Mark J. Terrill/AP
USC head coach Pete Carroll, center, talks with members of his team during practice,
Friday, Dec. 26, 2008 in Los Angeles. USC is scheduled to play Penn State in the Rose Bowl
game on New Year's Day.

Debating the Bowl Championship Series—Again

December 31, 2008 11:31 AM
by Denis Cummings
As this year’s Bowl Championship Series kicks off with the Rose Bowl, we examine the BCS and the almost yearly controversy that surrounds it.

BCS Remains a Contentious Subject

The BCS was created in 1998 to ensure that the two top-ranked teams in college football would meet in a bowl game. It was designed to avoid the controversy created by the 1997 split national championship, but it has created controversial national championship match-ups for all but 4 of the 11 years it has existed.

Many fans have been calling for college football’s national champion to be determined by a playoff system, which is used in lower levels of college football and every other NCAA sport. Conference and college presidents, however, are reluctant to abandon the bowl system, which has existed since the early 20th century.

The BCS recently signed a four-year television contract with ESPN for $125 million a year, ending any hope for a playoff until 2014. Debate over a playoff will not go away, though, as there is again controversy over the championship game participants.

This year, the BCS standings—a combination of the USA Today Coaches Poll, the Harris Poll and six computer rankings—was used in a way it was not intended: to break a tie in the Big 12 South Division between Texas and Oklahoma. The standings favored Oklahoma, which advanced to the Big 12 championship game and then the BCS national championship game, while Texas was left out of national championship contention.
For many observers, including President-elect Barack Obama, this year’s controversy shows that only a playoff—be it a four-team, eight-team or 16-team playoff—can fairly determine a national champion. “If you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season and many of them have one loss or two losses, there’s no clear, decisive winner. We should be creating a playoff system,” Obama said on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

But Obama is unlikely to change the minds of the university and conference presidents who have resisted appeals to change the system for years. “He doesn’t understand that college football isn’t interested in compromising the best regular season in sports,” writes Chris Dufresne in the Los Angeles Times, “with a postseason that could jeopardize a delicate bowl construct.”

Historical Context: The mythical national championship

The NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) is unique in that it does not have an NCAA-administered postseason to determine a national champion. Since 1916, with the playing of the first Rose Bowl game, college football teams have played in bowl games organized by independent bowl committees rather than in an NCAA playoff.

The NCAA does not officially declare a national champion in the FBS division, leaving it with only a “mythical national championship.” What most fans recognize as a national championship has been awarded by independent rankings, media polls and the BCS—administered by a coalition of the 11 FBS conference commissioners and the athletic director of Notre Dame University.

Since 1936, the mythical national championship has been determined by polls. The original Associated Press poll was joined by the United Press’ coaches poll in 1950 and since then each poll has declared its own national champion.

The AP began permanently conducting its final poll after bowl games in 1968, and the coaches’ poll followed in 1974, turning bowl games from celebrated exhibition games into championship-deciding games.

Background: The BCS

Between 1936 and 1992, the country’s top two teams faced off in a bowl game just eight times, generating many disputed and unsettled national champions. The idea behind the BCS is ensure that the two top-ranked teams play each other in a bowl, rendering it a national championship game.

The foundation of the BCS was laid in 1992, when the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big Eight, Southeastern Conference, Southwest Conference and Notre Dame formed the Bowl Coalition. The Coalition was modified and renamed the Bowl Alliance in 1995, but it still did not include the Big Ten and Pac-10. Because of this, the first and second ranked teams did not play in 1996 and 1997, leading to a split national championship in 1997.

The BCS was created in 1998, incorporating the Pac-10 and Big Ten into the previous alliance. The Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta would serve as BCS bowls, hosting the champions of the Pac-10, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big East and Big 12, plus two at-large teams. The six conferences plus Notre Dame would share in the BCS bowl revenues, with non-BCS conferences receiving small cuts.

