A BCS History Lesson: Should We Have Had a Playoff All Along?

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A BCS History Lesson: Should We Have Had a Playoff All Along?

The last few years have seen a majority of College Football fans jump on the playoff bandwagon, with most people convinced that the BCS is stupid, dumb, biased, or something similar. These fans believe that a playoff system is what College Football needs over all else.

Even President-elect Barack Obama is pushing for change (though maybe that should be expected, given the slogan of his campaign), having used multiple media outlets to voice his frustration with the current system.

The biggest controversy revolves around determining who makes it into the BCS title game. In 2003, a one-loss USC was left out of a BCS Title Game that featured two one-loss teams (yet USC claimed a national title anyway).

In 2004, two undefeated teams (Auburn and Utah) were left on the outside looking in as two other undefeated teams (USC and Oklahoma) got to play in the BCS title game.

Then in 2006, an undefeated Boise State team was left out of the BCS title game in favor of a one-loss Florida team.

And of course, there is 2008, when five one-loss teams and two undefeated teams were left out of the BCS title game in favor of two one-loss teams, even though one of the teams left out (Texas) beat one of the BCS title game teams (Oklahoma) by 10 points on a neutral field.

A solution to the problem, as proposed by many voices in the college football universe, would be to use the BCS (since college football isn't getting rid of it any time soon) to find the top eight teams at the end of the year, and have those eight fight it out, March Madness-style, for the title.

The thinking goes, the top team has to be in those eight, so let any controversies work themselves out on the field.

Sure, that idea looks very attractive this year, when (almost) all the undefeated and one-loss teams would be able to battle it out for themselves. (Sorry, Boise State.). But what about the other 10 years of the BCS?

Let's take a look back at the first 10 years of the BCS, and see how things would have looked if the hypothetical playoff system people so crave had been in place:

 

1998

In 1998, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Rose Bowl: No. 9 Wisconsin (Big Ten Champ) vs. No. 5 UCLA (Pac-Ten Champ)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 4 Ohio State (At-Large) vs. No. 6 Texas A&M (Big 12 Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 8 Florida (At-Large) vs. No. 15 Syracuse (Big East Champ)
  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 1 Tennessee (SEC Champ, No. 1) vs. No. 2 Florida State (ACC Champ, No. 2)

As you can see, the BCS got six of the top eight teams in these games anyway, so it looks like it did a decent job. But don't tell that to Kansas State, which was ranked No. 3 in the BCS and was left out of the party altogether, or to 11-1 Arizona, who was ranked No. 7 but was overlooked in favor of 9-2 Florida.

Actually, upon closer examination of the final polls, this would have been a great year for a playoff. The only certainty was that Tennessee was No. 1. Kansas State (11-1) and Ohio State (10-1) would both have great claims to the No. 2 spot over 11-1 Florida State, and would have loved an opportunity to earn it on the field.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Tennessee (12-0) vs. No. 8 Florida (9-2)
  • No. 2 Florida State (11-1) vs. No. 7 Arizona (11-1)
  • No. 3 Kansas State (11-1) vs. No. 6 Texas A&M (11-2)
  • No. 4 Ohio State (10-1) vs. No. 5 UCLA (10-1)

The only clear loser in the playoff hypothetical is Wisconsin, who made the actual BCS as the Big Ten Champion. A closer look, however, shows that Wisconsin was named Big Ten Champion as the result of a three-way tie with Michigan and Ohio State. Wisconsin never played Ohio State, and they actually lost to Michigan, a team that Ohio State beat.

Wisconsin would have been upset not to have been ranked over a two-loss Florida team, but that would be about the end of the controversy in this scenario.

 

1999

In 1999, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Rose Bowl: No. 7 Wisconsin (Big Ten Champ) vs. No. 23 Stanford (Pac-10 Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 8 Michigan (At-Large) vs. No. 4 Alabama (SEC Champion)
  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 3 Nebraska (Big 12 Champ) vs. No. 5 Tennessee (At-Large)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Florida State (ACC Champ, No. 1) vs. No. 2 Virginia Tech (Big East Champ, No. 2)

On the surface, the BCS did a great job, getting seven of the top eight teams in the BCS games, leaving only No.6 Kansas State out for the second year in a row. (Kansas State must have really hated this system way before the rest of the nation decided it was garbage.)

