The BCS Is Here To Stay: Why a Playoff Won't Work

C.W. O'BrienCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2009

College football pundits have been screaming for a playoff for years. The talking heads on virtually every major channel have been begging for it. There is a movement among fans to have a playoff set up. Even the president and congress are in on the argument. 

They all claim that NCAA does not pick its FBS champion fairly. They argue that other NCAA team sports use a playoff and it works. They tend to point to the FCS and college basketball to show evidence that a playoff can work in major college football. 

They may be right. It does sound good, in theory. Pitting the best teams in the NCAA against one another on the field week after week until only one is left standing...that sounds like a great way to decide who the best team really is. It makes sense…until you look at all of the drawbacks. 

1.  The regular season would lose its importance. This is one of the main reasons why there is such a following in college football. While a single loss doesn’t necessarily eliminate a team from the BCS championship, it makes getting there a lot harder. They need help to get there. Teams with two losses just about need a miracle to even have a chance to compete (see LSU 2007). It keeps the fans excited, knowing that every game has the potential to have a huge impact. It puts butts in the seats and keeps people glued to their television sets. 


2.  Make no mistake about it, the bowl system will die. Love it or hate it, the bowl system produces millions of dollars every year for the conferences through TV rights, sponsorship, payouts, etc. That is revenue that will be nearly impossible to make up in a playoff environment. Football revenue pays for virtually every non-profit sport in the NCAA. Without that revenue, those sports would die out.


It is impossible to incorporate the bowls into a playoff. A lot of fans are able to make a cross country bowl trip once a year, if they are lucky. Few fans will be able to afford to make multiple cross country trips in the span of a month. It is hard enough for fans to go to a conference championship game and then a bowl game a month later. Any playoff plan that uses bowl sites for games will only result in failure.


It is also impossible to assume that the bowl system can continue to run opposite the playoffs, similar to what the NIT has been able to do. The bowls are also not going to want to pay big money to sponsor a game for the also-rans. The Fiesta Bowl isn’t going to pay $10 million to host a game between the Big XII No. 4 and the Big East No. 3.


The Sugar Bowl isn’t going to pay top dollar for a middle of the pack SEC team in a game that will have no bearing on the final rankings. 


Television viewers aren’t going to watch them because they won’t matter to anyone but the teams involved. Those bowls will have little impact on the final rankings. Sponsors aren’t going to pay for those games. It is hard enough to find sponsorship with the current bowl system. It will be next to impossible to find sponsors if none of bowls have any meaning or importance. 

For arguments sake, we will say that the NCAA found a way to keep those problems at bay. Make no mistake about it, the bowl system is now dead. 

A quick moment of silence for the Rose Bowl...I am sure that Big Ten and Pac-10 fans will mourn its passing...the rest of us won’t care. 

Once the NCAA decides to move forward with a playoff, first things first: How do they decide who is in, who is out, and how to seed the teams? The NCAA will probably create a selection committee, similar to what is used in college basketball. It will likely involve some form of RPI, strength of schedule, etc. 

You will not hear me arguing with that. I think that the basketball committee does a pretty good job for the most part. They miss a team here and there or seed someone wrong, but for the most part they do a pretty good job. 

Okay, so they have found a way to keep enthusiasm up, found the funding to make up for lost revenues from the bowls, and have found a way to pick and seed the teams. Here comes the fun part, which is coincidentally why a playoff will fail: selecting the number of teams allowed in the playoff.

This is where the real problems start. Everything before this is difficult, but manageable. This isn’t. 

A four team playoff (Plus One) sounds like the most logical. It is probably the easiest transition as well, but it will never get approved. 

Look no further then 2008 for evidence. Following the conference championship games, there was no question about who the top four teams were:  Florida, OU, Texas, and Alabama. They were the top four in the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, the Harris Poll, and in the BCS.

There was consensus among the powers that be that those were by far the four best teams in the country. 

The problem is that all four teams came from the same two conferences. In 2007, there were two teams in the top four from the SEC. In 2006, there were two teams from the Big Ten.

