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Fixing the BCS Mess

Thursday, December 6, 2007

College football should bow to reality and devise a workable playoff system, says ALAN W. DOWD.

LSU Bowl GameAs expected, the announcement of college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) lineup has sparked controversy. The BCS National Championship Game will match Louisiana State, a team with two losses, against Ohio State, a team with one loss. But there are no fewer than nine other two-loss teams, one other one-loss team (Kansas), and one undefeated team (Hawaii) in college football's top division. Who’s to say which two-loss team is better? The BCS bosses and their computers, that’s who. BCS defenders say the system has done what it promised to do: guarantee a Number 1 versus Number 2 title game. But the BCS promised to determine a definitive national champion. It will fail to do that this year—just as it failed last year and the year before that and the year before that.

Why? Simply put, participants in the BCS “national championship” are determined not by head-to-head competition, but rather by computer rankings and the collective judgment of a “randomly selected” panel of former players, coaches, administrators, and current and former media (as assembled by the polling firm Harris Interactive). Just imagine deciding the World Series or the Super Bowl in such a manner! The BCS simply leaves too much power in the hands of pollsters and computer programs.

But that begs another question: why don’t the NCAA, conference commissioners, and university presidents scrap the BCS and create a multi-team playoff system and thus prevent this annual wintertime mess?

Some say the answer is academics: a playoff schedule would take “student athletes” out of the classroom and keep them away from the study table. But that argument rings hollow. After all, if academics are really that important, why do university presidents allow their students to play games on “school nights”? ESPN broadcasts live college football games on Sunday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights, Thursday nights, and Friday nights—and it probably would broadcast them on Monday nights were it not for “Monday Night Football.”

Others claim that a playoff format would destroy the traditional bowl system, which has been around for roughly a century. The Rose Bowl was first held in 1902; the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, and the Sun Bowl came about in the 1930s. The antiquated system ensures that nearly three dozen teams will end the season on a high note, rather than just one. In addition to selecting the national title game matchup, the BCS distributes teams among the top four bowl games. But is it really worth continuing the BCS charade just so 32 schools can be “bowl winners”?

In truth, the bowl system generates enormous revenue, especially for the six major athletic conferences—the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big Twelve, the Big East, and the Pac Ten—and their member schools. In the 2006-07 season, conferences and schools took home nearly $250 million from bowl games. In 2007-08, the payout is expected to be even greater. Each school fielding a team in one of the corporate-branded BCS bowls—the Rose Bowl Presented by Citi, the FedEx Orange Bowl, the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and the Allstate BCS Championship Game (held at the Sugar Bowl site)—is guaranteed to bring home $17 million for its conference.

A 16-team playoff would be a better option than the current BCS system. College football would unleash its answer to March Madness—call it “December Delirium.”

But here’s the thing: an authentic college football playoff system could generate far more in revenue, at least if the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is any guide. So money can’t be the only reason for preserving the bowl system. The other big reason is power, namely, the power of the Big Six conferences to run the system and reap most of the revenues. As Sports Illustrated writer Tom Layden has observed, the BCS “is essentially a house game” dominated by the Big Six and Notre Dame (whose football team does not belong to a conference). “These 63 colleges have a setup whereby they control the championship system and its incumbent revenue.” In other words, the NCAA—the governing body of college athletics—is largely locked out of the process. So are the dozens of schools that have the misfortune of not being affiliated with the Big Six and of not being named Notre Dame.

The BCS “house game” has prompted external scrutiny. In 2003, after seasons that saw highly ranked teams from the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA left out of the BCS, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened hearings. The president of Tulane University, Scott Cowen, called the BCS an “anticompetitive” and “unnecessarily restrictive and exclusionary system that results in financial and competitive harm” to the 54 schools it locks out. Democratic Senator Joe Biden criticized it as “un-American” and “rigged,” while Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said it tramples on “basic fairness” and leaves dozens of schools at “a financial and competitive disadvantage.” In 2005, the House of Representatives held similar hearings.

When the non-Big Six schools raised antitrust concerns and hinted at taking legal action, the BCS bosses responded by adding a fifth game to their postseason pageant and thus making a little more room for the forgotten 54. As a result, we have been treated to some spectacular David-versus-Goliath moments from the likes of Boise State and Utah. What we haven’t gotten is a genuine national championship.

But there is a simple solution: big-time college football easily could hold a tournament at the four major bowl sites. Neither computers nor coaches nor columnists can fairly and objectively decide which two-loss team is the best. But a playoff can.

The model, of course, would be the NCAA basketball tournament. Americans love “March Madness” because of its surprises, tradition, drama, and emotion. But we also love its honesty and simplicity: conference champions are guaranteed a ticket to the tournament; another batch of teams is invited from an at-large pool by a committee of experts; and then those teams compete in a single-elimination tournament for the right to be called “national champion.” The real madness is trying to determine a champion in any other way.

A 16-team college football playoff would be just as straightforward and simple. Eleven spots in the field of 16 could be filled automatically by each conference champion, which would make room for Cinderella teams from smaller conferences such as the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA, the Western Athletic Conference, and Mid-American Conference. The remaining five spots could be filled by at-large teams, which would usually comprise runners-up from the six superpower conferences.

A committee comprised of athletic directors, NCAA officials, and former coaches could select the at-large schools, seed the teams from one to 16, and balance the placement of teams by strength and region, just as the NCAA Basketball Tournament Selection Committee does each March. The football committee could use computers, polls, and power rankings as tools in the selection process, rather than surrendering the selection process to them (as the BCS does).

Under this system, any team that won its conference championship would have a chance to compete in the national championship tournament—something the BCS fails to ensure. College football could unleash its answer to March Madness—call it “December Delirium.”

Starting on the first Saturday in December, after the conference championships were played, the top eight seeds would host a first-round game. A week later, on the following Saturday, the four BCS bowl sites would each host a game to determine college football’s Final Four. A week later, one of those bowl sites would host the national semifinals, with one game played on Friday night and the other played on Saturday night. Finally, sometime on or after New Year’s Day, one of them would host a real national championship game.

Those teams that didn’t qualify for the tournament could still compete in other bowl games, which could be held prior to January 1 (as most of them already are). Since most of the tournament would be held during winter break and on weekends, the loss of classroom time would be negligible. In fact, the football tournament would cut into less classroom time than the NCAA basketball tournament does. Schools in the NCAA’s lower divisions somehow manage to balance a football playoff system with classroom commitments; so could the top-division schools.

BCS defenders might respond that such a playoff would render college football’s regular season meaningless. Many have argued that the BCS transforms the entire season into a kind of single-elimination tournament, thereby producing high drama and high-quality football. But this argument doesn’t wash. This season, for example, Louisiana State lost twice and Ohio State lost once, yet they will now be playing for the national championship. Hawaii didn’t lose at all, but it doesn’t get a chance. What kind of single-elimination tournament is that?

Even with a playoff system, college football’s regular season would still mean a great deal, just as the regular season still matters in college basketball. But even if playoffs did dilute the regular season, it would be preferable to have a “meaningless” regular season followed by a meaningful postseason, rather than what the BCS has spawned—a meaningful regular season followed by a meaningless postseason.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. When not watching college football, he writes about foreign policy, international security, and politics.

Image by Getty Images.

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