BCS Vs. Playoffs (Plus a Proposal to End All Proposals, Maybe)

Corey McSweeneyAnalyst IDecember 7, 2008

Note: This article will be submitted as a final project for a research paper in a class of mine, so it isn't in typical B/R style. I debated on whether to rewrite it in a more familiar form for you readers, but decided to leave it as is. Thus, it has citations and a works cited. Also, it will be a little long, but I believe you will enjoy it. I look forward to hearing all of your feedback. 



            The subject of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has been a hot topic among sports fans. Some are in favor of it, like BCS creator Roy Kramer (Carey) while others want a playoff system, like The Sporting News Columnist Steve Greenberg and ESPN columnist Bruce Feldman (Staff). However, one side definitely has the edge. If a person would want to see why a playoff is better for college football, look no farther than Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno. During the 1968 and 1969 seasons his Nittany Lions went undefeated both years, but not only did he not win a national championship either of those years, he and his teams were not even given the chance to play for a national championship because the NCAA was not under a playoff system. Paterno is now an 81 year old man, having coached four undefeated teams without one single national championship on his resume (Wetzel, Wetzel’s playoff plan: I’ll drink to that). The NCAA needs to establish at least a 4 team playoff to start off and eventually arrive at a 16 team playoff because the current system, the BCS, does not fairly give deserving teams a chance at a national title. 

            The BCS is a system put in place in Division 1 college football that creates postseason matchups based on certain criteria, with one game designated as the national championship game. There are five total games in the BCS, with the final game played being the national championship game. They are the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl.  Those bowls and their respective site host the national championship game on a rotating basis, meaning one of those sites gets two BCS bowls each year. The champions of the six major conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC, ACC, Big East) get automatic bids to a certain BCS game, with each conference having a tie-in to a certain bowl site. The remaining four spots go to at-large candidates that have to meet special criteria set by the NCAA conference commissioners and the Notre Dame athletic director. Notre Dame is a special case with the BCS because they do not belong to a conference, so they must have special rules applying to them to gain eligibility for the BCS. Those at large bids are not just limited to the six major conferences, smaller conference teams can go to a BCS game if they achieve a certain ranking in the BCS standings (The BCS is ...).

The BCS was preceded by the Bowl Coalition, from 1992-1994, the Bowl Alliance, from 1995-1997, until the BCS started in 1998. Those previous systems introduced an actual national championship game, whereas in previous decades the national champion was mythical, meaning the team did not actually play a national championship game, they were just chosen as the national champion by polls. The previous Bowl systems prior to the BCS were created to alleviate growing pressure to have a national championship game (Fréchette, Roth and Unver).

            The BCS standings are a poll released after a week during the middle of the college football season, then every week after that until the final poll. The BCS formula uses extensive statistics, like win-loss record, margin of victory, home and away games, and many others, as well as factoring in the human polls, one being the coaches’ poll, and the Harris Interactive Poll, which is the poll that college football writers and other experts across the sport get a vote in. These three parts, the computer rankings, coaches’ poll, and Harris poll, get 1/3 of the overall importance to the BCS standings. The top two teams in the final poll go to the BCS National Championship game (BCS Selection Procedures).

The pros and cons of each system are numerous. BCS proponents say that their system creates a playoff during the regular season because every game counts, just like a playoff, while their system also uses the bowl games, which have a storied history behind them. Playoff supporters say that head to head competition is the best way to decide the best team. Also, they point to how well a playoff works in Div. I-AA, II and III (Alder).

            Arguments against the BCS include that a national champion has a very real possibility of being named by personal opinion and biases and that the BCS also allows for a team to have one bad game during the regular season and thus cost them any chance at the national championship later, in a society where we are entrenched with the idea of giving second chances. The playoff detractors point to the diminishing importance of the regular season and the extension of an already long season. They also say that academics would be harmed (Alder).

This topic is important for many reasons. One main reason is the time put into college football by its fans. In the grand scheme of things, football is not important. However, for many, football is one of their major hobbies outside of the minutiae of life. People put hope into football teams. When people place such importance into these games, college football has a responsibility to establish a good product. Another big reason is the money involved with the college football postseason. Each team, or school, in the Rose, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls will get roughly 17.5 million dollars for the upcoming January Bowls while each conference represented in the Sugar Bowl will get 17.5 million dollars. Each national championship school, win or lose, gets 17.5 million dollars as well (BCS Bowl Facts). This brings us to a major reason why the BCS system is supported by a few, but powerful, people.

            The main supporters for the system are the major conference commissioners and athletic directors because they are benefiting from those huge sums of money. These detractors of a playoff point to the tremendous amounts of revenue football teams take in. For instance, in 2005, Alabama’s basketball program took in 1.8 million dollars in broadcast rights from the postseason while the football program took in 5.4 million dollars from their postseason (Walsh). In April of 2008 BCS conference commissioners met and discussed the current system and possible tweaks they wanted to make, as well as looking at a possible playoff system championed by many around the sport. Coming out of that meeting, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said that his league’s boards of directors were strongly against any type of playoff system. SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a plus one model –a system between the BCS and a playoff- and according to sources at the meeting, no commissioner met his ideas with any kind of enthusiasm (Schlabach). The BCS rules state that these men have the power to deal with the college football postseason (BCS Selection Procedures). These men have the power to change things.

As noted before, a major reason many are against a playoff is the money involved. Another main one is that people like the BCS and believe its working. Former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said, after the commissioner meeting mentioned before, that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (Schlabach). Still, that does not justify looking at other alternatives. If you can make something better, why would you not try?

