Let's indulge a hypothetical, shall we?
The BCS era officially came to a close on Jan. 6, giving way to next year's debut of the much-awaited four-team College Football Playoff.
Ostensibly, the CFP was instituted because the BCS didn't work. The logical corollary to "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is that if you fix it, it must be broke. By that token, there must have been at least one season where the BCS gave us the wrong champion, and probably even more than that.
So what would have happened if, in 1998, the CFP had been launched instead of the BCS? How might history have changed? Who that didn't raise a crystal football might have stood a shot?
Of course, we'll never know for sure. But here's a potential look.
(1) Tennessee vs. (4) UCLA
UCLA edges out Kansas State, which started the season 11-0 before losing in double overtime against Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship. Winning a power conference, I assume, will go a long way with the CFP committee. But Phil Fulmer's '98 Vols were champions for a reason, and that reason included winning the SEC.
(2) Florida State vs. (3) Ohio State
Florida State was far from infallible in 1998, losing its second game at North Carolina State, which finished the season 7-5. In the first BCS title game against Tennessee, its defense didn't look quite up to the task against blue-chip athletes. Ohio State had David Boston playing some of the best football in FBS history this year, and he likely could have given FSU the same type of trouble through the air.
Winner: Ohio State
(1) Tennessee vs. (3) Ohio State
Tennessee was good enough to run through the SEC undefeated, but that is a much different task today than it was back in '98. Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders and ESPN ranked the Vols (Insider access required) the No. 15 title game participant of the BCS era, lower than most fellow champions.
Ohio State, meanwhile, choked away one game to Michigan State but looked dominant in the others, scoring 21 points in the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl win against Texas A&M.
Winner: Ohio State
Note: A previous version of this article claimed Peyton Manning was on the '98 Vols. The error has since been fixed.
(1) Florida State vs. (4) Alabama
Alabama wasn't the same dominant menace in 1999 that it became in the latter part of the 2000s, despite winning the SEC this season. The Tide lost a nonconference game against Louisiana Tech toward the start of the season and the Orange Bowl to Michigan. It would have put up a fight against Bobby Bowden's undefeated Seminoles, but that eventually would have been for naught.
Winner: Florida State
(2) Virginia Tech vs. (3) Nebraska
What a game this might have been. Michael Vick and Eric Crouch were truly two of the most exciting players of the BCS era, each bringing a rare type of athleticism to the quarterback position. The Huskers lost at Texas in the regular season, but for the most part, their schedule was far tougher than Virginia Tech's, which featured just one quality opponent in Miami. It's hard to know how good the Hokies really were.
(1) Florida State vs. (3) Nebraska
This quarterback battle wouldn't have been too shabby, either. Though neither won the Heisman in 1999, Crouch and FSU's Chris Weinke would go on to win the subsequent two trophies, respectively. Weinke was older and wiser at the time, though, and Florida State was a special team, going undefeated and being ranked No. 1 from the start of the season to the end.
Winner: Florida State
(1) Oklahoma vs. (4) Washington
The 2000 season was about as wide-open as they come. Oklahoma, the eventual national champion, beat 3-8 Oklahoma State by only five points in November, though it did also dominate Nebraska and Texas en route to an undefeated season.
Washington probably should have been ranked higher, having gone 10-1 and beaten both Miami and Oregon State, and the Huskies could have definitely stayed close with the Sooners. But they likely would have fallen just short.
(2) Florida State vs. (3) Miami
Florida State and Miami weren't yet conference foes in the year 2000, but they were already rivals and they did play in the regular season. On their home field, the Hurricanes handed FSU its sole loss of the regular season, 27-24, though the outcome could have gone either way. With Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke in the lineup, the Seminoles likely would have won on a neutral field.
Winner: Florida State
(1) Oklahoma vs. (2) Florida State
It wasn't the sexiest matchup, and it's known as one of the most boring title games in BCS history, but this is the game we would have once again gotten. Oklahoma beat Florida State 13-2, and there's no reason to think much further past that.
(1) Miami vs. (4) Colorado
A playoff committee might have slotted Colorado behind Oregon and sent it off to play the Hurricanes in order to avoid getting a rematch of the Big 12 Championship Game against Nebraska. Miami's defense held seven opponents to a touchdown or less in 2001 and Colorado's offense barely had a starting quarterback, though, so this might well have been a blowout.
