If you are a college football fan, this is the time of year when the controversy begins. Ever since the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998, November has brought debates over the merits of the system. This Monday, Yale Daily News columnist Jason Oraker pointed out some of the flaws in the BCS, while on the same day, ESPN.com examined potential controversies to come in the BCS standings. With all the criticism that BCS has received over the last four years, it should be pointed out that the BCS is actually a good idea.
One month from now, the BCS will unveil its final standings, with the top two teams playing for the national title at the Fiesta Bowl. There are five components to the BCS rankings system — the average of a team’s rankings in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, the average ranking in seven computer polls, with the lowest rating dropped, strength of schedule, losses and wins over teams in the BCS top 10. For example, beating the BCS No. 1 results in a full point deduction, while beating No. 10 is only a tenth of a point. That’s about it. The lower the score, the higher the BCS ranking.
Obviously, the system is rather complicated and there have been numerous complaints. Oraker cited three examples of past BCS failures. In the BCS’s inaugural season, three teams (Kansas State, Tennessee, and UCLA) were undefeated going into the final weekend of the regular season. Had Kansas State and UCLA not lost, one unbeaten would have been left out of the title game. In the 2000 season, Miami was ranked behind Florida State in the final BCS rankings even though both teams had the same record and Miami had defeated FSU earlier in the year. Last year, Nebraska gave up 62 points in a loss to Colorado at the end of the season, but still managed to sneak into the championship game. Another problem could arise because only the coaches are bound by the outcome of the BCS title game.
Regardless of these failures, the BCS still tends to do a good job. No highly ranked undefeated team has been excluded from the championship game. Additionally, only unbeaten teams have won the title since 1998. The sliding scale win deduction was added to prevent the Miami/FSU debacle of 2000 from reoccurring. Basically, the BCS guarantees that two top teams will be playing for the national championship on January 3. This may seem more impressive when compared to the pre-BCS era.
In the year before the BCS took over, Michigan entered Bowl Week as the #1 team in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls. Although Michigan beat Washington State in the Rose Bowl, it ended up splitting the national title with Nebraska. Apparently, the members of the Coaches poll were impressed by Nebraska’s 42-17 victory over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Perhaps they wanted Nebraska coach Tom Osborne to get a championship in his final season.
Similar situations occurred in 1991, when Georgia Tech and Colorado split a national title despite Colorado’s one regular season loss. Miami and Washington had the same disparate records in 1992 and ended up splitting the national championship.
It was a different story in 1995 when No. 1 Nebraska edged Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl. Meanwhile, No. 2 Penn State destroyed Oregon 38-20 in the Rose Bowl. However, even though both squads were undefeated, both polls ranked Nebraska No. 1, and Penn State had nothing to show for its perfect season.
The bottom line is that the national championship was awarded on arbitrary circumstances in these seasons. Wouldn’t it have been better to have Michigan play Nebraska in 1998? How about having Nebraska and Penn State play in 1995? Instead, the polls were left to decide.
The BCS works because it gives fans a chance to watch the top two teams in the country square off. Granted, there will always be debate over who these two teams are. If the season ended right now, Oklahoma would play Ohio State even though Miami is undefeated and No. 1 in the Coaches’ Poll.
It is possible that the participants in the national title will be determined by how each team’s strength of schedule holds up. Third-party games that appear to have no meaning might have championship implications. But the BCS is going in the right direction. It has adjusted its system over the last four years in an effort to make the right decision.
Many have argued that a playoff involving several of the nation’s top teams would be preferable. In truth, it might be. Although there would always be debate over the last spot in the playoff, the probability that a deserving team would not get a chance to play for the championship would be remote. However, a playoff might be unfeasible because it would extend the already long season and possibly reduce the prestige of major bowl games.
Until a reasonable playoff scenario can be created, the BCS is the best system for college football.