BCS Woes: Why The College Presidents Do Not Want a National Champion

Paul RosikContributor IIIDecember 5, 2010

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 20:  J.J. Watt #99 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates a fourth quarter interception with Patrick Butrym #95 while playing the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 20, 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Wisconson won the game 48-28.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

You only have to poke around a place like this for a few minutes to see all the questions and debate. “How can Virginia Tech go to a BCS game when Boise doesn’t?” Ohio State’s strength of schedule isn’t any better than TCU!” Why will Stanford have to go all the way across the country to play in a Bowl Game and not be in the Rose Bowl?” And many, many others. It very quickly becomes obvious that people don‘t understand what the BCS is and what it‘s supposed to accomplish. Second, people think the BCS is a cure all when it is in reality only a tiny band-aid.

The first fact you have to realize is that the powers that be in college football have never wanted a national championship. Let’s let that settle in.

They don’t really want or care about a national championship.

They like the current setup that has existed for the last 75 years and do not see the need for change. There has always been a debate about the national champion in college football.

Given their way, the NCAA wouldn’t even bother with it and would just let the press services have their polling and maintain the “mythical national championship” they have always had. This led to split championships and debate that rages even years later over who was the true champion of a given year. But the NCAA and college presidents in particular didn’t mind this and even thought this added to the mystique of college football.

In the old days of college football, a national championship was just impractical. Travel was long and difficult and you usually only played teams in your area. This led to a regionalization of the sport that existed for many years. Every part of the country was sure their area had the best teams but no one really had the ability to prove it, so it was just one of those fun arguments to have over a few cold ones.

Technology started to change this. Trips were easier to schedule and television let you see teams play from all over the country. This exploded with cable television, the internet, and sports talk radio. Suddenly, you could not only see all the teams play every game, now you can talk about it with people from all regions of the country. The arguments over who should be the national champion now became live televised debates. Suddenly, everyone started thinking why can’t there be a national champion in college football like there is in every other sport.

The example always pointed to is how the tournament has exploded college basketball’s popularity. Of course, a 64 team basketball tournament can be played in about 2 weeks, so a football playoff would be much more cumbersome and a schedule hassle, but it could be done. Detractors would argue that college basketball’s tournament has totally diluted and destroyed the regular season.

You don’t need to be a top team, or even a conference champion, you just have to have a decent enough season to get into the tournament and then anything is possible. You can finish 4th or 5th in a power conference and just get hot at the right time and go to a final 4 or even the championship.

College presidents and the NCAA had gotten used to the football schedule the way it was. A conference season followed by the bowls. The bowls were tied to the conferences and it was a profitable and sure situation for the conference and the bowl organizers. Why do bowl games have automatic bids for even the fourth place finishers of their conference? Because if you are the organizer of the bowl, you can take the chance of getting an interesting team to play who’s ranked around number 20 in the country… or you can always have a sure thing with a large conference team.

Even the fourth place finisher in the Big 10 or the SEC is always going to be a huge school with a long past. It’s going to have thousands of boosters who flood the host city and stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants, and shop in the stores. It’s going to be a football crazy school that is excited to be in this game. You might be able to get a higher ranked team, but chances are you won’t be able to get one that will be as lucrative for the bowl and the host city.

But the outcry for a national champion and for the smaller schools to get a chance to join the party became too strong. Bowl organizers saw this as death. Being forced to put nontraditional schools into their games would probably mean half full stadiums and half full hotels and half full shops. Television audiences may enjoy it, but the bowl game would suffer and eventually die. Hate it all you want, but the conference affiliations have kept the bowl games flourishing for all these years.

So as a compromise for all the screaming for a better system the BCS was created. The BCS is designed to be a system to place teams into the top six bowl games based on conference championships and a few at-large berths based on merit. The goal is to make sure that the top two teams at least will always play in a championship game every year. And the remaining bowl games can remain untouched. To protect their own interests the top conferences made sure their teams would always be guaranteed at least one spot in these top games.

The top six conferences have their conference champions automatically placed into a BCS game. So no matter how good a record a non AQ team has in a given year, a low ranked conference champion is still going and you may be on the outside looking in unless you get one of the few at large berths.

Given their choice the bowl games would tend to always go with their former conference affiliations. Rules had to be put in place to get non AQ schools into big games. Otherwise, Stanford would be in this years Rose Bowl with no doubt. But the rules say that a top four ranked non AQ team has to be given that spot. This has two impacts.

It allows some chance for the smaller conference schools to get into the large profile games. But in addition it also assures that no smaller school is going to be able to become the national champion by playing in a lesser bowl game. In 1984 BYU won the National Championship by playing in the Holiday Bowl against a barely bowl eligible Michigan team. The BCS system pretty much eliminates this possibility from happening again.

So the large conferences have pretty much assured that one of their teams is going to be in the top game every year.

Without the BCS, a team like Boise State or TCU would almost never get into a large profile bowl game. Previously these games were always committed to the conferences they were affiliated with. Now a few spots a year are open for top ranked non AQ teams. But the bulk of the spots still go to teams from the traditional power conferences.

The bowl organizers prefer these teams and the revenue they provide for the game. A Boise State — TCU bowl game may do great television ratings, but it is a loss for the bowl organizers. A loss compared to what a 50,000 student school from a long time power with hundreds of thousands of football crazy boosters would have provided the host city.

Is it a fair system? Not at all. A 7-4 conference champion from a power conference is guaranteed a spot and a 11-1 non AQ school is probably looking in from the outside. But it is better than what went before it. The non AQ schools have at least a shot now and they have acquitted themselves well in the big games, which then gives a leg up to the next non AQ team coming down the road. It also eliminates at least some of the end of the year debate of who’s the champion by having the top two teams play. And remember, the college presidents don’t even want a championship. It is only the fans and the press who insist on voting for who is number one every year.

Watching these boards people seem to think that the BCS means every team has to have true merit to get into a top bowl game. They think not only are number 1 and 2 matched up but then the next game will have the number three and four teams play and on down the line. That’s not what it is designed to do. So don’t expect it to. Stop talking about who deserves to be in the game. You know the conference champions will be there.

Then there are the couple spots left after that. Those are the ones to debate. Realize that the bowl organizers and you have different agendas when they pick the games. The match-up for television may be the lowest item on their list. Who deserves to be there is not very high on their list either. They want a game that makes them money by choosing a team that is eligible based on their rating. Without that ability there would be no BCS. So let the conference champs be there.

Let Ohio State and Nebraska and other teams with huge fan followings get to a BCS game every time they are eligible. Because if we don’t allow that, the BCS will go away and we will be back to national champions playing in the Holiday Bowl against 6-5 teams.

The BCS isn’t perfect, but it is a start. I believe in starts.