Let’s look at a case where a playoff would have been nice to have in place. In 2004, three major conference teams were undefeated after the regular season ended. They were Southern California, Oklahoma, and Auburn. All three won their conferences. As you can see, a controversy was bound to come into play. Eventually, Oklahoma and Southern Cal were chosen to play because they had started the season off with high expectations, and in turn a high preseason poll ranking, while Auburn was not expected to be as good as they were. Thus, they could not move past either team in the BCS rankings, no matter how well they played. So it broke down to this: the expectations people had of them four months ago, when they had not yet played a single game, doomed them. They eventually went to the Sugar Bowl and won, while Southern Cal beat Oklahoma in the title game, 55-19 (Walsh). What does it say when a team cannot do anything at all themselves to create a real chance at a national title? This shows the only fair way to crown a team as the champion is to prove it on the field, not through computer statistics and early season predictions.

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports released an article where he unveiled “The Wetzel Plan” that would be a great college football playoff system. He calls for a 16 team playoff because if a college football playoff mirrors the way college basketball does their tournament, which is highly successful, it would create the best experience. To do this, all 11 conference champions would be included. This involvement of all of the champions would help to lessen one of the issues people have with a proposed playoff system, that is, that the regular season would be diminished. BCS proponents believe that the way the system is now, the regular system is hugely important, which is true. They then say that when you add a playoff, you will give teams the option of taking games off at the end of the season when they have a playoff position clinched and then they can rest their players. However, if you include all the champions, it gives top teams an incentive to win their games because if they can achieve a better overall seed, they can start off by playing a weaker team. Putting all the conference champions in also gives them a chance to prove themselves on a national stage, which they otherwise would not get. Another thing this would bring, he adds, is true Cinderella teams, like in the basketball tournament. When those teams win, everyone watches and pays attention. People like seeing underdog teams have success, and the ratings and revenue this could bring would be gigantic.

A logical idea would be to start off with a four team or eight team playoff because it would be a step in the right direction of a 16 team playoff. The step from the BCS to a 16 team playoff is such a large one that would need to include much change to make happen. For instance, proposing a four team or eight team playoff to the conference commissioners would most likely be met with greater acceptance because this smaller playoff system is much closer to what the BCS is. Proposing a smaller system to start off also would allow for unforeseen issues that could cause unnecessary damage to be avoided, so having a middle step or two would be acceptable and smart in the long run. This idea would also allow for the people involved to figure out the scheduling for a playoff much easier, as you would need less time to start off.

The problem that people will have with this playoff proposal is that it will cause huge issues with final exams in December. If you break the bracket down, you would need four weeks (16 to 8, 8 to 4, 4 to 2, 2 to 1) to have this playoff. Right now, there is about a month break between the last regular season or conference championship games and early January BCS games (Saturday, Dec. 6 was conference championship day; the first BCS game is Jan. 1). There are some issues with cramming the playoffs in here, but it can be done. You could eliminate the conference championship games, and set each team’s schedule at 12 games, or even start the season earlier. Under the current system, some teams without a conference championship game ended their season a few weeks ago, meaning they might have as many as 50 days between games. That is more of an issue than trying to fit in finals. How in sync is a team when they have not played a game for weeks? College basketball makes finals work late in December, and they play multiple games a week. Football teams play one game a week. Athletics and academics have worked together for years. How can they not find a solution now?

There is a common ground for BCS proponents and playoff proponents in that both are trying to establish a credible postseason system that appeals to the masses, and also to serve the student athletes. The difference lies in the two sides’ execution of these ideals. The BCS side has taken these goals and decided their system is best because it allows for exciting, ratings filled games while allowing student athletes to have ample time for academics. The many playoff proposals have factored these situations into their plans as well. It’s hard to imagine a football playoff not being a ratings success when we have seen how well the basketball games do in attendance and on television while the numerous other colleges around America that have football teams in playoffs make school work as well. That’s where the administrators need to begin. They should look at where a playoff has worked and what a successful playoff has done to accommodate the potential issues associated.

Right now, college football is not in crisis. The BCS games will get huge ratings, and most people will be satisfied with what they watch early in January. There is evidence out there, however, that says the experience could be much better. The NCAA needs to establish at least a 4 team playoff to start off and eventually arrive at a 16 team playoff because the current system, the BCS, does not fairly give deserving teams a chance at a national title. 

Works Cited

Alder, James. "BCS vs. Playoff System." About. 13 November 2008 .


"BCS Bowl Facts." Fox Sports on MSN. 3 December 2008 .


"BCS Selection Procedures." Fox Sports on MSN. 29 October 2008 .


Carey, Jack. "Man behind creation of BCS pleased with results." 8 December 2007. USA Today. 29 October 2008 .


Drehs, Wayne. "BCS figures new formula makes for a better title game." 12 July 2001. ESPN. 29 October 2008 .


Fréchette, Guillaume R., Alvin E. Roth and M. Utku Unver. "Unraveling Yields Inefficient Matchings: Evidence from Post-Season College Football Bowls." Rand Journal of Economics (2004): 1-29.


Guidry, Phil. "Mythbusters: Minus the "playing"." 6 November 2008. Sports Illustrated. 10 November 2008 .

Schlabach, Mark. "Current BCS system a hit with most conference commissioners." 30 April 2008. ESPN. 3 December 2008 .


Staff. "Experts Discussion ... BCS vs. a Playoff." 10 July 2008. College Football News. 13 November 2008 .


"The BCS is ..." Fox Sports on MSN. 1 December 2008 .


Walsh, Christopher J. Who's #1?: 100 Years of Controversial National Champions in College Football. New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007.


Wetzel, Dan. "Big Lie: Big Ten." 27 November 2008. Rivals.com from Y! Sports. 6 December 2008 .


—. "Wetzel’s playoff plan: I’ll drink to that." 28 October 2008. Rivals.com on Y! Sports. 28 October 2008 .



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