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A Proper Postseason: Comparing the BCS to a Plus-One (Part I: 1998-2002)

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A Proper Postseason: Comparing the BCS to a Plus-One (Part I: 1998-2002)

In May, eleven conference commissioners and Notre Dame's athletic director met to discuss the Bowl Championship Series, major college football's current postseason format.

Much has been made of the fact that SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed the popular "plus-one" update of the BCS formula. In essence, the plus-one is a four-team seeded playoff.

Proponents point out that the method would expand the pool of possible title-game participants to four teams. This, they say, would enable any team with a legitimate claim to a title shot play for it on the field. Its small size would not devalue the regular season the way a larger-scale playoff would; with only four spots, one untimely loss could still knock a team from consideration.

Opponents cite that a four-team playoff would generally still leave controversy over the worthiness of its participants-- the fighting would just be over who's number four, rather than number two. The consensus is that plus-one would quickly expand to a larger-scale playoff, which none of the commissioners or school presidents want.

Additionally, the Big Ten and Pac Ten conferences are more interested in keeping their traditional ties to the Rose Bowl than implementing a playoff system.  But it isn't just those two conferences opposed to a change. Everyone at the BCS's May meeting, save for Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford, rejected the plus-one idea.

While there are many more ins, outs, and what-have-yous in the discussion of college football's postseason, this article's focus is on how a plus-one format would have affected the postseasons during the BCS era.

There is no specific plus-one model that has taken root, so for the purposes of this article, we'll choose one.

The Model

Any format for a plus-one will necessarily use the BCS standings. Simply taking the top four teams of the final BCS rankings would make sense; however, it seems reasonable that there should be a clause to include the possibility for a team from outside the six "power" conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, and Big East).

Let's assume such a rule would be in place, specifically: if any team finishes the regular season undefeated, with a strength-of-schedule ranked in the upper 25% of FBS teams, they automatically receive a berth in the plus-one, regardless of final BCS rank.

To keep it safe, we'll limit it so that only the highest-ranked team outside the BCS top 4 can use this automatic bid. Thus, only one undefeated team outside of the top 4 could bump out at BCS top-4 team--and only if the top-4 team was not also undefeated.

Some pundits want the stipulation that every team in the plus-one must be a conference champion. This automatically assumes that the second-best team in a conference can't be among the top four teams nationally--a clear fallacy. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume there is no such stipulation.

The History (1998-2002)

Now that we know how our plus-one model works, lets look at how it would have changed each of the last ten bowl seasons. First, a few notes:

Based on the way voting has gone for the final BCS polls the last two years, it's safe to assume that poll voters would re-evaluate how they ranked teams if they knew that the top four would play off.

Also, the BCS format has changed radically in its ten years. For simplicity's sake, we'll use the BCS rankings in place during that year.

Any instance where the voting and/or format change would likely have affected the top-4 will be duly noted.

No attempts will be made to determine who would have won the National Championship under a plus-one format, and the information discussed is strictly pre-bowls.

1998

BCS top 5 (losses in parentheses):

  1. Tennessee (0)
  2. Florida State (1)
  3. Kansas State (1)
  4. Ohio State (1)
  5. UCLA (1)

Other undefeateds: #10 Tulane (schedule strength: 96)

Controversy: Kansas State was not invited to a BCS bowl, despite being ranked third. Tulane also wasn't invited to a BCS bowl, despite finishing undefeated and ranked 10th in the final BCS poll.

Plus-One: Tulane would be excluded based on their poor schedule strength. It's very possible the final rankings would be different in the present format. Additionally, Kansas State lost the Big 12 Championship game to Texas A&M, which would introduce questions about their worthiness.

(1) Tennessee vs. (4) Ohio State

(2) Florida State vs. (3) Kansas State.

Analysis: The season ended with one major-conference undefeated team. Having a plus-one would simply move the controversy over the second-ranked team to an even more controversial decision for second, third, and fourth. Kansas State's status as a conference non-champion would be even more controversial.

Conclusion: A plus one would have at least as many problems as the old BCS, resulting in no great improvement.

Grades: BCS: B+; Plus-One: B

1999

BCS top 5 (losses in parentheses):

  1. Florida State (0)
  2. Virginia Tech (0)
  3. Nebraska (1)
  4. Alabama (2)
  5. Tennessee (2)

Other undefeateds: #12 Marshall (ss: 93)

Controversy: Kansas State, despite having only one loss, was hurt again because of poor schedule strength and ranked below teams with two losses. Marshall finished undefeated but had poor schedule strength. Neither team was invited to a BCS bowl.

