as Miami’s chew toy in the BCS Championship, getting blown out for the second straight game, 37-14.

In light of these confusing endings (amongst a few others), some alterations were made to the formula in 2004. A bonus was given to conference winners, #3 was guaranteed a spot in the BCS (the Kansas State rule), three additional computer voters were added, and an extra human poll (the Harris Interactive Poll which rotates 105 votes around 300+ qualified individuals) was added to give us the system that we enjoyed up through this season.

And yes, we did enjoy it. The main complaint by the opinionated public against the BCS is that it’s a crappy way to determine a national champion:

“There are no playoff games, and we have some complex formula telling us who the best team is? This is America! We don’t let anyone tell us what to do! We need playoff games or it is impossible to tell who the best team is, small samples be damned!“

Actually, the BCS does have a playoff system. It’s just interwoven with the regular season, and the BCS conferences act out the bracket in new, creative ways every year. Don’t believe me? Let’s start with our national champion, a team who played one of the most consequential games of the season.

On October 19th, the Florida State Seminoles ventured to Memorial Stadium to face a Clemson team who wound up going 7-1 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, second to Florida State’s 8-0. If Clemson had won that game, they would have won the ACC Atlantic and played Duke in the ACC title game. And if they were undefeated going into their final regular season contest against SEC East finalist South Carolina, that game is a whole different animal (it would have directly affected at least four different teams’ BCS fates along with Clemson’s national title hopes).

Hell, we might even be talking about Tajh Boyd as the #1 pick right now (which would be silly, but it would have happened). Given that Syracuse and Boston College had no significant preseason expectations and followed both of them at 4-4, it was pretty safe to assume that this game had massive implications for the ACC’s postseason hopes. By all intents and purposes, it was a playoff game.

Perhaps nobody demonstrated the excitement of the BCS “playoffs” better than the Big 12 did this year:

Against the top four Big 12 teams, Baylor (2-1) and Oklahoma State (2-1) had the best record, with Texas (1-2) and Oklahoma (1-2) bringing up the rear (that sentence sounds so wrong to a Big 12 fan who grew up in the ’90s).

However, on the final day of the regular season, three of these teams had a shot to snag the Big 12’s BCS berth. Oklahoma State could clinch it with a win over Oklahoma, but once Blake Bell ripped the Cowboys hearts out, it turned the Baylor-Texas game into the Big 12 Championship.

These are playoff games. Just because they come in the regular season does not change their importance, especially in a sport where it is necessary to limit the number of games the student-athletes are playing.

Conference rivals play at most, once a year, so matchups amongst the best teams in each BCS conference serve as de facto playoff games for each section of the bracket. And if you want to win a national championship, then every single game is a playoff game because a loss knocks you out of the top spot, and a loss late in the season is a death knell (kind of like losing in the playoffs…).

Just look at the great slate of playoff games we watched to end the last three weeks of the regular season:

Week 13

  • Arizona State beats UCLA 38-33 in the PAC-12 South title game.
  • Oklahoma State beats Baylor 49-17 to take a one game lead over the Bears, Sooners and Longhorns in the Big 12 with one game to play.

Week 14

  • Duke beats North Carolina 27-25 to clinch the ACC Coastal. A loss would give it to Virginia Tech.
  • Ohio State beats Michigan 42-41 to keep their #2 ranking and national championship hopes alive.
  • Auburn rips the hearts out of “Roll Tiders” everywhere 34-28 to win the SEC West title game.
  • Penn State ends Wisconsin’s hopes of an at-large BCS bid, 31-24.
  • Mizzou beats Texas A&M 28-21 to reach the SEC title game. A loss would have given Steve Spurrier and South Carolina an opportunity to win the SEC East with a win over Clemson later that day (The Ole Ball Coach won anyway 31-17).

Week 15

  • Louisville beats Cincinnatti 31-24 to end the Bearcats’ bid for the AAC and hands the title outright to UCF.
  • Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State 33-24 to set up the Big 12 title game.
  • Baylor beats Texas 30-10 to win the Big 12 title.
  • Auburn beats Mizzou 59-42 and wins the SEC, clinching a BCS berth and pole position for #2 if Ohio State loses.
  • Michigan State wins 34-24 over Ohio State, sending Auburn to the title game, the Spartans to the Rose Bowl, and the Buckeyes to the Orange Bowl.
  • Florida State squishes Duke like a bug, 45-7, winning the ACC and solidifying the national championship.

