Fixing the BCS

I’m going to continue a newfound late-autumn Friday tradition at NPI: criticizing the BCS. In case you missed Monday Medley, the BCS has its own official Twitter now, @INSIDEtheBCS, that spouts BCS propaganda and attempts to defend the institution based on 1) its improvements over the previous regime; 2) the meaningfulness of the regular season; and 3) the nefarious and, in its view, inevitable onset of “bracket creep,” where a playoff, regardless of how small it starts, will expand to include an unwieldy amount of teams.

I already laid some of my cards on the table last week, but I figured I’d show you the full deck today. First, the very obvious responses to the three defenses of the BCS:

1. Just because something is an improvement over an old system does not make it ideal. We can already be entertained by radio! What’s the need for this television device? There’s this thing called progress, and smug complacency is not a means to that end.

2. People always argue that what makes college football great is that every game counts; this is completely inaccurate. There will be 49 college football games this week, and the following are the ones that count:

  • Texas at Texas A&M
  • Illinois at Cincinnati
  • Alabama at Auburn
  • Nevada at Boise State
  • Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
  • New Mexico at TCU
  • Florida State at Florida

That’s seven of 49, or under 15 percent of the games, and I’m being pretty lenient including Bedlam in Oklahoma and that Boise State game. Furthermore, to argue that games count for what bowl a team ends up is like arguing that late-season NBA games between the Nets and Clippers count because of lottery odds; in a macro picture, nobody cares whether Rutgers ends up in the International Bowl or the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Furthermore, if you keep the size of the playoff relatively small, there will, in fact, be more meaningful games. For instance, while Texas, Florida, and Alabama’s games this week will lose their meaning in a playoff system, the ones involving Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Miami, Utah/BYU, LSU, and Georgia Tech would all have playoff ramifications.

College football has the most meaningful regular season because it has the fewest games. This will continue to be true with a playoff system.

3. “Bracket creep” is almost universally the result of an increased number of teams or regular-season games, not a call for expanded playoffs. The National League had eight teams—one of which made the playoffs—from 1903 to 1961. It added a second playoff team in 1969, when it had expanded to 12 teams. Now it has four playoff teams among 16.

The NCAA Tournament kept expanding as membership in Division I expanded.

The NFL had eight playoff teams through 1977, expanding to 10 in 1978 because of both the shift from a 14- to a 16-game regular season and expansion to Tampa and Seattle. The NFL did bump out to 12 playoff teams in 1990 without adding any games or new franchises, which is why I had to say “almost universally.”

The NBA fluctuated its playoff format in its youth, experimenting with weird alignments and even a round robin format for one year. It stuck with six playoff teams from 1954 (when there were eight teams) to 1967, when it expanded to eight playoff teams out of 12 total teams. After the league grew to 18 franchises by 1974, the playoffs grew to include 10 teams in 1975. The playoffs expanded to 12 teams when four ABA franchises were inherited in 1977 and to its current format of 16 teams in 1984, by which point the league had 23 franchises.

And @INSIDEtheBCS’ oft-cited precedent of the FCS Tournament also neglects to mention that the expansion to 20 teams in 2010 will be its first growth in a quarter-century.

So, what’s my bright idea? A simple 12-team playoff, where the champions of the six major conferences receive automatic bids. Any team that finishes the season undefeated also earns a berth. The rest of the bracket is filled with at-large teams selected by a committee, much like the men’s basketball tournament.* The BCS rankings are abandoned while the “computer” rankings become a guide to seeding used by the selection committee, much like the RPI in men’s basketball.

*You don’t need to provide an automatic berth to the “non-BCS” conferences so long as you provide their teams the chance to enter a winner-take-all tournament. So long as every team in the nation controls its own destiny in Week 1, the system is fair. Right now, that is the case in every major sport outside of FBS college football.

To make room for the extra games at the end of the season, cut one game from the regular season, add a bye week, and go back to 11 regular-season games, which was the norm up until 2004. Conference championships are held the first weekend in December as they are now so teams can still play their traditional Thanksgiving rivalry games. One week later, teams seeded five through 12 play first-round games at the home stadium of the better-seeded team, with the caveat that teams from the same conference cannot meet in the first round.* Students are generally still on campus during this weekend, and the battle for home-field advantage removes all doubt that late-season games are meaningful.

*You alter the seeding to prevent this, in the same way the NCAA Tournament and Major League Baseball do. If, for instance, Florida is No. 6 and Alabama No. 11, you bump Alabama to either No. 10 or No. 12, based on which seed you think they’re closer to.

The top four teams, meanwhile get byes into the quarterfinals, which are played the third weekend in December at neutral sites.* Winners advance to the semifinals two weeks after that, to be played on New Year’s Day. The national championship takes place on January 8. There will be seven neutral sites: the four currently used for BCS bowls (Pasadena, Tempe, New Orleans, and Miami), along with three other sites of major bowl games (I’d suggest Cowboys Stadium [Cotton Bowl], Raymond James Stadium in Tampa [CapitalOne Bowl], and the Georgia Dome [Chick-fil-A Bowl]). The sites rotate, so that once every seven years, each one hosts the national championship.**

*Since the top four teams don’t get the home game teams seeded fifth through eighth get, the ticket revenue from those games will be divided among the 12 schools that make the playoffs.