(2) Nebraska vs. (3) Oregon
According to Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders and ESPN, 2001 Nebraska ranked as the worst title game participant (subscription required) of the BCS era, losing each of its final two games by 20-plus points (albeit against two teams projected in this playoff).
Oregon kept itself out of the title game by losing against Stanford—a sign of things to come—but was otherwise dominant for most of the season, including a Fiesta Bowl blowout of Colorado. This too might have been a blowout.
(1) Miami vs. (3) Oregon
Joey Harrington. Ken Dorsey. What more could you people ask for?!
Seriously, though, this game would be closer than most folks care to realize.
The 2001 Miami team was plenty good, but history tends to aggrandize it more than the numbers justify. Yes, there were nearly 20 future first-round picks on the roster, but it didn't always look that way on the field. Harrington and the Ducks would have hung around for all four quarters and had a shot to win at the end. However, at the end of the day, Miami did, as advertised, simply have too much talent.
(1) Miami vs. (4) Iowa
Iowa actually finished third in the BCS standings, but a playoff committee would have bumped it down to fourth (I think) to avoid an all-Big Ten semifinal against Ohio State. Not that it would have mattered. Both Miami and Ohio State were unstoppable machines in 2002, while the Hawkeyes lost the Orange Bowl by 21 points against USC. They wouldn't have stood much chance.
(2) Ohio State vs. (3) Georgia
The Buckeyes played a lot of close games in 2002, perhaps foreshadowing one of the best, most thrilling title games of all time against Miami. Georgia, meanwhile, rode a dominating defense that allowed just 15 points per game to an SEC championship, right when the league was beginning to assert itself as a national powerhouse.
This one would have come down to the very end, where either team would have had a chance to win, but OSU was kissed by fate this season.
Winner: Ohio State
(1) Miami vs. (2) Ohio State
This one is tough. I genuinely believe Miami was the better team this season and that if you played this matchup on a neutral field 10 times, the Hurricanes would win six or seven. Still, history is history and we saw what happened that fateful night in Tempe, Ariz. Can't argue with that.
Winner: Ohio State
(1) USC vs. (4) Michigan
USC didn't even make the national title game in 2003, despite ranking first in both of the human polls. Its poor computer ranking (burdened by a weak schedule) kept it away from a chance to win the championship, but the CFP would have put control back in USC's hands. And as they did in the Rose Bowl this season, the Trojans would be able to hold off Michigan for the victory.
(2) LSU vs. (3) Oklahoma
The eventual national title game, LSU vs. Oklahoma featured one of the most dominant defensive performances in BCS history. The Tigers held Bob Stoops' team to just 154 total yards to take home the crystal football, and they likely would have done the same in a national semifinal.
(1) USC vs. (2) LSU
Finally, some closure. In real life, USC and LSU were split national champions for 2003, which helped shine a brighter light on the BCS as a farce. If they played on the field, these two equal teams likely would have gone down to the wire, but my gut says the Trojans would have pulled it out. Something about that team felt more complete.
(1) USC vs. (4) California
Cal likely would have made it in over Utah, despite having one loss to the Utes' zero. Pac-12 trumps MWC every time—both then and now. The Bears lost by just six points on the road against USC this season, and any team with Aaron Rodgers tends to have a chance to win. But back in college, the same could also be said about Matt Leinart. Trojans in a close one.
(2) Oklahoma vs. (3) Auburn
More than any other year of the BCS era, this one desperately needed a playoff. Auburn, USC and Oklahoma (not to mention Utah) all finished the season undefeated, and the Tigers were ultimately left out of the national title game. After watching OU lose by 32 points against USC, however, it was painfully clear that the system got it wrong. Auburn was a machine in 2004.
(1) USC vs. (3) Auburn
At the time, it was easy to call for Auburn as the better team. It was the trendy thing to do, especially in arguments against the BCS system. And while the '04 Tigers were better than some of the national champions on this list, they simply weren't better than the Trojans, whom Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders and ESPN ranked the best champion (Insider access required) of the BCS era.
(1) USC vs. (4) Ohio State
The 2005 version of USC wasn't nearly as dominant as the 2004 version, especially on offense. The Buckeyes might have been able to ugly this up and make it a game for four quarters, just as they did against Texas early in the year. But the Trojans had just a little bit more firepower, which likely would have given them the edge.
(2) Texas vs. (3) Penn State
One of the best Penn State teams of the modern era, the 2005 Lions were thwarted by a heartbreaking loss at Michigan, which kept them out of the national title game. With a win over Ohio State to its name, no one could doubt the efficiency of this team, led by quarterback Michael Robinson, which also played some of the best defense in America. But even a great defense wasn't slowing down Vince Young's path to glory.
(1) USC vs. (2) Texas
Up there with Ohio State-Miami (2002) and Florida State-Auburn (2014), the 2006 Rose Bowl was no doubt one of the best title games of the BCS era. Put these two teams on a neutral field 100 times, and the series likely would have split 50 to 50. But Young was magical when the moment called for it, etching his name indelibly in college football lore.
(1) Ohio State vs. (4) LSU
There would have been considerable politicking needed to even get LSU into this game. The Tigers finished fourth in the BCS standings, but they had two losses, while Louisville and Wisconsin had one and Boise State had zero. Once here, however, it would prove its worth against an Ohio State team that (in real life) got blown out in the national title game.
(2) Florida vs. (3) Michigan
This would have settled a major controversy at the time. Florida leapfrogged Michigan on the final weekend, after Ohio State edged out the Wolverines in Columbus, but many thought Chad Henne's group was the stronger team. Still, knowing what we now do, it's hard to put a team that lost to the Buckeyes—no matter the venue—over a team that crushed them on the big stage, as the Gators did en route to the title.
(1) Florida vs. (4) LSU
Arkansas edged out LSU for a spot against the Gators in the SEC Championship Game, and Florida did beat the Tigers earlier in the season, 23-10, at The Swamp. But Les Miles' team might have actually been playing better ball at the end of the season, led by future No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell and a typical Les Miles defense. There's a reason it finished atop the Football Outsiders F/+ Ratings that season.
(1) Ohio State vs. (4) Oklahoma
Getting beat down in the BCS National Championship Game was not a good look for the Buckeyes, but 2007 was an all-around weak year. No team stood out as truly dominant, including the (eventual) three-loss Sooners. This one would have been close and likely could have gone either way, but I think OSU had just enough defensive firepower to come out on top.
Winner: Ohio State
(2) LSU vs. (3) Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech had a defense that could hang with anyone in 2007, and in true Frank Beamer fashion, it also had the best special teams unit in America. Those two things would give it a real chance against the mighty LSU Tigers, though a sometimes anemic offense would make the prospect of winning bleak. LSU was the more complete team.
(1) Ohio State vs. (2) LSU
Matt Flynn guided an underrated LSU offense to 38 points against the vaunted OSU defense, and not for a second did it look like a fluke. This game helped the SEC build its reputation, as the Tigers made the Buckeyes look downright soft and a step slow.
(1) Oklahoma vs. (4) Alabama
This was one year before Nick Saban truly transformed Alabama's program. The Crimson Tide were a very good team in 2008, but they were far from a great one, especially on offense. Oklahoma wasn't truly great either, but it was probably good enough to win this one and advance to the national title game. Sam Bradford is the difference.
(2) Florida vs. (3) Texas
This Texas team might have been even stronger than the 2009 version, which would actually make the national title game the following year. But no one was beating Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer in 2008. No one. Brian Fremeau of ESPN and Football Outsiders ranked this the second-best team of the BCS era (Insider access required), and there was a reason for that. Florida in a blowout.
(1) Oklahoma vs. (2) Florida
We saw what happened when this game actually took place, and it wasn't very close. Oklahoma wasn't exposed as a bad team, just one that wasn't nearly on par with the Gators. This was one of the truly special units in college football history.
(1) Alabama vs. (4) TCU
This was the first truly dominant team Nick Saban coached in Tuscaloosa, and it remains, to this day, his only undefeated Alabama squad. TCU was as good as always during the Andy Dalton era, so it would have put up a fight, but the Tide were at least two touchdowns better.
(2) Texas vs. (3) Cincinnati
Texas wasn't dominant in any way, shape or form in 2009, coasting to the national title game despite a schedule that featured just one team in the AP Top 20. If it drew TCU instead of Cincinnati, it would have stood a chance at losing. But the Bearcats—even assuming Brian Kelly stuck around instead of fleeing to Notre Dame—didn't have the talent to unseat Colt McCoy's Longhorns.
(1) Alabama vs. (2) Texas
This might have been a fun game if not for McCoy's early injury, which forced youngster (and future SMU Mustang) Garrett Gilbert to play quarterback for most of the game. Even if we provide for McCoy's health, though, this was a special group that Saban assembled at Alabama. It wasn't losing to anybody.