However, Kansas State wouldn't have been the only angry team. Marshall, at 12-0, led by future NFLer Chad Pennington, was ranked No. 12 at the end of the season. Ultimately, there's no real way to include Marshall, but their success (albeit in the MAC) should be noted.

As in 1998, the No. 1 team was pretty much undisputed, as Florida State was 11-0. Virginia Tech got in on the strength of their 10-1 record, something Nebraska (11-1) surely would have liked to contest in a playoff environment.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Florida State (11-0) vs. No. 8 Michigan (9-2)
  • No. 2 Virginia Tech (10-1) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (9-2)
  • No. 3 Nebraska (11-1) vs. No. 6 Kansas State (10-1)
  • No. 4 Alabama (10-2) vs. No. 5 Tennessee (9-2)

The biggest controversy in this scenario would be that Michigan State (9-2), who had beaten No. 8 Michigan earlier in the season, would be left out of the playoff because of their No. 9 ranking.

As in 1998, the only real controversy in the playoff format is about who the No. 8 team should be, as three teams (Michigan, Michigan State, and Marshall) would all have had legitimate claims to the ranking. All things considered, however, this is not an enormous problem, and not nearly as big a controversy as those in the actual system.

 

2000

In 2000, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 6 Oregon State (At-Large) vs. No. 11 Notre Dame (At-Large)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 4 Washington (Pac 10 Champ) vs. No. 14 Purdue (Big Ten Champ)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 3 Miami (Big East Champ) vs. No. 7 Florida (SEC Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 1 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ, No. 1) vs. No. 2 Florida State (ACC Champ, No. 2)

Again, on paper it would seem the BCS did a pretty good job on its own of getting most of the top eight teams in, managing to get six of the top eight involved. The only teams left out were No. 5 Virginia Tech and No. 8 Nebraska.

Virginia Tech had beaten both of the at-large teams selected over them, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 6 Oregon State. And the controversy didn't end there.

Third-ranked Miami (10-1), despite being ranked No. 2 in the AP and Coaches' polls and having beaten No. 2 Florida State (11-1) in the regular season, was left on the outside looking in, as was No. 4 Washington (10-1), who felt like they deserved a shot at the title, having beaten No. 3 Miami and No. 6 Oregon State. It was a mess.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0) vs. No. 8 Nebraska (9-2)
  • No. 2 Florida State (11-1) vs. No. 7 Florida (10-2)
  • No. 3 Miami (10-1) vs. No. 6 Oregon State (10-1)
  • No. 4 Washington (10-1) vs. No. 5 Virginia Tech (10-1)

The eight-team playoff system seems like it would have been the perfect solution to the BCS problem of 2000. The only hiccup, ironically enough, would be that Kansas State would complain about being ranked No. 9 in the BCS despite having beaten No. 8 Nebraska in the regular season.

 

2001

In 2001, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Orange Bowl: No. 5 Florida (At-Large) vs. No. 10 Maryland (ACC Champ)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 13 LSU (SEC Champ) vs. No. 8 Illinois (Big Ten Champ)
  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 4 Oregon (Pac 10 Champ) vs. No. 3 Colorado (Big 12 Champ)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 1 Miami (Big East Champ, No. 1) vs. No. 2 Nebraska (At-Large, No. 2)

Before you even look at the other bowl matchups, you can see "At-Large" next to Nebraska and know things got controversial in 2001. And you'd be right.

Despite Colorado's convincing 62-36 beatdown of Nebraska in the last game of the season, not to mention Colorado winning the Big 12 Championship the next week, Nebraska (11-1) was chosen ahead of Colorado (10-2) because they had fewer losses.

And don't forget Oregon, who slid to No. 4 by the end of the year despite winning the Pac-10 and being ranked No. 2 in the "human" polls.