Plus-One: All of the top four teams were conference champions. However, since the final standings had only two major-conference undefeateds at the top, the need for a plus-one playoff is questionable at best. Additionally, the fourth-seed would be a two-loss team, which would undoubtedly call into question the necessity of a four-team playoff.

(1) Florida State vs. (4) Alabama

(2) Virginia Tech vs. (3) Nebraska

Analysis: This was a year in which a single championship game could easily be deemed adequate without controversy. Expanding the field to four teams would actually introduce far more undo controversy due to disparate records and debatable worthiness of participants.

Conclusion: The plus-one would have been a downgrade from the old BCS.

Grades: BCS: A+; Plus-One: B-

2000

BCS top 5 (losses in parentheses):

  1. Oklahoma (0)
  2. Florida State (1)
  3. Miami (1)
  4. Washington (1)
  5. Virginia Tech (1)

Other undefeateds: None

Controversy: Florida State lost to Miami earlier in the year, and Washington was the only team to have beaten Miami. All three teams had one loss, and all three had a legitimate claim to being the second-ranked team. Virginia Tech's one loss was to Miami. Similarly, Oregon State lost only to Washington. There was only one undefeated team, so the controversy was in determining their opponent.

Plus-One: A plus-one would have allowed the three teams with legitimate second-place claims to take part in the plus-one. All of the top four were conference champions. Fifth-ranked Virginia Tech and sixth-ranked Oregon State were not, losing on head-to-head.

(1) Oklahoma vs. (4) Washington

(2) Florida State vs. (3) Miami

Analysis: A plus-one would clear up the controversy surrounding the title game's participants. Complaints by the fifth- and sixth-place teams would hold far less water than the complaints by the third- and fourth-place teams did under the BCS system.

Conclusion: A plus-one would have been a great improvement over the old BCS.

Grades: BCS: C; Plus-One: A

2001

BCS top 5 (losses in parentheses):

  1. Miami (0)
  2. Nebraska (1)
  3. Colorado (2)
  4. Oregon (1)
  5. Florida (2)

Other undefeateds: None

Controversy: Nebraska lost their regular season finale against Colorado 62-36. Colorado played in the Big 12 Championship game and won; Nebraska did not even play in it. Oregon, ranked #2 in the AP poll, was left on the outside looking in.

Plus-One: Again, a lone team finished the regular season undefeated, so the search was for their opponent. A plus-one would expand the field to include worthy participants who would otherwise have been shut out. Nebraska's status as a conference non-champion could create problems.

(1) Miami vs. (4) Oregon

(2) Nebraska vs. (3) Colorado.

Analysis: The team with the most legitimate case for inclusion, Oregon, would have a chance to play for a championship with the plus-one format. Conference non-champion Nebraska would participate, and have a rematch with a Colorado team to whom they had just lost badly. The inclusion of Nebraska and two-loss Colorado would likely cause uproar amongst some teams outside the top 4.

Conclusion: Though a plus-one would clear up some controversy, it would not eliminate all and indeed create some more. A plus-one would be at best only a slight improvement over the old BCS.

Grades: BCS: C+; Plus-One: B-

2002

BCS top 5 (losses in parentheses):

  1. Miami (0)
  2. Ohio State (0)
  3. Georgia (1)
  4. USC (2)
  5. Iowa (1)

Other undefeateds: None

Controversy: Very little. There was a clear-cut one and two, with no other major teams laying legitimate claim to title participation.

Plus-One: A plus-one would invite controversy over who the third- and fourth-seed teams would be. USC, with two losses, did not win its conference. Neither did one-loss Iowa. Washington State defeated USC and won the Pac 10, but lost to Ohio State earlier in the year; but Iowa finished with a better record, having not played Ohio State. It is likely that the final poll would have been different if voters were consciously voting-in the teams for a plus-one. Using the existing rankings:

(1) Miami vs. (4) USC

(2) Ohio State vs. (3) Georgia

Analysis: The muddled situation between the fourth- through sixth-place teams could conceivably have extended to Oklahoma and Kansas State. Each team ended the season with just two losses, and could make a legitimate case to be included over USC--Oklahoma as Big 12 Champ, and Kansas State because they beat USC earlier in the season. While Georgia's case for #3 was easy, the fourth seed would have created huge controversy.

Conclusion: A plus-one would have created far more problems than the old BCS format, which neatly matched-up the consensus top two without controversy.

Grades: BCS: A+; Plus-One: C-

 

Continue on to the next article in the series here. Part II details the years from 2003 to 2007, then reaches a verdict on the plus-one option.

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