BCS Standings: 10 Reasons Rankings Are Proving, Yet Again, We Need a Playoff

Derek HornerAnalyst IINovember 15, 2011

BCS Standings: 10 Reasons Rankings Are Proving, Yet Again, We Need a Playoff

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    College football integrity and BCS standings don't mix as fans have seen over the years. Despite a large pool of teams that are well qualified to play in the BCS National Championship Game, only two will be chosen based on tenuous claims to superiority.

    In 2003, a one-loss USC program was left out of the BCS National Championship Game in favor of one-loss LSU and one-loss Oklahoma. Despite playing in a very weak Pac-10 in 2003 and BCS calculations saying as much, AP voters decided to give USC the AP National Championship, even though LSU played a tougher bowl opponent and tougher schedule in 2003.

    The following year, five teams went undefeated—Utah, Boise State, Auburn, USC and Oklahoma. Though it's easy to discount Utah and Boise State since their schedules are exponentially weaker than the three other undefeateds, it was much more difficult to discern who should be in the BCS National Championship Game. Auburn was left on the outside looking in.

    That 2004 Auburn Tigers program featured four first-round NFL picks, including running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, quarterback Jason Campbell, defensive back Carlos Rogers and running back Ronnie Brown. They would have been much better competition for USC than Oklahoma who was embarrassed 55-19. Would USC have been able to handle Auburn's SEC defense?

    Teams getting overlooked for the BCS National Championship Game is a travesty when one considers what a true playoff would offer. 2011 is yet another season highlighting the problems with the current system. 

    As games continue, hatred grows for a corrupt and broken BCS system that holds power in the hands of a few.

One Loss Shouldn't Mean Exclusion

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    College football's system is, currently, out of sorts with its companions when you place it in the context of other NCAA or professional sports. The top two contenders for the national championship must be chosen from a group of teams that rarely play the same schedules. How do you truly measure the strength of teams at the end of the year?

    Here's a case study from the 2011 season. Returning to the middle of the season when LSU was ranked No. 1 and Alabama was ranked No. 2, the Tigers entered Tuscaloosa to take on the Crimson Tide in what many were calling this year's national championship. Why would college football fans say that?

    Everyone assumes the SEC is the toughest conference in the country, especially when LSU's out-of-conference schedule included highly ranked Oregon and a decent West Virginia team. LSU dominated both programs in amazing fashion.

    Secondly, everyone knew Alabama was just as good as LSU, if not better. The Crimson Tide already dominated one of the Big Ten's best teams in Penn State earlier in the year. Assuming both teams were equal, college football fans know there are few teams that could compete against either SEC program.

    Sadly, college football fans also know that nobody wants to see a rematch in a national championship game, which is an issue.

    Alabama played LSU to a 9-6 overtime loss in a game that pitted two of the country's best defenses against each other. Afterward, Alabama fell in the rankings because it lost to LSU. Why???

    If a No. 1 team and a No. 2 team play each what should the game logically look like? One should expect the No. 2 team to be edged out ever so slightly by the No. 1 team in an overtime game that could go either way. Was the LSU-Alabama game not exactly that? Alabama should remain as the No. 2 ranked program since it played as expected.

    Alabama didn't remain at No. 2. Pollsters will ensure Alabama won't see a No. 2 ranking, either, since they desperately want to prevent a rematch. How is that fair if Alabama is the rightful No. 2 team?

Does Anyone Truly Know?

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    There are plenty of qualified candidates who could win the national championship game, though they had letdown games during the regular season. On the right day, many teams can pull out a victory despite evidence to the contrary. 

    So far, the 2011 college football season offers the following pool of qualified candidates from whom the national championship participants could be determined:  LSU, Oklahoma State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Stanford, Oregon, Arkansas, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boise State, Houston and Southern Miss. 

    Each of these programs is undefeated or has one loss.

    There is no other college or professional sports league that punishes undefeated and one-loss teams the way the college football system punishes these programs. Decisions of team strength are arbitrary, set in motion by pollsters during the preseason before they've even seen the teams play a game. Those rankings are later calculated into a convoluted BCS formula that gives significant deference to these biased polls.

    If Alabama and LSU did not play each other in the regular season, Oklahoma State would have been left on the outside looking in. How could the pollsters truly decide between these three equal teams?  Pollsters have nothing but conference bias and un-empirical attempts to measure schedule strength to guide them.

    Every other sports league has a playoff, because it's common sense that a tournament must be held to determine a true champion. Forcing teams compete through numerous rounds increases the probability of attaining a deserving champion.

    Though a playoff still punishes teams that lose, it doesn't automatically exclude them the way the current college football system excludes them. It certainly wouldn't exclude the undefeated teams from getting their shot at the title.

Pulling the Wool over Our Eyes

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    In a Nov. 3, 2011 article by espn.com titled Memo: Legal Challenge of BCS Unlikely, it was stated that President Barack Obama would not seek a legal challenge against the BCS. Many in BCS circles have been worried about a legal challenge from the department of justice after President Obama suggested as much during his campaign. Those fears were allayed, however, during a November statement:

    "The head of the Bowl Championship Series told college and university presidents that the Obama administration was unlikely to challenge the legality of its selection process -- and argued that even if the system were to be found illegal, so would a playoff."

    -espn.com, Memo: Legal Challenge of BCS Unlikely

    There are two fatal flaws with line of legal reasoning. First, one should not avoid prosecution of an entity because it will be found illegal. Quite the opposite, there should be even more grounds for seeking a determination of the legality, or illegality, of the entity in question.

    One of the many reasons antitrust law exists is to prevent a group of organizations from engaging in anti-competitive practices. Called a cartel, the law prevents this group from imposing limitations that restrains other organizations from keeping fairly in the market:

    "The true test of legality is whether the restraint imposed is such as merely regulates and perhaps thereby promotes competition or whether it is such as may suppress or even destroy competition." 

    Board of Trade of the City of Chicago v. United States, 246 U.S. 231, 244 (1918)

    One of the major areas of the law is preventing bid rigging which is a form of market allocation. Bid rigging involves an agreement between a group of bidders that automatically designates that one of the bidders in the group will win the bid to the exclusion of those outside the group. Aren't BCS bids exactly that?

    This discussion of antitrust law is not meant to be legal advice or meant to be in-depth. Instead, it's a superficial, yet illustrative, example of the way antitrust law may work in this situation. BCS schools work as a cartel promising themselves lucrative bowl selections in the "BCS bowls" to the exclusion of over half of Division I football teams, who are left fighting for a disproportionately low number of at-large bids.

    Besides the obvious illegality of the BCS, what the Obama administration and BCS hope fans ignore is the second fatal flaw of their argument—a playoff would be illegal. They are correct to state that an eight-team playoff would be illegal, because it would be based on the same flawed system as the BCS.

    A 16-team playoff would not be illegal, however. It would give every conference equal access to a playoff by giving each conference an automatic bid for its conference winner. Additionally, at-large bids would exist to ensure fairness by filling in the gaps.

    For more about the BCS or a 16-team playoff, check out the following links:

    Broken and Tacitly Unfair: The BCS and Antitrust

    Why an 8-team Playoff is Ignorant and Shortsighted

    Predicting the 16-team Playoff (As of Oct. 16, 2011)

Haves & Have Nots

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    The BCS perpetuates the reality that there are schools that have and there are schools that have not. The programs that are allowed to play in the most lucrative bowls are the programs that will get the windfall of revenue year in and year out. Money is everything in college football.

    If a school has money, it can afford new facilities. If a school has money, it can afford to keep the best coaches.

    Of recruiting's main components, two of the most important are program success and facilities. The best recruits want to practice and train at the best facilities. If they see that a BCS school has a palace while a non-BCS program has decades old training rooms, the recruit will factor that disparity into his decision.

    Furthermore, a recruit wants to win. What's the fastest way to win? Hire an excellent coach. If a school has an excellent coach, he wins, which attracts recruits. If he can attract recruits, he can solidify his ability to win. If he's winning, that puts fans in the seats. If fans are in the seats, the school makes money and is able to pursue its goals for the program.

    Unfortunately, the programs that have little access to BCS bowls can't make enough money to retain successful coaches. Boise State and TCU are the exception, though BCS programs regularly tempt Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson to leave each year.

    No, college football history is filled with great coaches leaving lesser programs to go to schools who have more money to offer. Urban Meyer left Utah for Florida. Al Golden left Temple for Miami. Todd Graham left Tulsa for Pitt. Brian Kelly has worked his way up every echelon of lucrative programs, going from Division I-AA to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to the nation's most lucrative program Notre Dame.

    Money determines the quality of your team, and there are a disproportionate number of "bad" teams in the non-BCS ranks. Why? They don't have access to the money necessary to win.

    Of course, there will be the person who cites Boise State or TCU as examples that a program can win. That's fantastic that two programs out of over 50 teams can have a remote shot to be national champion or simply maintain regular success over the long run. 

    Meanwhile, the BCS programs fill out the rest of the Top 25 on a consistent season-to-season basis, all with a real shot to become national champion if they put together a successful season.

Access Is Equality

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    Access, access, access. Ignoring the money argument, which is the common thread through this entire discussion, access is crucial to any program, large or small, looking to build for the future. It's unbelievable that the lesser BCS conferences allow themselves to be held hostage by the SEC.

    Recruits want to play on the big stage. They want to be seen in BCS bowls where fans across the country can cheer for them and know their name. They also want the valuable hand-outs that come with those games. 

    For anyone who's been privileged to receive bowl gear during the postseason, they know that the GMAC Bowl gives its participants nothing near the quality of merchandise that the Sugar Bowl gives its participants. Recruits notice that.

    Moreso, a coach can sell a recruit on his ability to play for a national championship if his team has access to a system that allows him to make that promise. Any SEC school can sell a recruit on that idea, because there is a high likelihood that the winner of the SEC will go straight to the national title—do not pass go, do not collect $200.

    For a school like Clemson or Cincinnati, however, that promise can't be made. Look at an undefeated Cincinnati program that was relegated to playing Florida in the Sugar Bowl. A recruit weighing schools based on the ability to win a national title will look the other way when Cincinnati comes calling, because it's questionable, at best, that he can play for a championship.

    Now, take this argument down a notch and look at the non-BCS schools. They have no ability to sell at all. How many times can Boise State stand on the outside looking in?

    Is it unfair that those schools don't go to the national title in the current system? No. The reality is they don't play the same competition as those schools being considered for the national championship, but that reality is a byproduct of the current system.

    The next question, then, is what happens when 4- and 5-star recruits are dispersed among all programs. Does the competitive balance equalize, allowing the Clemsons and Boise States of the world to field teams with a smaller talent gap than their larger competitors?

The Fans Are Being Cheated

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    It's easy to look at Alabama fans or Oklahoma fans and say they aren't being cheated. What is more difficult to understand is the point of view of Memphis fans or SMU fans who are being cheated unmercifully.

    Returning to the money and recruiting argument, one can see how the lesser schools are putting a low quality product on the field each year. Fans of the non-BCS schools are relegated to watching 3-star recruits or worse, while all of the higher caliber players choose BCS schools for all of the reasons mentioned previously. 

    Even if a 5-star player wants to play for his home town team, it's difficult for him to select a non-BCS program when BCS programs offer so much more.

    Non-BCS fans must choose one of three directions when they want to enjoy college football. They can immerse themselves in the misery of their hometown program or alma mater. They can reluctantly choose to follow another program. Or, they can choose to ignore college football altogether. Either way, those are not good options for fans whose teams are being robbed by the greed of the BCS schools.

    With a 16-team playoff, fans of lesser schools can live with a realistic hope that their team will one day reach the playoff. Will they win? Who knows, but at least the fans have something to cheer for. Instead, these fans have to settle for the hope that their team gets to play in a low-tier exhibition bowl at the end of the season in some awful location like the GMAC Bowl or the Motor City Bowl.

    Returning to the legal discussion, the heart of antitrust law is designed to protect the consumer. Who is the consumer? The fan. Yes, there are fans who are buried in success, but there are plenty of fans who are drowning in misery, because their schools are caught in the vicious cycle of failure created by the BCS system.

It Works Everywhere Else

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    The playoff system fans envision has worked in every other league for years. If it didn't work, why wouldn't there be an outcry from the college basketball world for a BCS system? Why wouldn't fans of professional sports yell at the commissioners to create a BCS system?

    No "playoff controversy" exists in any other sport like it exists in college football. Fans have to ask themselves why not. There is a controversy in college football because the system simply doesn't work. 

    Here's another case study from a non-BCS program that is successful in college basketball.

    The University of Memphis, or Memphis State University as it was once known, is immensely successful as a basketball program, despite playing in lesser conferences over the years. NCAA basketball ball has a tournament of 64 teams where there are automatic bids for all conferences, plus at-large bids to fill in the gaps of equality. This is the same across all NCAA sports, except football.

    How is it that Memphis is such a successful basketball school, yet they can't maintain success in football?

    Memphis head coach Josh Pastner sells recruits on multiple benefits of his basketball program. First, he sells them on the opportunity to play in FedEx Forum, the home of the Memphis Grizzlies. This is the facilities argument already discussed. In addition, the Tigers have a nice practice facility for basketball.

    Second, Pastner sells recruits on his coaching abilities. A former player and assistant to Arizona's Lute Olsen, Pastner honed his skills as a coach under John Calipari during his time at Memphis. Pastner is well-connected in the AAU circuit and has the pedigree he can sell to high school blue-chip players.

    Third, and most importantly, Pastner can sell these recruits the opportunity to make it to the NCAA tournament relatively easily. The Tigers play in a weak conference, which means Memphis can play marquee matchups in out-of-conference play, including games against Gonzaga, Louisville and Tennessee, among others, which are normally televised in primetime. Win or lose, however, the Tigers generally sweep Conference USA and head straight into the NCAA tournament.

    High school recruits want to hear all of this, especially when they can play in front of a loyal fanbase like Memphis.

    Even so, however, the effects of the BCS arrangement bleed into basketball. Can Memphis keep Pastner if he decides he wants to leave? Likely not.

    Kentucky came calling for Calipari, and he left. Memphis had to turn to FedEx for help keeping Calipari when it couldn't afford to keep him. The allure of leaving for Kentucky was too much, though. If Arizona comes calling for Pastner, Tiger fans will be left looking for another answer at coach.

    The parity due to access and opportunity in college basketball is evident, which is why a small school like Memphis can have regular success against the traditional BCS schools. The system gives smaller schools equal footing. That same parity could exist in football, as well, but BCS schools know how much money they'd lose if they had to share it with their competitors.

Television Demands Revenue

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    Obviously, television generates its fair share of revenue for universities, but ABC, Fox and CBS wouldn't give universities that amount of money if they weren't making a significant amount, themselves.

    In a world where a 16-team playoff existed, fans of other universities may be more interested in conference championship games the same way they like ESPN's Championship Week during basketball season. ESPN makes a huge event out of Championship Week because it's truly the first round of the NCAA tournament, despite taking place the week before the NCAA tournament begins.

    Now, imagine a world of college football where conferences have automatic bids and your team is wondering who they will play in the playoff. Wouldn't fans like to know as much as they can about their potential opponents? Suddenly, MAC and Conference USA championship games have unprecedented viewership as traditional BCS fans tune in to learn more about the "lesser" programs.

    The BCS selection show is a joke, today, because everybody can calculate who will play in the games. The only question is who will occupy the few at-large bids that exist. Tuning in for the playoff selection show, however, would be much more exciting and draw many more viewers. Why?