Sixth-ranked Tennessee and No. 7 Texas were left out in favor of conference champions Maryland (10-1) and LSU (9-3), but there was almost too much controversy at the top for people to really care about the slighted Vols and Longhorns.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Miami (11-0) vs. No. 8 Illinois (10-1)
  • No. 2 Nebraska (11-1) vs. No. 7 Texas (10-2)
  • No. 3 Colorado (10-2) vs. No. 6 Tennessee (10-2)
  • No. 4 Oregon (10-1) vs. No. 5 Florida (9-2)

Insert the playoff and all the problems are solved. The No. 9 team, Stanford, was 9-2 and actually ranked 11 in the "human" polls, so there really is no controversy outside of these pairings.

 

2002

In 2002, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Rose Bowl: No. 7 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ) vs. No. 6 Washington State (Pac-10 Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 5 USC (At-Large) vs. No. 4 Iowa (At-Large)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 3 Georgia (SEC Champ) vs. No. 14 Florida State (ACC Champ)
  • Fiesta BowlNo. 2 Ohio State (Big Ten Champ, No. 2) vs. No. 1 Miami (Big East Champ, No. 1)

This seems to be the BCS's best year. You have an undisputed (at least if you leave Trev Alberts out of the discussion) title game featuring the only two undefeated teams in college football. You have the top seven teams involved, only leaving out No. 8 Kansas State (and giving Kansas State their third BCS snub in five years). You also have matchups you never would have had before the BCS was introduced.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Miami (12-0) vs. No. 8 Kansas State (10-2)
  • No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (11-2)
  • No. 3 Georgia (12-1) vs. No. 6 Washington State (10-2)
  • No. 4 Iowa (11-1) vs. No. 5 USC (10-2)

The playoff would've included Kansas State, which would've been nice to them, but really not a whole lot would change. The BCS would lose one of its greatest games ever, the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, but of course there is the chance that Ohio State and Miami would win their first two games in the playoff to set up the inevitable matchup (though it would be nearly impossible to duplicate the classic that actually occurred).

 

2003

In 2003, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Ohio State (At-Large) vs. No. 10 Kansas State (Big 12 Champ)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 3 USC (Pac 10 Champ) vs. No. 4 Michigan (Big Ten Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 9 Miami (Big East Champ) vs. No. 7 Florida State (ACC Champ)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 2 LSU (SEC Champ, No. 2) vs. No. 1 Oklahoma (At-Large, No. 1)

The BCS did a great job of getting top teams involved in 2003, but it became inevitable, once again, that there was going to be controversy, as three BCS schools (Oklahoma, LSU, USC) finished their seasons with one loss.

Only two teams were getting invited to the Sugar Bowl, and to make matters worse, two non BCS schools (Utah and Miami (OH)) finished with one loss but were left out of the BCS altogether.

Before everyone starts stabbing the BCS in the back for the controversies of 2003, we need to take a step back and realize that a playoff would have actually introduced even more controversy.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. No. 8 Tennessee (10-2)
  • No. 2 LSU (12-1) vs. No. 7 Florida State (10-2)
  • No. 3 USC (11-1) vs. No. 6 Texas (10-2)
  • No. 4 Michigan (10-2) vs. No. 5 Ohio State (10-2)

The controversy in the hypothetical playoff scenario comes when you look at teams ranked 9, 10, and 11 in the BCS: Miami (10-2), Kansas State (11-3), and Miami (OH) (12-1).

How do you justify the exclusion of the Big East Champ (Miami) in favor of a two-loss at-large (Ohio State)?

How do you justify the exclusion of Kansas State, who just destroyed Oklahoma 35-7 in the Big 12 title game?

Is it fair that Miami (OH), because it plays in a non-BCS conference, is excluded with its one loss over five teams with two losses?

The only real solution to this problem is possibly a 12-team playoff instead of an eight-team playoff, but that only opens the door to more controversy, not only in 2003 but in other years as well.

It's just not a good solution.

Yes, there was a lot of controversy in 2003, but having a playoff wouldn't have been any prettier than what the BCS came up with. At the end of the day, we need to just acknowledge that 2003 was an anomaly, and we shouldn't make judgments about the BCS or a potential playoff system based on the freak occurrence that was 2003.

