BCS Hurts The Best Teams: Looking at 2001-2004

Pete MisthaufenAnalyst IAugust 18, 2009

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 23:   Carson Palmer #3 throws a pass behind the block of Justin Fargas #25 against UCLA on November 23, 2002 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. USC won 52-21. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Every year fans, coaches, and journalists argue about which teams are the strongest and which conferences are the toughest.  This debate gets extremely heated around the time for the selection of the BCS bids, especially the championship game.

Now, as I recently explained in another article, I have decided that to determine which teams are really the best each year, we need to look at what they did against good teams, which I define as teams that have won seven against against FBS (formerly Division I-A) teams during the regular season. 

You can find that article here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/236784-best-conferences-2001-2008-rethinking-strength-of-schedule

As such, it has provided some interesting results.  Teams and conferences that look reasonably strong under traditional methods for determining strength of schedule suddenly look really pathetic. 

The best example is last year's SEC and its two strongest teams, Alabama and Florida.  Last year, the SEC only had four teams good teams as defined by the standard I laid out above:  Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.  The SEC's two BCS teams each only played two good teams during their twelve game regular season.  In comparison, the 2002 season saw the SEC with eight good teams and a very strong conference indeed.

The current BCS formula encourages hype over substance.  Any voter could have looked at Florida's actual schedule last year and looked beyond the names like Georgia and Tennessee and saw the truth of a weak schedule and against average teams. 

USC has been criticized for playing in a weak conference (with some justification for some of the last eight seasons), though last year the Pac-10 was actually one of the best conferences with no conference having a higher percentage of good teams.  Perception has become reality.

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So, using this standard, I decided to look at the BCS games from 2001 to 2004 seasons to see what we could learn.  Were the best teams from the best conferences making into the BCS title game?  Or did hype win out over substance?

Also, I wanted to see if the better teams (the ones with stronger schedules, not better records) from the stronger conferences (with more good teams) won their BCS games.

I also looked at some of the schools left out of the BCS picture to see if they really deserved inclusion.


Of course, this season had enormous controversy with Nebraska's backing into the BCS title game, played at the Rose Bowl.  What makes this especially bad is that the Big 12 was a very poor conference that year.  Using my standard, the Big 12 only had three good teams and ranked a miserable eighth place among all FBS conferences, below the WAC and MAC and every other BCS conference.

Now, under the current BCS formula, Oregon would have played Miami in the BCS title game.  As such, we would have seen the best team (Miami) from the best conference (Big East) play the best team from the second best conference (the Pac-10, which had five good teams).  So, at least this error would have been corrected.

The Fiesta Bowl instead had Oregon against Colorado with a predictable result just from the quality of the conference.  Oregon really was one of the two best teams in the country.

The Sugar Bowl had SEC champ LSU (the SEC had tied for second best conference along with the Pac-10 and the WAC) against Illinois of the Big Ten (the seventh best conference with only three good teams).  Again, the result reflects conference quality.

The Orange Bowl saw an at-large Florida (6-1 against good teams) vs. ACC champion Maryland (2-1 vs. good teams).  The ACC was the fifth best conference overall and the results from this game followed the quality conference standard, with the Gators winning big.

So, for the first year of analysis, the BCS games all saw the teams for the better conferences win their games.  Interesting enough, the SEC team with the most wins did not even get to play in a BCS bowl.  Tennessee had ten wins over FBS schools to lead all SEC teams, but played fewer good teams than Florida, and so did not deserve going before Florida to a BCS game.

BYU had the most wins over FBS schools at twelve, but fell in its regular season game to Hawaii, one of five good teams of the WAC.  Of course, BYU lost that game after learning that under no circumstances would the Cougars receive a BCS bowl bid, which never helps motivation.  Even so, BYU had faced a single good team (Utah) in its first twelve games and lost to the only the second good team it played in the entire regular season, validating the BCS rejection, as hard it is to hear for Cougar fans.


This season is heralded as one of the few were the BCS got it right.  But were Ohio State and Miami really worthy, even though undefeated?

That year, the two best conferences were the SEC and the Pac-10.  Not only were they the two best conferences, they were two of the very best conferences during this entire eight year period.  The SEC had eight good teams, with BCS No. 3 Georgia having a close loss to Florida as its only blemish, going 7-1 against good teams.  The Pac-10 had seven good teams, with BCS No. 4 USC losing two close games on the road and playing an incredible ten good teams, going 8-2.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten placed fifth among all conferences, with a respectable five good teams.  Ohio State played six good teams.  Not a bad schedule, but nothing like Georgia or USC.  The Big East had six good teams out of nine members and Miami played seven good teams. 

In other words, this was a prime year for a plus-one or a playoff.  While on the surface it looks like the BCS got it right, a closer look really calls this into question.  USC and Georgia each played more good teams than either BCS title game team.  USC and Georgia were the best teams from the toughest conferences.  Of course, the Orange Bowl did not let the two teams meet in what would have been an epic battle in the Sugar Bowl, giving us instead two bad bowl games.

The Sugar Bowl featured Georgia against Florida State (4-4 against good teams) of the ACC, tied for third best conference with the Big East).  The result again followed strength of conference and the team with the most wins over good teams.

The Orange Bowl had USC against the vastly overmatched Iowa Hawkeyes.  The Hawkeyes had only played four good teams all season and had lost to an Iowa State team that only had six FBS regular season wins.

The Rose Bowl saw Oklahoma defeating Washington State.  The Sooners had gone undefeated in the regular season against good teams, but had two close losses on the road at teams with six FBS wins.  The Cougars only went 4-2 against good teams.  So, while this somewhat throws a small wrench in the entire better conference always wins idea, the general principle that the teams with the most wins over good teams is better continues on.

Oddly enough, Notre Dame had ten wins over FBS schools that season, going 4-2 against good teams.  In today's era with ten BCS spots, Notre Dame would have received a berth and actually have earned it.

So, in spite of what we have generally held, the two best teams did not play in the BCS title game that year.  Miami and Ohio State were really overshadowed by USC and Georgia when it comes to looking at the numbers.  Eight wins against good teams is absolutely crazy. 

Ohio State and Miami, while undefeated, may not have been the two best teams in the country.  Under the pre-BCS system, USC would have faced the Canes at the Fiesta Bowl, while Ohio State would have played Washington State at the Rose Bowl in a re-match.  I am not sure that the undefeated teams would have won either game.

A playoff system would reward good teams that played tough schedules.  The softening of schedules that we see today may have come as AD saw that Ohio State could skate to the BCS title game with an average schedule.


We all know what a disaster this year was for the BCS.  It represents the last split national title, as USC was left out of the BCS title game.  But should they have been left out?

The Pac-10 was way down that season, with only four good teams, ranking below Conference USA and tied with the WAC in seventh place.  The Big Ten had its best season out during the entire period examined, with seven good teams.  The SEC and Big 12 tied for second place among all conferences, with six good teams each.

Of course, everything was thrown in a mess by Kansas State (with a very weak OOC schedule and going only 3-3 versus good teams in the regular season) pulling the upset over Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. 

So we ended up with LSU (5-1 against good teams) against an undeserving OU team (given that it lost its conference championship game).  Adding in the conference championships games, each was 6-1 against good teams and the conferences were of equal quality.  LSU's victory neither confirms or invalidates the idea set forth here.

Did USC have a valid case?  What about Michigan?  USC, having gone 4-1 against good teams and from a weak conference, had limited ground to stand on.  Of course, by pounding the best team from the best conference (Michigan, 5-2 against good teams), USC earned its AP national title. 

Michigan had an equal claim to the BCS title game, as the best team from the best conference.  A Wolverines win over USC would have given it a reasonable claim to a national title, as good as LSU's.

As to the other games, the Fiesta Bowl had Ohio State (6-2 vs. good teams) versus Kansas State.  Conference and team quality prevailed.

The Orange Bowl saw Miami of the Big East (fourth best conference) defeat Florida State of the ACC (sixth best conference).  Miami also had more wins over good teams.

So, 2003 is another year where a plus one or playoff would have been better than the BCS.  But USC played in a weak conference and had a soft schedule, thereby costing itself of a place in the BCS title game.  The best team from the best conference also was left out of the title game picture, as Michigan lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.

As to potential BCS busters, under the current system Miami (Ohio) would have busted the system, with Big Ben leading the way.  Unfortunately, they really did not belong.  The Redhawks had only played three good teams, going 2-1.  The MAC had five good teams, but with fourteen conference members, it was full of easy games.  In comparison, conference foe Bowling Green played five good teams, defeating three.  The MAC is just too big, which really drags down its percentage of good teams.


Ah, the year of the great snafu.  The BCS showed itself as a complete mess.  Did Auburn or Utah deserve a title shot?  What about Boise?

Now, the Pac-10 was way down again, ranking sixth out of all conferences, with only three good teams.  The Big 12 led the way with six good teams.

Auburn only played three good teams in its entire regular season.  The SEC had its second weakest year (only surpassed by 2008).  The BCS system properly punished Auburn for having a very weak schedule (unlike 2008's Florida).

Utah was one of only two good teams in the MWC (and this is the year before TCU joined the conference).  The Utes only played two good teams all season.  So, like Auburn, Utah was not deserving of a spot in the BCS title game.

Boise actually comes out more deserving than Utah (or even USC).  The WAC was the fourth best conference and the Broncos defeated four good teams.  So, Boise had a valid argument for a BCS title game shot and at the very least should have faced off against Pittsburgh instead of Utah.  Instead, Boise went to the Liberty Bowl to face top ten Louisville of Conference USA.  The Cardinals had gone 1-1 against good teams with only a close loss at Miami, but really did not have a strong claim to a BCS game.

Cal, ranked in the final BCS standings at No. 5, really had no ground to stand on for being slighted by the BCS.  Cal only played two good teams all season (USC and Arizona State) and went 1-1.

The BCS title game played at the Rose Bowl was one of the worst blowouts in Rose Bowl history.  However, USC only played three good teams all season long on its road to an undefeated year.  Oklahoma had only five wins over good teams.  This is one result that belies the idea that the best teams from the best conferences win over teams with weaker schedules from easier conferences.  Oh, well, USC just dominated in spite of its poor schedule.

As to the other BCS games, they all followed according to conference strength.  Texas, from the best conference and going 5-1 against good teams, won a squeaker versus Big Ten champ Michigan (who had gone 2-1 versus good teams and had also lost to an average Notre Dame). 

Utah, though with a cupcake schedule, and less deserving of the BCS berth than Boise, took out Big East champ Pitt. Now the Big East was the second best conference, but Pitt had lost two games to average teams, as well as going 1-1 against the good teams it faced.

Auburn won a close game against Virginia Tech (who had gone 3-1 vs. good teams, but had a loss to an average North Carolina State team).

So, again, the best team from the toughest conference did not play in the BCS title game or even BCS games.  Utah was less deserving of the BCS bid than Boise.  Boise had played a harder schedule than USC, Utah or Auburn.  Again, this would have been another good year for a playoff, to allow the best teams from the best conferences to actually earn a national title.


So what can see by taking a close look at these four years and sixteen BCS games?

  • The best teams from the best conferences do not make it into the BCS title game.
  • The teams from the harder conferences with the stronger schedules usually defeated teams in BCS bowls from weaker conferences with cupcake schedules.
  • Most of the BCS titles from these years can be called into question.
  • Only a few non-AQ teams deserve to get in and the standard is likely too easy these days.
  • Reputation began to mean more than reality.

This entire mess as demonstrated here is just another reason to hate the BCS.

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