(1) Auburn vs. (4) Stanford
Cam Newton vs. Andrew Luck is a matchup that, potentially, could someday unfold in the Super Bowl. This would have been an awesome precursor between two future No. 1 overall picks, and it would have been a surprisingly close game. In a vacuum, Jim Harbaugh always has the upper edge on Gene Chizik, but Auburn's offense had too many ways to win.
(2) Oregon vs. (3) TCU
Speaking of future NFL quarterbacks, TCU's Andy Dalton led his team to an undefeated record in 2010, including a Rose Bowl win over high-powered Wisconsin. Oregon's roster likely had more talent from top to bottom, but Gary Patterson's squad was plenty good in its own right. This Ducks offense wasn't on par with some of Chip Kelly's other units, either.
(1) Auburn vs. (3) TCU
Over the course of the season, Auburn and TCU played roughly even football. Neither was discernibly better nor worse than the other over 13-14 games. But the Tigers peaked in a big way at the end of 2010 (and start of 2011), which would have given them a big advantage over the upstart Horned Frogs. It would have been low-scoring and close, just like the actual national title game, but Newton was not going to be denied.
(1) LSU vs. (4) Stanford
The Tigers defense was a true sight to behold in 2011, but Andrew Luck and Stanford would provide one if its stiffest possible tests. Even a roster loaded with future NFL defenders might be little match for a future NFL superstar quarterback—especially one as cerebral and advanced as Luck. However, the Cardinal's defense would have struggled against the physicality of LSU's grinding offense, which would have made the ultimate difference.
(2) Alabama vs. (3) Oklahoma State
This was a truly special Oklahoma State team, perhaps the best Mike Gundy has ever coached. But it's unclear how the Cowboys would have matched up with the Tide. So much of their offense relied on the dominance of Justin Blackmon, but Alabama had a secondary deep and talented enough to shut him down.
(1) LSU vs. (2) Alabama
I'll just leave this here.
(1) Notre Dame vs. (4) Oregon
Chip Kelly's final team at Oregon was a perfectly realized version of his offense, suffering its only loss against hated rival (and perpetual kryptonite) Stanford. After seeing the Ducks steamroll Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl and Notre Dame get whooped against Alabama, it's pretty clear that the wrong team would be ranked higher in this game. Still, Oregon would have likely been the Vegas favorite (with good reason).
(2) Alabama vs. (3) Florida
The SEC Championship Game that wasn't. This one would not have been for the faint of heart, featuring the two best defenses in America, per Football Outisders' F/+ Ratings. The Gators likely could have hung around for a half or three quarters, but at the end of the day, AJ McCarron beats Jeff Driskel by a long shot. Same goes for Nick Saban and Will Muschamp.
(2) Alabama vs. (4) Oregon
This title game might have been the most interesting in BCS history. 'Bama and Oregon finished Nos. 1 and 2 in F/+, each placing top five in both offense and defense. Oregon might have had trouble scoring points, the way it did against Auburn in 2011, but 2012's defense was the best unit Eugene had ever seen. This one would have gone down to the wire. In that case, I'll get bold and take Kelly's team in an upset.
(1) Florida State vs. (4) Michigan State
Sparty had the secondary pieces and pass rush to give Jameis Winston some trouble through the air, but Florida State would be able to get something going on the ground, just as Nebraska and Ohio State did this season. Across the line, Connor Cook would play a very good game, just as he did against Stanford, but his signature "one big mistake" would be a deciding factor.
Winner: Florida State
(2) Auburn vs. (3) Alabama
It's wrong to call the Iron Bowl a fluke, especially after watching Auburn lead for most of the BCS National Championship Game. That team was not a joke. Still, Alabama led for most of the evening in Jordan-Hare, so it's hard to believe it wouldn't do the same on a neutral field. Even if the Tide think they "tried" against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, I have to believe they'd give a better effort in a national semifinal.
(1) Florida State vs. (3) Alabama
This is the title game most people projected during the season, and even though both teams looked more vulnerable than usual in their postseason matchups, it's likely what we would have gotten with a playoff.
Florida State's pass rush could give Alabama some of the same problems Oklahoma's did, though, and with so many receiving weapons against a depleted secondary, it's offense would put up enough points to win. In its final season, the BCS got it right.
Winner: Florida State