**While all this is going on, you can still hold other bowl games. Don’t act like those games lose “meaning” when there’s a playoff; what meaning do they have now? Nobody who cares about the Bowl now will lose interest in it if there’s a playoff.

The most games a team can play is 15—one more than the current mark. Even then, a team would only play 15 games if it had to play in its conference championship game, did not earn a first-round bye, and advanced to the national championship. Furthermore, the extra games would be played when school is not in session; the sanctity of our precious student-athletes would be intact since they wouldn’t miss a single class. In fact, they’d have an extra bye week!

Now, let’s imagine what the postseason would have looked like the last two years with a 12-team playoff (which admittedly requires some conjecture on my part on at-large teams and seeding; conference champions are italicized):


1. Ohio State

2. LSU

3. Oklahoma

4. Virginia Tech

5. Georgia


7. Missouri

8. West Virginia

9. Kansas

10. Hawaii

11. Florida

12. Arizona State


1. Florida

2. Oklahoma

3. Alabama

4. Texas

5. USC

6. Penn State

7. Utah

8. Texas Tech

9. Boise State

10. Cincinnati

11. Ohio State

12. Virginia Tech

I’m sorry, but I think the excitement provided by this system is self-evident. Would you rather watch Texas Tech battle Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl (you know, tradition), or see the Red Raiders and Boise State light up the scoreboard in Lubbock with a chance at Florida on the line? Utah would be able to put its undefeated season to the test against Cincinnati—a BCS conference champion—and then No. 2 Oklahoma.*

*Here’s the thing: People will claim that the BCS mostly worked last year. But not only did it leave Texas out of the title game when the Longhorns beat Oklahoma on a neutral field, it also denied Utah a shot at the championship when the Utes went 13-0 and handily beat Alabama—the No. 1 team for much of the season—at a neutral site.

How would it look in 2009? Let’s say the top six teams win out as expected, and Florida beats Alabama in the SEC Championship. Georgia Tech beats Clemson in the ACC title game, and Oregon knocks off Oregon State to clinch the Pac-10. That gives Florida, Texas, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Oregon, and Ohio State automatic bids as conference champions; TCU and Boise State would get berths because they finished the season undefeated. The battle for the four at-large bids would come down to Alabama (a cinch), Pittsburgh, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Virginia Tech, LSU, Miami, BYU, and Utah, to name a few. There’s the potential in such a playoff for TCU, Cincinnati, and Boise State to play with the big boys (because early-season tilts with Oregon, BYU, Utah, Clemson, and Oregon State don’t count as “the big boys” in the BCS).

The idea that fluke champions would consistently emerge from such a system is absurd: It would be rare that a team made the playoffs with more than two losses, and even then, it would have to beat three of the top 12 teams in the country to win it all. It’s hard to deny the legitimacy of that title.

So, let me have it. What don’t I address, and what does the BCS offer that my 12-team playoff doesn’t?

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on November 28, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    I think your proposal is solid and similar to many of the ones I have seen and have supported. The only criticism that immediately comes to my mind is giving automatic bids to teams that go undefeated…in most of the cases, the team would probably be deserving, but on occasion you would have a team from a mid-major conference that might get through a season without any impressive victories (and might even play one less game without a conference championship). I think you could need to make sure that there are incentives for a team in a lesser conference to schedule non-conference games that are strong…I wouldn’t want a system where the mountain west champion, for example, scheduled non conference with MAC opponents


  2. Posted by Wey on November 28, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    also, I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving the big east an automatic bid under its current structure


  3. John S mentioned this problem, as well, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal. There are five non-BCS conferences out of which a team can go undefeated. Nobody from the Sun Belt will run the table in the non-conference. It’s hard to foresee teams consistently going undefeated out of the MAC or C-USA. The only teams to run the table in conference in the MAC during the BCS Era were quarterbacked by Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, and Ben Roethlisberger. And Leftwich’s went undefeated overall. C-USA has had three undefeated teams in conference in those 11 years: two mediocre Southern Miss teams (who lost to BCS opponents in the non-conference) and Louisville in 2004, when their lone loss was by three at No. 3 Miami. You’d probably see an undefeated team from either of these conferences at most once every four years, and it would probably be a deserving one.

    That leaves the MWC and WAC, where teams are going undefeated as is.

    Overall, I think any team that doesn’t lose should be a national champion, and that individual programs–especially in non-BCS conferences–can’t easily craft their schedules to make it “easy” to go undefeated.

    I understand the complaint, but I don’t think it will manifest itself too often.


  4. No, it wouldn’t and in any case, these “bad” undefeated teams would make first round exits in any playoff…nevertheless, I do think that certain steps would need to be taken to ensure that teams don’t alter their approach to scheduling in order to match a new incentive structure…For example, you could have teams from mid majors scheduling two exemption games…I think there would need to be an effort to ensure some degree of symmetry among conferences, both major and mid major…Perhaps you mandate a conference championship, regulate non-conference scheduling, etc.


  5. Excellent article. I have several suggestions on how to fix the BCS as well. If interested, check out my post at:


  6. […] how many games actually do count? One of the points I made in last season’s attack on the BCS was that the system is inherently flawed because certain games do not–indeed, […]


  7. […] this point, I think it’s pretty clear that I, like most people, don’t like the Bowl Championship Series. I stated most of my case last season, when I suggested a 12-team playoff replace it. I’m more […]


  8. […] “Fixing the BCS” by Tim […]


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