That’s 13 playoff games in three weeks by my count (two more than you’ll see throughout the entire NFL playoffs).

Combining the four big bowls (minus the overlooked Cotton Bowl) with a national title game and the BCS rankings is the most efficient system the sport had ever had.

Prior to 2004 there were some wacky outcomes, but since they added the new tweaks, the only real unresolved dispute we have had between #1, #2 and #3 was when Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma’s records all ended in zero the first year of the new additions to the BCS. That season resulted in USC finishing #1, Auburn #2 without a loss, and Oklahoma #3 (Urban Meyer’s 12-0 Utah team finished #5).

Since 2005, we have had exactly one year where three-plus BCS teams all went undefeated (and before you yell at me for dismissing non-BCS conferences…don’t. They’re not as deep as the BCS conferences, and who you play matters; the TCU’s and Boise State’s of the new conference era are good enough to make BCS bowls if they go undefeated, but you need a lot of luck to play for the title, something neither mid-major heavyweight had during their runs in the last decade).

In 2009, we saw Alabama, Texas, TCU, Cincinnatti, and Boise State all go undefeated; setting up appropriate bowl matchups between the two storied programs in the title game, the mid-major heavyweights, and the “I guess the Big East is technically a BCS Conference” champions against the SEC runner-up in Florida (Cinci got blasted 51-24, Boise State won the mid-major title belt 17-10 over TCU, and Alabama kick-started its dynasty over Mack Brown and company).

Even then, the system worked. Alabama and Texas were clearly the best teams that year as they played a very entertaining title game. They get to sit in the VIP section while Cincinnatti, Boise State, and TCU fight over where they’re standing in line.

To argue that the current version of the BCS mucks up the national championship picture, or produces a false champion, just doesn’t match up to the facts (unless you’re a Boise State, TCU, or Utah fan, then your indignance is acceptable).

Nearly every year, the top contenders for the title make themselves obvious on the field. Sure, fluke losses happen and teams should get a second chance to make up for mistakes or bad timing, which is why I’m in favor of the four team BCS playoff, but college football is and always has been a cruel world. A world in which giving up a field goal kick return for a touchdown at the end of regulation can cut a dynasty a year short. A small playoff is what’s best for college football (eight is perfect), but let’s not kid ourselves thinking that the current system is an unfair plutocracy (it’s just a plutocracy), or that the playoff will fix everything that ails college football.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to the last week before the bowl season and try to figure out what a four team playoff would look like this year.

The top two seeds unmistakably belong to Florida State and Auburn. But after that things get messy. There are four teams who could have laid claim to one of the last two spots.

Alabama is college football and their lone defeat came on a field goal that fell two then 109 yards short at the end of regulation. One-loss Michigan State just capped a great season with an impressive upset over the crew known as “we’re 24-0 and don’t ask us who we’ve played!” One-loss Baylor won the Big 12 by scoring a bazillion points a game, and Stanford won the 2nd best conference in the country with two losses but a win at Oregon. Who do you leave out?

See what I’m getting at? This new playoff system isn’t about to make the BCS any less messy.

People rally around their disdain for the BCS system because it’s an easy target. It’s a faceless morass of formulas that’s endorsed by the only entity in this country less respected than Congress (the NCAA). But the BCS has consistently produced high quality games between the most talented teams in the country. Did you enjoy Florida State-Auburn on Monday night? What about Clemson-Ohio State on Friday? Oklahoma-Alabama? The Rose Bowl? Every single BCS bowl this year except for UCF’s huge upset of Baylor produced the exact same scenario: two or less minutes left, one score game, trailing team with the ball. What more can you ask for as a football fan?

The teams that should be rewarded at the end of the season are those who lose the least, win the most convincingly, and play the most challenging opponents. Those are the principles that the BCS is predicated upon. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best system that college football has ever had.

*Even if you still disagree with everything above, one thing you cannot dismiss is the product that is put on the field: Wowhave there been some great games in the BCS era.

Jacob Weindling
Pure bred Coloradan with a dash of Masshole (go UMass). Sports and politics junkie. If I've learned one thing in life to this point, it's that stupid loses more games than smart wins.
Jacob Weindling
Jacob Weindling

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