I could keep going, but it doesn’t matter.  It is an almost certainty that whatever conference is perceived to be the strongest will have multiple teams in the top four.

For better or worse, the conferences will not agree to this for fear of having a great team from their conference left out of the playoffs because of that conferences perceived weakness.

If there is prestige and/or money on the line, the conference commissioners will fight it tooth and nail. Those problems exist in a Plus One so there will be a dog fight. End of story. 

Since a Plus One model won’t work, the next logical step is an eight-team bracket. To keep the conference commissioners from the Big Six from blowing a gasket, it would include the conference champions from the six BCS conferences and two at-large teams. This is similar to the original set-up of the BCS. 

All of the big conferences are represented. The non-BCS teams can still get in. This one will work, right?

Nope. This one doesn’t work either. There are two insurmountable roadblocks. 

Roadblock No. 1: Good teams getting left out of the playoffs and lower ranked conference champions are allowed in.  I will use 2008 as an example.  The teams final BCS ranking is in parenthesis.

Guaranteed Teams
SEC:  Florida 12-1 (#2 BCS)
Big XII:  OU 12-1 (#1 BCS)
Big Ten:  Penn State 12-1 (#8 BCS)
ACC:  Virginia Tech 9-4 (#19  BCS)
Big East:  Cincinnati 11-2 (#12 BCS)
Pac-10:  USC 11-1 (#5 BCS)
Non-BCS:  Utah 12-0 (#6 BCS)

At Large Choices
Texas 11-1 (Big XII South Co-Champion, #3 BCS)
Alabama 12-1 (SEC Runner-up, SEC West Champion, #4 BCS)
Texas Tech 11-1 (Big XII South Co-Champion, #7 BCS)
Ohio State 10-2 (Big Ten Co-Champion, #10 BCS)
Boise State 13-0 (WAC Champ, #9 BCS)

There are five teams with resumes as good, or better than both Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. All five teams are also ranked higher than both of those teams. Utah takes up one of the at-large spots as the highest rated non-BCS team, only one of those teams can get into the playoffs. 

Who do you leave out?  I don’t want to be the guy telling Nick Saban or Mack Brown that their teams weren’t good enough to get into the playoffs if Cincinnati and Virginia Tech are in. 

“Sorry Coach Saban, I know that you were ranked No. 1 going into the final weekend and that Florida had to come from behind to beat you in the SEC title game, but we didn’t feel you were good enough”


“Sorry Coach Brown, we know that you beat OU, who is in the playoffs from your conference, that you only had one loss to another one loss team, and that you missed out on the Big XII Championship game because you lost out on the FIFTH tie-breaker, but we just didn’t think you weren’t good enough.”

I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t make it out of Austin or Tuscaloosa alive. 

Roadblock No. 2:  The five non-BCS conferences would have an anti-trust lawsuit filed in federal court before the ink could even dry on the playoff legislation. Those conferences would be well within their rights to do so...And they would win the lawsuit. 

I would venture a guess that they already have the paperwork written and are just waiting for a chance to file suit.

But C.W., how is that possible?  They don’t have BCS tie-ins now, so what is the big deal? The difference is that the BCS uses a formula to find the two best teams to crown the champion of the Coaches Poll. A playoff would be used to determine a champion for the NCAA. 

While the champion of the BCS is widely regarded as that champion of the NCAA, officially it isn’t.

Yes, it is just semantics, but in this case it is very important. 

The BCS has been allowed to avoid anti-trust legislation because it is not run or controlled by the NCAA, and therefore does not produce an NCAA sanctioned national title. 

The BCS produces a champion for a single poll. Since there are multiple polls, the BCS does not control the entire market. Any of those polls has the ability to crown its own champion. 

If the NCAA controls a playoff, the entire premise changes. The winner of the playoff would be the only sanctioned champion in college football. The NCAA would be required by law to allow every single one of its member institutions the opportunity to compete. Guaranteeing some, but not all, conference champions that opportunity does not allow all member institutions to have a chance to compete. 

