The BCS is probably the most universally reviled institution in all of sports. It is more unpopular than the Wild Card, free agency, Billy Packer, sideline reporters, in-game celebrity interviews, that weird ball the NBA introduced a few years ago, the designated hitter, Joey Crawford, blown calls by umpires, life-shortening head trauma, and even Roger Clemens.
Some of this is due to the blatant unfairness of the BCS, in that small schools from non-BCS conferences, like Boise State and TCU, are inevitably punished by the system. But this can’t account for all of the animosity towards the BCS—after all, in the latest rankings TCU was #3 in the country. The BCS is no more unfair than, say, the absence of a salary cap in baseball, or the fact that there will be a playoff team from the NFC West this season, but it draws exponentially more ire than either of these injustices.
It seems to me that the primary reason for anti-BCS sentiment is that the principles behind the BCS are unique in the world of sports. They are so unique, in fact, that people don’t seem to even understand them.
Last month Dan Wetzel, one of the BCS’ most outspoken critics, wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated that attacked the BCS. He begins with a simple criticism: “If regular-season wins and losses mean so much, how did Boise State drop two places in the AP poll after eviscerating Hawaii 42-7 last Saturday [Nov. 6]?”
Wetzel means this question as an incisive criticism of college football’s “Every Game Counts” philosophy (“please spare Boise the platitudes about the sanctity of college football’s regular season”), but if he thought about his own question, he’d probably see that there is a very simple explanation: The two teams that jumped the Broncos, Auburn and TCU, had even MORE lopsided wins that week, including TCU’s 47-7 blowout of Utah, then the fifth-ranked team in the country.
*It’s also worth pointing out that Boise State did NOT actually fall two spots in the BCS rankings after the thrashing of Hawaii—the Broncos fell two spots in the AP poll. The BCS had them as the #4 team before the Hawaii game, and it had them at #4 after. So, ironically, Wetzel’s point only proves that the BCS is, thanks to the “mathematically unsound computer formulas,” better than the AP poll, which is no longer even a component of the BCS rankings.
This makes such intuitive sense that it seems downright stupid for Wetzel to miss it, but it’s understandable. Wetzel lives in a world in which a regular season win is a regular season win, no matter who it comes against. As such, he reasons that a team should never drop in the standings after a win, particularly after such an impressive one—such an outcome is impossible in pretty much every other sport (excepting things like tie-breakers and double-headers).
So Wetzel’s point—and criticisms of the BCS in general—is wrong mainly because it is generated from a totally different model of determining who is best.
It is, after all, in search of who is the best that mankind has invented sports. If you want to know who is the best runner, or the best swimmer, or the best cyclist, then you have a race. If you want to know which football team is better, the Patriots or Colts, you have them play each other.
Things get more complicated, though, when you want to know who is the best among three teams. After all, the Patriots, Colts, and Saints can’t all play each other at once (that is until my buddy Pierre invents Super Football). This is why mankind saw fit to invent the regular season. First, the Colts will play the Patriots, then the Patriots will play the Saints, and then the Saints will play the Colts.
At some point, though, there are too many teams. In order for an NFL team to play every other NFL team, they would have to expand the regular season to at least 31 games, 62 if you wanted to make sure every team got a home game against each opponent (and people complain about expanding the regular season to 18….). Making things even more complicated, sometimes the Saints beat the Colts, the Colts beat the Patriots, and the Patriots beat the Saints, making it essentially impossible to pick the “best” from an iteration of head-to-head match-ups.
This is why mankind invented the playoffs…well, except for one part of mankind. College football is the only team sport with any kind of substantial national following* to eschew any type of playoff system. Instead we have the bowl system, combined with the BCS, that is essentially a loose aggregation of exhibition games played several weeks after the conclusion of the regular season, in which the matchups are determined through a weird bureaucracy that factors in the NCAA’s rules for bowl eligibility, conference standings and the agreements between certain conferences and certain bowls, and the BCS ranking system.
*To make it clear, this includes but is not necessarily limited to: Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA, NHL, college basketball, Minor League Baseball, WNBA, NBDL, CWS (College World Series), MLS, LLWS (Little League World Series), MLL (Major League Lacrosse), AMNRL (American National Rugby League), Slamball, and the NDL (National Dodgeball League).
This may sound like some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare,* but the bureaucratic intricacies of the bowl system shouldn’t obscure the philosophy behind the BCS. Critics like Wetzel view the BCS through the same prism that they view sports with a playoff (probably because, as I just noted, every other sport uses a playoff). The way to determine the best team in a playoff system is to gradually whittle down a big group, first through a regular season and then through a sequence of elimination games or series. That the BCS doesn’t do this is viewed as a shortcoming of the system.
*Although it should be noted that the BCS and the bowl system are two different things, and that the bureaucratic nightmare behind the bowl system is not the fault of the BCS.