 

2004

In 2004, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 6 Utah (At-Large) vs. No. 21 Pittsburgh (Big East Champ)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 4 Texas (At-Large) vs. No. 13 Michigan (Big Ten Champ)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 3 Auburn (SEC Champ) vs. No. 8 Virginia Tech (ACC Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 1 USC (Pac Ten Champ, No. 1) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ, No. 2)

As in most previous years, the BCS did a great job of creating unique matchups among the top teams in the nation, and for the first time a non-BCS conference team (Utah) was invited.

Unfortunately, there was trouble all around the BCS.

The season ended with five teams undefeated: USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Boise State. Of course, only two teams would be invited to Miami to play for the BCS Title.  USC and Oklahoma were invited, leaving Auburn, the only remaining BCS-conference undefeated team, out.

As for the non-BCS conference teams...Utah was invited to the Fiesta Bowl (as the No. 6 team in the BCS they were guaranteed an invite) but Boise State (12-0) and their No. 9 BCS ranking were left out.

It was disappointing for Boise State to be left out, but it becomes very difficult to justify their inclusion over No. 4 Texas' (10-1) at-large bid. So Boise State's issue isn't really a controversy unless the playoff format was in place.

This is what the BCS matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 USC (12-0) vs. No. 8 Virginia Tech (10-2)
  • No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0) vs. No. 7 Georgia (9-2)
  • No. 3 Auburn (12-0) vs. No. 6 Utah (11-0)
  • No. 4 Texas (10-1) vs. No. 5 California (10-1)

Of course, this situation gives Auburn a chance to play their way to the BCS Title Game like they (and the rest of the nation) wanted. But, it leaves out the fifth undefeated team, Boise State, who is sitting just outside at No. 9.

Virginia Tech won their last eight games of the season after losing early to USC and NC State, and Georgia lost games to two ranked teams, but even still it becomes hard to argue that Boise State didn't deserve to play more than either of those two teams.

In 2004, the playoff would have solved the bottleneck at the top, but still would have left people a little unsatisfied.

 

2005

In 2005, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 4 Ohio State (At-Large) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (At-Large)
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 11 West Virginia (Big East Champ) vs. No. 7 Georgia (SEC Champ)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 3 Penn State (Big Ten Champ) vs. No. 22 Florida State (ACC Champ)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 2 Texas (Big 12 Champ, No. 2) vs. No. 1 USC (Pac 10 Champ, No. 1)

Like in 2002, the BCS gave college football the matchup it wanted in the title game. Texas and USC were the only two undefeated teams in College Football, and there was no real cry for anyone else to play.

The BCS was hurt by the weakness of the ACC and Big East (and as a result, the low rankings of Florida State and West Virginia), and the exclusion of No. 5 Oregon from the BCS in favor of We-Refuse-To-Join-A-Conference-We've-Got-NBC No. 6 Notre Dame was a mistake, but all in all the BCS did all it really could do in 2005.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 USC (12-0) vs. No. 8 Miami (9-2)
  • No. 2 Texas (12-0) vs. No. 7 Georgia (10-2)
  • No. 3 Penn State (10-1) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (9-2)
  • No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) vs. No. 5 Oregon (10-1)

There's no real change in the playoff, except for getting rid of unworthy Florida State and West Virginia from the equation. Oregon is now involved, which is nice, but at the end of the day a playoff would have been trying to fix something that didn't need to be fixed in the first place.

Also, as in 2002, the BCS would have lost one of its greatest games ever, the classic Rose Bowl matchup between Texas and USC. They likely would have still played for the title, but duplicating the magic of the 2006 Rose Bowl would be nearly impossible.

 

2006

In 2006, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Sugar Bowl: No. 4 LSU (At-Large) vs. No. 11 Notre Dame (At-Large)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 6 Louisville (Big East Champ) vs. No. 14 Wake Forest (ACC Champ)
  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 8 Boise State (At-Large) vs. No. 10 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 5 USC (Pac 10 Champ) vs. No. 3 Michigan (At-Large)
  • BCS Title Game: No. 2 Florida (SEC Champ, No. 2) vs. No. 1 Ohio State (Big Ten Champ, No. 1)

Introducing the extra bowl game to the BCS slate brought immediate success, with seven of the top eight teams playing in BCS bowls in 2006. Only No. 7 Wisconsin (11-1) was left out because the Big Ten already had two participants.

However, that is not to say there wasn't a fair amount of controversy.

In the final Big Ten game of season, No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan in a great 42-39 game, giving Michigan its first loss of the season. Was that three-point road loss worth dropping Michigan in the rankings? At first, pollsters didn't think so, and Michigan remained No. 2 in the BCS.

After the SEC Championship, however, pollsters forgot all about Michigan's great season and voted them out of the BCS title game, fearing a rematch with Ohio State. There's no way to avoid the fact that a playoff would have definitely settled that mini-controversy.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) vs. No. 8 Boise State (12-0)
  • No. 2 Florida (11-1) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (11-1)
  • No. 3 Michigan (11-1) vs. No. 6 Louisville (11-1)
  • No. 4 LSU (10-2) vs. No. 5 USC (10-2)

Clearly, Florida and Michigan would be presented with the opportunity of seeing which team deserved to play Ohio State (assuming all parties involved would win the necessary games). Again, however, the Fiesta Bowl classic between Boise State and Oklahoma would be lost, but all in all a playoff scenario would definitely have been a better way of determining the 2006 champion.

 

2007

In 2000, the actual BCS Matchups were (with the winning team listed first):

  • Sugar Bowl: No. 5 Georgia (At-Large) vs. No. 10 Hawaii (At-Large)
  • Orange Bowl: No. 8 Kansas (At-Large) vs. No. 3 Virginia Tech (ACC Champ)
  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 9 West Virginia (Big East Champ) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ)
  • Rose Bowl: No. 7 USC ( PAC 10 Champ) vs. No. 13 Illinois (At-Large)
  • BCS Title Game: No. 2 LSU (SEC Champ, No. 2) vs. No. 1 Ohio State (Big Ten Champ, No. 1)

In 2007, nine of the top 10 teams were invited to the BCS (an impressive figure). Only No. 6 Missouri (11-2) was left out, in favor of No. 8 Kansas, who was enjoying the most successful year in the history of their program.

The controversy wasn't too major, and even if Missouri had been invited it would have been at the expense of Kansas, so there was no real way of getting around it. 

The only controversy at the top of the standings had to do with who deserved the No. 2 spot. The general consensus was the Ohio State, with only one loss, deserved the top spot, but with several teams with two losses, who got to go to New Orleans?

While there are arguments for other teams, it was LSU who was invited. Their argument was strengthened by their early season domination of No. 3 Virginia Tech.

This is what the BCS Matchups would have looked like if a playoff had been instituted:

  • No. 1 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 8 Kansas (11-1)
  • No. 2 LSU (11-2) vs. No. 7 USC (10-2)
  • No. 3 Virginia Tech (11-2) vs. No. 6 Missouri (11-2)
  • No. 4 Oklahoma (11-2) vs. No. 5 Georgia (10-2)

Unfortunately, this doesn't really solve anything, but rather introduces more controversy. Sitting at No. 10 in the BCS is undefeated Hawaii, getting no love as a small school, whereas there are six two-loss teams that are ranked above the undefeated Rainbow Warriors (if you include No. 9 West Virginia).

In the "Year of the Upset," there really wasn't too much controversy when the BCS bowl games were announced.

If there had been a playoff scenario, however, then there would have been cries throughout the country that Hawaii, a small school not in a BCS conference, was getting punished for playing what was perceived by some to be a weak schedule.

It's important to study the first 10 years of the BCS so that we can anticipate problems that could occur in the future.

Having studied the first decade of college football under the BCS, it does appear that we would have been better off with a playoff system from the beginning.

Yes, we would have lost great games such as the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the 2006 Rose Bowl, and the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but who knows how many classic games just like those three we could have missed by not having a playoff system.

The first 10 years of the BCS saw a lot of controversies. And while it does appear a playoff system would be a giant step forward in determining a national champion, advocates of a playoff system need to be careful.

Like the BCS, a potential playoff system would have its fair share of controversies. Just because a playoff solves some of the BCS controversies doesn't mean it doesn't create problems of its own.

There's no perfect system, but a playoff does beat the politics of the current system.

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