    Though fans can determine who automatically qualified for the playoff, they don't know who the five at-large bids will be. They also don't know the seeding of the teams. Without knowing the seeding, fans don't know who their team, or conference, will play in the first round. Nor do fans know where the teams will play based on home field advantage.

    With all of the conflict and uncertainty and meaningful games hanging in the balance, fans would be much more attracted to their televisions. Being more attracted to the television means more advertising dollars for the networks and more money for the schools.

    It's really common sense how beneficial a playoff would be for the entire system.

Why Not?

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    The simple question is, "Why not?" The simple answer is, "Greed."

    Those who run the BCS maintain that the system is lucrative and generates a lot of money than a playoff system, because they attempt to fool fans with the notion of a broken eight-team playoff versus a 16-team playoff. They are not wrong that the BCS is lucrative, but what they don't mention is that a 16-team playoff would be more lucrative.

    A 16-team playoff means four rounds of playoffs in December and January similar to the four weeks of playoffs in the NCAA basketball tournament. That's eight meaningful games in the first round, four in the second round, two in the semifinals and the national championship. In total, fans could watch 15 meaningful games over the holidays and into January.

    Would you be more likely to tune into a playoff game knowing the implications? Would you be watching for the Cinderella team the same way you do during basketball season?

    The current bowl system could exist outside the playoff. Just as they are simply exhibitions, now, the bowls would be exhibitions in the future—meaningless games that give fans one last opportunity to see their team play for the year.

    Simultaneously, however, fans would tune in each week to see how their brackets are doing and to see who will end up in the national championship. As it is, some fans tune into the BCS games, but the disinterested viewer can easily turn off the television, since the result has no real implications.

    There is much more money to be made with a playoff, but that means the money will be dispersed to the lesser conferences. It's apparent that BCS presidents don't like that idea, and politicians from BCS states don't like that idea, so it looks like they'll do anything or say anything to protect the BCS. 

    Utah threatened a lawsuit. Now, they're in the Pac-12. Funny isn't it?

Can You Imagine?

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    What if there was a 16-team playoff, right now? Wouldn't fans tune in to see their teams complete the season as they make a run through the playoffs?

    This is how a 16-team playoff would likely look in 2011, assuming each conference has an automatic bid and there are five at-large bids. Furthermore, a conference can only have two teams participate in the playoff and independents have to be within the Top 16 to gain a playoff berth.

    Arguably, the seeds would look like this:

    1. LSU (SEC Champ)
    2. Oklahoma State (Big XII Champ)
    3. Alabama (At-Large)
    4. Oregon (Pac-12 Champ)
    5. Oklahoma (At-Large)
    6. Stanford (At-Large)
    7. Clemson (ACC Champ)
    8. Virginia Tech (At-Large)
    9. Boise State (At-Large)
    10. Michigan State (Big Ten Champ)
    11. Houston (C-USA Champ)
    12. TCU (Mtn West Champ)
    13. Cincinnati (Big East Champ)
    14. Northern Illinois (MAC Champ)
    15. Arkansas State (Sun Belt Champ)
    16. Nevada (WAC Champ)

    While it may not seem intriguing at the moment, how many fans of each conference would tune in just to see how their conference competed in the playoff? 

    After a few recruiting cycles, talent would dissipate among the conferences. Does that mean Alabama and LSU wouldn't get their stud players? No, but it does mean they'd get fewer of them.

    Looking at this lineup, not only do the SEC, Big XII, ACC and Pac-12 get a surplus of revenue by having two programs in the playoff, but so does the Mountain West. This means more money for Mountain West schools to build facilities, keep coaches and lure recruits.

    As far as intriguing matchups go, the first round gives fans a Boise State versus Virginia Tech rematch, an interesting Houston versus Stanford contest, and TCU heads up the road to Oklahoma to see if their defense can stop the Sooners.

    Could you imagine a world where the fans get to have their cake and eat it to? This scenario neglects to emphasize that the regular bowl season will go on simultaneously, as well. 

    Fans should demand no less than a 16-team playoff.  It's time for a postseason that means something!