After all, the BCS replaced the even more absurd Bowl Alliance, which didn’t include the Rose Bowl and thus left the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions out of the equation. The Bowl Alliance itself replaced the even more byzantine Bowl Coalition, which excluded all Big Ten and Pac-10 teams and was instead obliged to include a 6-4-1 Notre Dame team in 1993. Prior to that, there was total anarchy among the bowls, meaning that the top two teams in the Associated Press poll played each other in a bowl game only five times in the half-century between 1942 and 1992. Since the BCS, they’ve done so nine times in 12 years.
All of this is by way of saying that the BCS, for all of its massive flaws, is an improvement on what came before it, and that many of its flaws come from having to work around systems that are far more entrenched than the BCS itself. The Coaches Poll and the Harris Poll, for example, are inherently biased towards schools with better reputations, since those are the schools coaches, writers, and administrators are exposed to more often. Similarly, the bowls themselves prefer bigger schools with more fans and therefore a bigger audience. This is why the much-maligned computer rankings were included: to counter natural human bias. The BCS isn’t perfect, but that’s because a perfect system would need to either eliminate or drastically restructure the polls and the bowls themselves. And, well, good luck with that…
The BCS doesn’t do this, but not because it doesn’t work—it doesn’t do this because that’s not what it is supposed to do. Instead, the BCS determines the best team by examining every team over the whole season.
If this sounds a lot like the aforementioned “Every Game Counts” philosophy, which fellow NPIer Tim has been ridiculing all season, that’s because there is some truth to the slogan. Tim is right to say that, “certain games do not–indeed, cannot–count. Many teams cannot control their own destiny. These are games that, regardless of what happens before or after them, will have no bearing on the national championship picture.” But this is because Tim is using “count” to mean a very specific thing, namely to have a direct impact on the national championship. Of course, in this respect, it is impossible for everygame to “count” in any system—every league with a playoff has games between teams that have been eliminated, both officially and unofficially, from playoff contention.
Perhaps a more accurate slogan for the BCS would be “Every Game Counts the Same,” though that would be much less pithy. But in this respect the BCS would be both accurate and unique. When people talk about the excitement of college football’s regular season, they are talking about how a Week 1 game in college football can have as much riding on it as Game 7 of the World Series, something that is never true in any playoff system.
When you introduce a playoff, you are effectively saying that some games count more than others: Do-or-die elimination games count the most, followed by non-elimination playoff games (in leagues with playoff series), followed by divisional or league games that determine playoff positioning, followed by regular season games between non-playoff teams. This is why teams do things like rest players in Week 16 instead of trying to go undefeated, and why great players take games off, and why regular season records don’t tell the whole story in these leagues.
College football, though, doesn’t have this because college football doesn’t decide who will be in the National Championship game until all the games have been played—you cannot “clinch” in college football and you therefore don’t often see college teams rest players or sacrifice single games in pursuit of a championship. This is what philosophically differentiates the BCS. Instead of introducing a hierarchy of games and gradually weeding teams out, the BCS evaluates the entire regular season to determine the two best teams to battle it out for the National Championship. It may get those two wrong, but that’s merely a flaw in the execution, not the principle behind the system.
Of course, this system doesn’t favor underdogs. In a playoff system, an underdog can make the postseason by winning a weak division or grabbing one of the last Wild Card or at-large spots. Once you get to head-to-head playoffs, then you only have to win a short series, or even a single game. You only need to win one time and, as the Little Giants proved (as well as the Big Giants), anything can happen one time.
In college football, though, an underdog doesn’t just need to pull off one upset, or even a series of upsets—an underdog in college football needs to prove it is one of the best two teams in the country. This can be an especially difficult task since teams like Boise State play a demonstrably weaker schedule than teams like Alabama.
And, well, basically, this sucks. It is a terrible drawback of the BCS that certain teams have an inherent advantage over another, but it’s not as if other systems don’t have drawbacks. When the Colts forego perfection in order to rest for a playoff game a month away, or when the Orlando Magic spoil a Kobe/LeBron Finals matchup so anticipated that Nike creates a whole series of ads about it, or when the Yankees and Rays battle in the most boring pennant race of all-time, we are seeing the drawbacks of the playoff system.
Obviously I don’t want to abandon playoffs entirely, but I appreciate variety. A playoff system in college football would probably work, and it would probably be just as exciting overall as the current BCS, but it wouldn’t be unique. Like every other sport, we’d have some games that were do-or-die, some that mattered a lot, and some that were more or less meaningless. Regular season games would have less urgency, and thrilling Week 1 games would get rarer and rarer. There would be benefits, but they would come in the form of things sports fan see in every other major national sport—Cinderella stories, upsets, surprise playoff runs. The things college football does are things no other national sport does, so we should twice about consigning them to the dustbin of history.