The Next Evolution of the BCS

Monday night Alabama defeated LSU 21-0 in the BCS championship game.  For LSU it was clearly an unsatisfying result, but for many other college football fans the result was going to be unsatisfying regardless of what took place on the field.  Some fans didn’t want to see a rematch; others didn’t think a non-champion should be allowed to play for the National Championship, and many are unsatisfied with the BCS as a whole and want change.  Change should come to the BCS, and it probably will, sooner rather than later.

Before talking about where the BCS should go, it is instructive to remember where it has been.  In the beginning there was no championship game at all. Bowls were created by individual communities beginning with the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.  The bowls were free to issue invitations to whomever they liked, and they did.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that bowls began to enter into agreements requiring them to select a team from a particular conference.  The Rose made agreements with the Pac-12’s and B1G’s predecessors; the Orange selected the Big 8 champion, and the Sugar Bowl became a SEC tie-in.  That arrangement helped the conferences and the bowls involved, but it did little to select a national champion, in large part because that was not what they were designed to do.

In the early 1990s the Bowl Coalition was created to try to solve the problem of split national champions.  (Titles were split in 1990 and 1991.)  That agreement allowed the conference champions to get out of their agreements to play in their traditional bowls in order to play in a championship game if they were #1 or #2.  Everyone wasn’t on board, namely the Rose Bowl, Big 10 and Pac 10.  If one of the teams from those two conferences finished the regular season #1 or #2, they would still go to the Rose Bowl.  Beginning in the 1995 season, the Bowl Alliance replaced the Bowl Coalition but had the same problem of incomplete participation.

Finally the Big 10, Pac 10 and Rose Bowl decided they wanted to be a part of the championship game.  They joined the other bowls and major conferences to create the Bowl Championship series, which with some tweaks is what we have today.

Opponents of the BCS sometimes assert the BCS is evil, stupid, wrong or useless.  While they are welcome to their opinions, they are probably holding the BCS to too high a standard.  It isn’t the panacea all would like. It is simply the current evolution of a system that was created for one reason and has been adapted to another purpose.  That being said it’s time for the next evolution.  Here’s where I think we realistically should be headed.

Plus One

It’s clear that allowing only two teams into the championship game has proven unsatisfying.  Should Oklahoma State have been in the game this year?  Other teams other years?  Perhaps.  Going to a plus one format where #1 plays #4 and #2 plays #3 solves most of those problems.  The #5 team is not in anywhere near the position that a #3 team is to declare they deserve a shot at the national championship.  Essentially the same argument could be made for an 8 team playoff, but that is a more drastic change than the system will accept right now.  In a plus one scenario two of the current 4 BCS bowls could host the first games and two weeks later the championship game could be played between the winners.

Automatic Bids and Conference Limits Should be Eliminated

Is one conference’s champion always a more deserving candidate and a better team than another conference’s every year?  Of course not, but that is the implication for allowing automatic bids to conference champions every year.  Each team should be judged on its own.  If their conference is good enough and their schedule hard enough, that will be shown in their ranking, which needs to be adjusted as well.  This also opens up the system completely to all Division 1 teams.  If Boise makes it into the Top 4, it won’t matter if they are in the WAC, Mountain West or Big East.  Also, if a conference finishes with multiple teams in the top 4, there’s no need to artificially substitute a lower ranked team.

Return the computers to their original formulas.

The people who design the computer rankings should be given free reign to design their formulas as they see fit.  Currently, they are not allowed to consider margin of victory, so a blow out is the same as an overtime squeaker.  Intuitively we know that isn’t accurate, but that is the current system.

The computer rankings should be judged each year.  If they are deficient and don’t accurately create rankings, they shouldn’t be used the next year.  Simple as that.

The Coaches Poll should be thrown out.

The Coaches’ Poll has three major flaws that can’t be overcome, so it has to go.  1.  Often the ballots aren’t filled out by the coaches themselves but by Sports Information Directors or assistant coaches.  When that happens the very premise that football experts (Head Coaches) are evaluating football teams is out the door.  2. Even if the coaches do fill out their own ballot, they are busy being coaches most Saturdays and between coaching and traveling they miss a majority of the games.  3.  Depending on how their team’s season is going, they have a vested interest in the rankings.  This is a conflict of interest in its most basic form.

The Harris Poll should be reformed.

Those people whose ranking will determine a champion need to be qualified to evaluate college football teams based on their careers in or around the industry.  They also need to be committed to watching the games to fairly evaluate them.  In addition, their opinions need to be public each week, so that transparency can serve as a check on their rankings.  The teams, conferences and fans shouldn’t be left wondering how some bizarre result was reached.  The scrutiny given to the Blogpoll would be a good starting point.  Then based on what would be public information, voters need to be evaluated and replaced as necessary.

This keeps much of the current system intact while also addressing many of the deficiencies.  To determine the top 4 for purposes of selecting the team, the BCS formula as revised above could still be used.  The major bowls would still have tremendous match-ups to sell to advertisers and fans.  These changes can be implemented relatively quickly.  They don’t require a fundamental shift in the system, only another evolution.  It won’t be the last evolution but only another step forward.