The bowls would rotate hosting the national championship game each year. The top two teams would be determined using the BCS rankings, a combination of the AP and coaches polls, plus computer rankings.

The first two years of the BCS were successful, as the undisputed one and two teams played each other in the national championship game. There was controversy in 2001 and 2002, however, when teams ranked second in the human polls were jumped in the BCS rankings due to the computer rankings.

Those controversies were minor in comparison to 2004 and 2005, when there were three closely matched teams competing for the two spots in the national championship game. In 2004, the University of Southern California was left out of the championship game and went on to win the Rose Bowl. The coaches poll named Louisiana State University the championship game winner, as its national champion, while the AP chose USC, resulting in a split title.

The split national championship was a major embarrassment for the BCS and illustrated its shortcomings. The following year, three teams finished the regular season undefeated, leaving one of them—Auburn University—without a chance for the national title. The AP pulled out of the BCS in protest and was replaced by the Harris Poll of former coaches, players and media members.

The BCS was also causing controversy by increasing the disparity between BCS conference teams and smaller, non-BCS conference teams. In response, several non-BCS universities threatened to file an antitrust lawsuit, while some congressmen threatened a congressional investigation. In 2004—which coincidentally was the first year in which a non-BCS team reached a BCS bowl—the BCS agreed to add a fifth game in 2006 to give non-BCS teams a better chance to reach the BCS.

Last spring, SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a four-team, “plus-one” playoff in which two Jan. 1 BCS bowls would serve as semi-finals for the national championship game. His proposal, which would require unanimous approval, was opposed by most other BCS decision-makers; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White.

Opinion & Analysis: How should college football crown its champion?

There is no shortage of proposed replacements for the BCS.’s Peter Schrager discusses the most ambitious system, the 16-team playoff similar to the one used in lower levels of college football. Under this format, the champions of all 11 conferences would make the tournament, as well as five at-large teams.

Schrager admits there are many reasons—involving academics, travel, logistics, tradition and money—that make such a tournament improbable. “Yes, it sure is fun to imagine,” he concludes. “But in the end, imagine is all we really can do.”

A more likely scenario is the eight-team playoff suggested by Obama and many others, including ESPN writer Pat Forde. Under Forde’s plan, the eight BCS teams would play three rounds in mid-December, New Year’s Day and a week later in seven rotating bowl locations.

“It wouldn’t make everybody happy,” he writes. “But wouldn’t you rather listen to arguments about who are the eighth- and ninth-best teams in America, instead of about who’s No. 1? In an eight-team tournament, there would be no legitimate danger that the best team in the country never got a chance to prove it on the field. With the current system, that is a clear and present danger.”

There is also a four-team, “plus-one” playoff that use two New Year’s Day BCS bowls as semifinals, with the two winners playing in the national championship game a week later. It is the only scenario that has received significant support from university and conference presidents, as it would be the easiest to implement and would fit within the current BCS structure.

“With the way the system is presently constructed, there’s simply too much riding on those individuals’ respective opinions,” writes Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel. “Go to a four-team playoff and you’ll alleviate a great deal of the controversy—but not all of it. And that’s a good thing.”

There are many writers who oppose any sort of playoff, preferring the traditional bowl system. The main argument centers on the belief that a playoff would diminish the excitement of the regular season, which currently serves as a week-by-week playoff,

“Why does college football need a conventional playoff?” asks the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein. “So the sport can be more like college basketball, which many of us ignore until February? The BCS isn’t perfect, but it delivers what no other sport can—a compelling and often kooky drama that stirs the senses each week.”

Another argument is that the chaos and controversy of the BCS is entertaining in its own right. “College football manages to build up conversation and hold attention for months by having a system that gushes with controversy and speculation,” says USA Today’s Mike Lopreseti. “True, sometimes the whole thing turns into a train wreck, impossible to fully understand. But who drives by a train wreck without stopping to watch?”

Reference: BCS Web site


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines