If it were not for the BCS …

With USC and LSU proclaimed as college football’s co-national champions last week, everyone seems to have finally written off the Bowl Championship Series. But, although the BCS certainly has its flaws, its critics have failed to recognize what a success the system has been since its institution in 1998.

The BCS deserves a great degree of criticism. Its computers somehow excluded USC — No.1 in both the Associated Press poll and ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll– from a spot in the national championship game.

And how did LSU manage to leapfrog USC in the standings? Well, Syracuse’s defeating Notre Dame and Boise State’s beating Hawaii on Dec. 6 may have been the deciding factors. Hawaii and Notre Dame were both USC opponents, whose defeats weakened the Trojans’ strength of schedule rating. The Boise State-Hawaii game was a real killer for USC because Boise State was an earlier LSU victim.

Obviously, it isn’t right for these third-party games to decide spots in championship games. Critics are quick to point out how these contests seem to arbitrarily shift the BCS standings by critical fractions.

But, what about the pre-BCS era? Awarding spots in the national championship game on the basis of third-party games might seem random, but the decisions rendered by the polls in the years leading up to the BCS were blatantly unfair.

In 1995, both No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Penn State capped off perfect seasons during Bowl week. The Cornhuskers edged Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl, while the Nittany Lions destroyed Oregon 38-20 in the Rose Bowl. But the voters in each poll were unmoved by Penn State’s dominant performance and Nebraska finished No. 1 in both polls, winning the title and leaving the Nittany Lions nothing to show for a perfect season.

In 1998, during the season before the BCS was established, a similar situation occurred with Michigan and Nebraska. No. 1 Michigan beat Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl, while No. 2 Nebraska crushed Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl. When the dust cleared, Michigan retained its No. 1 spot in the AP poll, but Nebraska managed to jump ahead of the Wolverines in the coaches’ poll, splitting the national title. The coaches might have been influenced by the Cornhuskers’ throttling of Peyton Manning’s Volunteers, or perhaps they were moved by the fact that Nebraska coach Tom Osborne was retiring. Would Penn State have latched on to a piece of the 1995 title if Joe Paterno had claimed he were retiring?

The greatest success of the BCS has been to end these voting controversies when two teams clearly emerge as the best in the country. The answer was just to make the two teams play each other. OK, the solution isn’t exactly brilliant, but consider what could have happened if the BCS never existed. Last year, in the most exciting BCS title game, No. 2 Ohio State won the championship, stunning No. 1 Miami 31-24 in overtime.

Now, if the BCS didn’t exist, here’s what would have happened. As the Big Ten champion, Ohio State would have traveled to Pasadena to play Pac-10 winner Washington State in the Rose Bowl. As for Miami, they probably would have played Oklahoma or possibly Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Assuming the top two teams prevailed, the Hurricanes, who had a stranglehold on No. 1 in each poll before the Bowls, probably would have been the unanimous champions, leaving the Buckeyes with nothing.

The BCS has only shown signs of weakness when a regular season ends without two undefeated teams. Before this year, there was controversy in 2002 when Nebraska yielded 62 points in an embarrassing loss to Colorado in its last game of the season but still edged the Buffalos and Oregon for a title game spot against Miami. In 2001, Florida State beat out Miami to play Oklahoma for the championship, despite the fact that both the Seminoles and Hurricanes had one loss and Miami had beaten Florida State. But in each case the integrity of the championship was preserved as an undefeated team, Miami in 2002 and Oklahoma in 2001, won the championship. Of course, there was no undefeated team this season.

So for the first time in six years, the BCS failed to name a consensus champion. But, is there really such a stigma on a season that ends this way? After all, titles were divided in four of the eight years before the BCS.

In the end, USC and LSU set themselves apart as the country’s two best teams, and each squad rightly received a share of the title. Everyone would love to see the Trojans and Tigers fight it out, but that won’t happen. At least each side has something to show for an outstanding season.

The BCS contract expires in 2006 and it seems that many would be happy to see the system disappear. But there is no feasible superior alternative. There have been proposals calling for playoff systems involving anywhere between four and 16 teams. Interesting idea, but conferences say that they won’t allow extra games that will make players miss classes or exams. Translation: they don’t want the Bowls to lose prestige and lower the eight-digit payouts to the major conferences.

The most realistic solution is to stop condemning the BCS and continue to make adjustments in the system. The BCS is not perfect, but it is better than anything that came before it.

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