Monday, December 3, 2007

The BCS Mess Produces an Ohio State-LSU Championship Game: Let the Debate Begin!

One of the wildest and most unpredictable college football seasons ever will conclude on January 7, 2008 when #1 Ohio State (11-2) plays #2 LSU (11-2) in the BCS National Championship Game. Fox Sports' Jimmy Johnson made an excellent point when he noted that these two teams combined to hold the number one spot for most of the season and Chris Rose added that not long ago this was the matchup that most people probably wanted to see. Of course, in recent weeks each of these teams lost a game, only to move back into the championship picture after other contenders fell by the wayside.

Most fans do not believe that this BCS system is a good way to determine a national champion. Major college football is the only notable sport that selects its champion in such a haphazard manner and it is obvious that it would be a major improvement if the BCS were replaced with a playoff system. It is ridiculous to say that the entire football season is currently a playoff; if that were the case, then Ohio State and LSU would have both been eliminated already (as would everyone else except Hawaii, the only undefeated team).

How did we end up with the BCS system in the first place? To paraphrase Bill Walton, I am old enough to remember when the various bowl games had contracts with different conferences; for instance, the Big Ten champion always played the Pac-10 champion in the Rose Bowl. After all the bowl games were over, various polls would vote to determine the national champion. Sometimes the polls came to the same conclusion but often they did not. For instance, in 1988 Notre Dame was a consensus national champion, while in 1991 the AP selected Miami (Fla.) while the USA/Today ESPN voters chose Washington. Due to the traditional conference affiliations of the various bowls, the two top ranked teams did not necessarily face each other in a bowl game during that era.

In other words, the way that things were done in "the good old days" did not make any more sense than the way things are done now. That is why college football administrators started tinkering with the bowl format in the early 1990s. Their first move was to to create the Bowl Coalition, which lasted from 1992-94. The idea was to try to have the best of both worlds, preserving traditional matchups as much as possible while also trying to maximize the chance that the two top ranked teams played each other in a bowl game. In 1992, the system worked, as number two Alabama beat number one Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl and won the consensus national championship. Number one Florida State beat number two Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl to claim the consensus 1993 national championship. Things got sticky in 1994 when Nebraska and Penn State each finished the regular season with undefeated records. Top ranked Nebraska beat third ranked Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl, while third ranked Penn State--by then already a member of the Big Ten, which was not one of the participating conferences in the Bowl Coalition--defeated number 12 Oregon (the Pac-10 champion) 38-20 in a traditional Rose Bowl matchup. The major polls all picked Nebraska first and Penn State second but any system that produced two undefeated teams at the conclusion of the bowl season was deemed unsatisfactory, so in 1995 the Bowl Coalition was replaced by the Bowl Alliance. The Big Ten and the Pac-10 still declined to participate but the new system guaranteed that the top two teams would face each other in a bowl game unless one of those teams was committed to the Rose Bowl due to being from the Big Ten or Pac-10. This format worked out for a couple years; in 1995, number one Nebraska beat number two Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the consensus national championship and the 1996 season also produced a consensus champion when number three Florida State beat number one Florida 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl--but everything only worked out that time because number four Ohio State knocked off second ranked (and previously unbeaten) Arizona State in the traditional Rose Bowl matchup. The Bowl Alliance failed to produce a consensus champion in 1997: number two Nebraska beat number three Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl but after number one Michigan beat Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl the polls disagreed: the writers kept Michigan in the top spot, while the coaches moved Nebraska up to number one--and that is what led to the creation of the BCS in 1998.

The BCS brought the Big Ten and Pac-10 into the fold but did not offer a good answer for what would happen if there were more than two undefeated teams at the end of the regular season--and that "doomsday" scenario was narrowly averted in 1998 when two of the three remaining unbeaten teams (Kansas State and UCLA) each lost their final regular season games, setting up a championship game matchup between 12-0 Tennessee and 11-1 Florida State. In 1999 the system worked without a hitch as two unbeaten teams, Florida State and Virginia Tech, played in the championship game. Things did not go quite so smoothly in 2000, as three one-loss teams vied for the opportunity to face undefeated Oklahoma; Florida State received the nod and Oklahoma beat the Seminoles to claim the title. If Florida State had won then Miami (which beat Florida State during the regular season) and Washington (which beat Miami during the regular season) would have had a legitimate beef.

In 2001, the Nebraska Cornhuskers lost their final regular season game after spending most of the season as the second ranked team but they retained that spot after several other teams suffered upset losses. Undefeated Miami beat Nebraska in the national championship game, which was hosted by the Rose Bowl, marking the first time in 55 years that the Rose Bowl participants were not the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions. The 2002 season may have been the best one of the BCS era: undefeated, second ranked Ohio State beat the undefeated, top ranked defending national champions Miami in double overtime in the Fiesta Bowl. Obviously, that matchup would have never happened prior to the BCS because Ohio State would have played in the Rose Bowl.

LSU claimed the 2003 BCS title by beating Oklahoma but AP voters selected USC as the national champion. In 2004, three teams were undefeated after the bowl season--USC, Auburn and Utah--but both the BCS and the AP voters tapped USC as the national champion. USC and Texas were the two top ranked teams throughout the 2006 season and Vince Young led Texas to a 41-38 Rose Bowl victory over USC to win the national championship. Last year, of course, Florida routed Ohio State in the first stand-alone BCS National Championship Game.

What we used to have in college football were traditional bowl matchups between rival conferences followed by polls to determine the final rankings. That method obviously could not be assured of producing a consensus champion every year but the various entities involved (the NCAA, college presidents, the television networks) could not agree on a playoff format, which led to the hybrid solution of the Bowl Coalition; that initial change was the first step toward destroying the tradition surrounding the bowl games and inevitably led us to where we are now: the old traditions are shattered yet we only end up with a consensus champion if everything breaks just right. The obvious, correct approach that should have been taken nearly two decades ago was to have a playoff after all the traditional bowl games were played; that would have kept tradition intact while at the same time maximizing the likelihood of producing a consensus champion. Now, several years after tradition has been cast aside, that solution would not fly because the involved parties are making too much money under the current system to accept a change. So how should the current BCS system be reformed? The obvious solution is still a playoff: select the top eight teams and have a three round postseason with the current bowl games being slotted into various rounds on a rotating basis. The NCAA, bowl presidents and conferences can work out the details about which bowls will host which games so that the financial ramifications (the number one concern of all the involved parties, despite their pious rhetoric about academics, tradition or anything else) are resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Obviously, even with an eight team playoff the ninth and tenth ranked teams will say that they have a beef but that would be preferable to the current system--and I seriously doubt that there will ever be a season when the ninth ranked team will have a legitimate claim to being the best team in the country (yes, Hawaii went 12-0 this year and is currently ranked ninth but that is because of their strength of schedule; if your program is trying to win a national title then you have to play tougher opposition).

An eight team playoff this season using the final BCS standings would include Ohio State, LSU, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri, USC and Kansas. Wouldn't you like to watch those teams square off on the final two weekends of December, with the National Championship Game being played in the first week of the new year? There could still be complaints about seeding or about possibly having to play a team that you already beat in the regular season but at least each of these teams would have a chance to compete for the title on the playing field instead of having their coaches appearing on TV stumping for pollsters' votes.

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