What I Like About The BCS

Playoffs? Don't talk to me about playoffs!


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 every game 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.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on December 7, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    My biggest complaint with the BCS is not that it doesn’t determine the best team (although I do mind that), but that it doesn’t have a sufficiently exciting championship. This isn’t really against your point, but I’m not sure I appreciate the variety you mention. In March Madness, for example, I find myself eventually cheering for teams and players I hadn’t followed at all the entire season. I don’t even watch bowl games unless someone invites me to their house and gives me free food during it. And even then, I like to switch to something else during commercials and “accidentally” switch back a little late, eventually resulting in the forfeiture of my remote privileges and, if I’m lucky, the opportunity to return the next year. So maybe in a playoff the narratives are repetitive and fabricated, but at least they’re there. I mean, the regular season struggle can be appreciated, but again if you’re not a fan of a certain team you won’t witness the road to the championship as much as in a playoff system–which maybe doesn’t matter if you only care about your team(s), but I think a lot of people enjoy the larger championship.

    In the same way that fans don’t really care about Michael Phelps when he’s not in the Olympics, a lot of us just don’t care about the regular season of any sport, especially as it relates to teams we don’t follow. It’s true that the existence of a playoff system might contribute to that diminished enthusiasm, but the BCS would require you to follow every game of every championship contender if you didn’t want to miss a part of the narrative. Who really wants to do that? In contrast, it’s not that hard, and it’s more exciting, to follow all the best teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. While the BCS arguably shouldn’t be catering to less than diehard fans, in that respect it certainly fails them.


    • Posted by John S on December 7, 2010 at 5:28 PM

      I appreciate your objections. The lack of an exciting “end of season” narrative is definitely a common criticism of the BCS. I mean, the BCS has given us great games like USC-Texas and Ohio State-Miami, but it’s also given us blowouts like Miami-Nebraska (final score: 37-14) and USC-Oklahoma (55-19), and a bunch of forgettable games like LSU-Ohio State.

      At the same time, I don’t think that argument works against the casual fan as you imply it does. Every year bowl games get consistently impressive ratings. Even a nonmarquee bowl like the Little Ceasars Bowl (which last year hosted Marshall and Ohio) had a 2.6 rating last year, which is a pretty great number for cable. For comparison’s sake, the NIT ratings record (set last year by UNC and Rhode Island) is a 3.0, a number 17 bowls (16 of which didn’t “count” by the standard used by Tim, Wetzel, and Co.) topped last season.

      The fact that so many people are watching the games proves, to me, two things. 1) People really love football. And 2) The lack of a regular season “narrative” is not deterring them, by and large, from caring about and watching games between the likes of Marshall and Ohio in big numbers.


  2. Posted by Douglas on December 8, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    Yeah, I see your point. But I’m not sure it’s an entirely fair comparison, as the bowl system is profit-focused. As you point out, this isn’t really the fault of the BCS, so I mostly agree with you. But bowl games are often decided with potential ratings in mind (recent complaints about NC State getting a better bowl game than Maryland relate to this idea–that NC State will bring more fans to a game). Also, we’d really have to compare it to a college football playoff system to be fair (which is obviously impossible), but again your point is taken.

    This probably reflects my personal preference more than that of most fans, but it would be interesting to see some data on viewership for games that “counted”. In other words, how many people watched preseason no. 9 Iowa get eliminated with their third loss in Week 11 (or, if you consider the full narrative, their other two losses as well) vs. how many people watched 3 seed Pitt lose to Xavier in the NCAA tournament, and what a cross-section of those audiences looked like. My guess would be that the NCAA tournament game drew a larger and more diverse audience, so when it comes to Pitt’s basketball championship narrative vs. Iowa’s football championship narrative, it seems like Iowa got the short end of the stick. Maybe the data wouldn’t pan out that way, and again maybe people disagree with me on the implications of that disparity were it true, but if true I think that it’s unfortunate for the sport of football that these stories go largely unnoticed. While it might not deter people from watching bowl games, they’re watching games that don’t really matter, if you’re sympathetic to Tim’s point.


    • Posted by John S on December 8, 2010 at 5:13 PM

      Well, I don’t want to get into a “NCAA Tournament vs. the BCS” argument, because there is simply no way the BCS can win. I mean, nothing can compare to the NCAA Tournament, so it’s a little unfair to make that comparison.

      And, really, this is I think a problem with a lot of the pro-playoff arguments: They tend to imagine that a college football playoff would be something like a mini-version of March Madness, which is just not feasible. Take your Iowa football example: I haven’t seen a single playoff scenario, nor can I conceive of a realistic one, in which Iowa would make the playoff. There is no room for Cinderellas in any potential football playoff.

      Sports Illustrated proposed one that included the 11 conference champs and 5 at-large teams. Who’s going on the Cinderella run in that group? The 16-seed would be Troy, who lost by 45 to South Carolina three weeks and would probably lose by 50 to Oregon. The worst at-large team would be Alabama, the preseason #1. Some would probably point to TCU and Boise State as the potential Cinderellas, but that’s silly: TCU has been in the Top 5 in the nation throughout the season, and Boise State was in there too until its loss to Nevada. The only reason they are Cinderellas in the current system is because of the barriers to entry; if you replace those barriers with a playoff, they cease to be Cinderellas.


  3. Posted by Douglas on December 8, 2010 at 6:53 PM

    Yeah, I think some sort of harebrained progressive season would be better. And I’m only half-joking; my brother and I have toyed with this before…the idea that top ten teams can challenge the teams ranked above them. To earn the right to challenge, you have to be in the top ten and beat a team ranked higher than you. There could be other factors, like margin of victory, or perhaps even a periodic lottery, which would determine whom you get to challenge, so that the number 10 team doesn’t have to work its way up one at a time and so that teams just outside the preseason top 10 could still have a chance. Of course, someone still has to rank the top ten and determine who enters and exits the top ten throughout the season, although I think eventually the number would dwindle–I think that with 10 or more teams always playing each other, you would quickly be able to write off a few as markedly inferior. This would also drastically change the meaning of records, as the competition would be incredibly fierce.

    This doesn’t lend itself to determining a “best” national champion, but that’s in the same sense that the NCAA tournament has been won by teams that aren’t the best in the country–that’s just the nature of a tournament. It would, however, be a great showcase of talent and would give us a lot more to work with when coming up with our own determinations of the best team.

    Certainly under such a system we would quickly know if TCU and Boise could hang with Auburn and Oregon.

    It’s not perfect, but it could be. Put Pierre on it, will you?


  4. […] Bill Hancock may be a little late the party, but he’s right: The BCS works (kind of)! […]


  5. […] when someone, in this very space, deigns to point out any good things about the BCS, well, then it’s my turn to chime in and refudiate those […]


  6. […] (who am I kidding? Of course I do. This is a blog after all), but another college football season means another post where I attempt to defend the BCS. And, of course, this weekend’s LSU-Alabama game presents a great opportunity for such a defense. […]


  7. […] “What I Like about the BCS” by John S […]


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