When Wes Byrum drilled a short field goal to beat Oregon earlier this month, he added Auburn to the list of college football national champions determined through the Bowl Championship Series. Once a novelty predicted by some to collapse under the weight of its own complexity and occasional absurdity, the BCS has grown since 1998 to become a semi-permanent fixture on the sports landscape. And despite annual calls for its abolition—including from the President and members of Congress—the BCS shows few signs of going away quickly, having just completed the first of a four year, $500 million contract with ESPN.
It’s a prospect many find revolting.
A naturally argumentative lot, there is near unanimity among sports fans, columnists and pundits on the topic of the BCS: They all loathe it, likening it to a cartel controlled by the big six conferences for the purpose of winning and splitting TV revenues. More than that, they hate the BCS because its existence means college football continues to lack a proper playoff system, the only major sport without one.
But if we accept that the BCS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, might it finally be time to contemplate its virtues? Could there possibly be any?
Start with college football’s regular season, which is the best in all of sports—because there is no playoff. In thirteen years, the BCS champion has finished undefeated nine times. Three other times the BCS champion had one loss. (LSU won the championship with two losses following a bizarre 2007 season.) The consequence is that top teams face virtual knockout games every week of the season, from September through December.
This year’s title game was the second straight to feature a pair of undefeated teams. Lose an opener in the final minute, as No. 10 Virginia Tech did this year—done. Suffer a second half implosion, as No. 9 Stanford did in October against Oregon—title shot gone. Miss a chip shot field goal at the end of regulation—pity No. 3 Boise State the night after Thanksgiving. You’re either perfect every week, or darn close—or you’re through.
Part of what made Auburn’s championship season so compelling was the way in which the Tigers constantly flirted with the end of their title dreams, only to somehow survive and advance. Four times this season, Auburn overcame double-digit deficits to win, including a 24-0 hole at rival Alabama the final week of the season. It’s as if autumn were one long, riveting single-elimination tournament.
No other sport—not even the NFL—can match college football’s weekly stakes. America loves its NFL so much that network executives carry preseason games to national audiences and the league is salivating over the prospect of cashing in on two added games. But it’s a fact of life that the schedule serves up a lot of duds, like the Christmas night showdown between 4-10 Arizona and 5-9 Dallas, or the slew of meaningless games in its final week, when football fans discovered how Tom Brady’s new haircut looks on the bench.
Second, BCS critics would do well to recall a version of Winston Churchill’s caution, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Impetus for the BCS is found in a pair of seasons in the mid nineties, when the nation’s top two teams finished the season by playing…3,000 miles apart from each other.
Following the 1994 season an undefeated Penn State team loaded with NFL draft picks demolished Oregon in the Rose Bowl, while undefeated Nebraska vanquished Miami in a stirring Orange Bowl. Nebraska was awarded the championship; in part, it was widely believed, because voters had an affinity for Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne, a classy man and perpetual bridesmaid in the title hunt.
Three years later Nebraska steamrolled Tennessee in the Orange Bowl to finish undefeated. Michigan won the Rose Bowl to do the same. The result was an unsightly split decision, with AP voters siding with Michigan while the coaches’ poll awarded the title to Nebraska.
In each case, the teams and their respective conferences were bound by contract to appear in predetermined bowls, making it impossible to settle the championship on the field. It is these types of debacles the BCS was created to fix, and which it has—producing some fantastic title clashes along the way.
Of course, the BCS is more than the national championship game, and also includes the lucrative Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls. This gives rise to the complaint that the selection system is skewed toward the big six conferences, and discriminates against deserving teams from lesser leagues. But this charge ignores the fact that it is the rights to these major conferences for which the networks pay the NCAA hundreds of millions annually, and seemingly embraces the wobbly premise that a billion-dollar industry should exist to promote a level playing field.
Still, in recent years the BCS has taken steps to ensure that so-called non-automatic qualifiers receive a fair shake, and at least one has earned a BCS bid after each of the last five seasons. Some schools have taken matters into their own hands. 2008 non-automatic qualifier Utah enlisted with the PAC-10, and perennial gatecrasher TCU announced in November that it would join the lackluster Big East, which it figures to dominate and whose champion also receives an automatic BCS bid.
None of this means to deny the excitement that a playoff would generate—any new system would be a massive spectacle sure to draw matching ratings. But with no signs that such a playoff is any more imminent today than it was when the BCS was launched thirteen years ago, it’s time to embrace the limited but real benefits that the current system affords us.
Or, failing that, at least learn to stop worrying and love the games.