Failure to guarantee every conference champion a place in the playoffs would be in violation of United States anti-trust laws. It would cost the NCAA tens of millions of dollars in legal fees to defend the case. In the end it would cost millions to settle the case and the NCAA would likely be forced to include the five non-BCS conference champions anyway. 

Okay, okay, so now those guys are in. Now the NCAA playoff has to have 12-16 teams. It would be comprised of the 11 conference champions and one to five at-large teams.

Guaranteed Teams

SEC:  Florida 12-1 (#2 BCS)
Big XII:  OU 12-1 (#1 BCS)
Big Ten:  Penn State 12-1 (#8 BCS)
ACC:  Virginia Tech 9-4 (#19  BCS)
Big East:  Cincinnati 11-2 (#12 BCS)
Pac-10:  USC 11-1 (#5 BCS)
MWC:  Utah 12-0 (#6 BCS)
WAC:  Boise State 13-0 (#9 BCS)
C. USA:  East Carolina 9-4 (NR BCS)
MAC:  Buffalo 8-5 (NR BCS)
Sun Belt:  Troy 8-4 (NR BCS) 

So now the little guys are in. This has to work, right? Wrong again. The 12 to 16-Team bracket leaves out deserving teams, just as much as an eight-team bracket does. The only difference is that in a 16-team bracket teams that are left out have a much stronger argument, due to the inclusion of so many teams from non-BCS conferences. 

How can the NCAA put 8-5 Buffalo into the playoffs and leave out 9-3 Oregon, 9-3 Oklahoma State, 9-3 Missouri, 9-3 Michigan State, and 9-3 Georgia? Those teams not only had better records, but they also played tougher competition. 

Once again, quality teams would be left out to accommodate weaker, non-BCS conference champions. The Big Six would never allow that to happen. 

If you say that those teams can't complain, don't forget the that the NCAA basketball tournament got so big because of the exact same reason. Good teams were at home watching the games on TV while weaker teams were playing in those games. 

The NCAA had to expand the tournament to accommodate those quality teams or risk mutiny in its ranks. 

For a playoff to work, the NCAA football tournament would have to have at least 24-32 teams. It is the only way that will appease the Big Six and prevent the five other conferences from filing a lawsuit. It is virtually a stalemate on every other possible playoff proposal. 

When is enough actually enough? The fact remains that most of the teams in the tournament would have no business being there. Outside of the top eight to 10 teams, do the rest really deserve a chance to win a national title? 

Those people clamoring for a playoff feel that is the only real way to determine a champion. I don’t disagree, but I wonder how those same people will feel after the fact? 

Look at the NCAA basketball tournament. Almost yearly, some team limps its way into the tournament and gets hot. They aren’t the best team in the country, they are just playing the best at that time.

There is no way that every 15-seed that has beaten a two-seed in the NCAA basketball tournament is actually better than the two seed. They just caught the two-seed on a bad day.  Don’t forget that only once since the tournament expanded have all four one-seeds made it to the Final Four. 

Make no mistake about it, the same thing will happen in a football playoff. Teams will have bad games. Players will get hurt. Refs will make poor calls. The ball will take a funny bounce at an inopportune time. It isn’t a question of if those things will happen.  It is just a matter of who they will happen to and when those things will happen. 

I want to know how those pundits will feel when the bottom seeded team wins the playoffs. Will they be able to keep a straight face when they proclaim a team with four or five losses as the best team in football? 

Will they honestly be able to say that the team with four or five losses is actually the national champion or will they be forced to say that the team got hot at the right time?  Will they even be able to believe themselves when they say it?

If they aren’t prepared to say those things and actually believe them, than they aren’t really ready for a playoff. I know that I am not ready to believe it. That won’t stop it from happening though. 

I am not a fan of the BCS but it a much better option than a 24 to 32-team playoff. The BCS is beyond tweaks. It needs a complete overhaul. Regardless, it is still a much better way to determine a national champion than the alternative. 


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