Since 1990 there have been four separate times where co-national champions have been named in the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s top level of competition. Those occurrences were in in 1990, ‘91, ‘97, and 2003. The NCAA’s FBS is the only level of competition within the NCAA which does not hold a postseason tournament to determine a national champion. It has been rooted in a tradition of end-of-season bowl games to award teams playing well during the season. For a long period, the FBS champion was crowned subjectively, by a group of voters. The current format has brought a bit more subjectivity into the fray by having a computer crunch data to select the best two teams in the country and allow them to play for the title. Now we are entering the last season of college football without a playoff format. Beginning in 2014-2015 season, the College Football Playoff will be used to determine the best in college football. Will it work? Will it be better than the BCS? Does it matter?
Let’s start at the beginning and compare what we have today. .
As mentioned, the FBS used a rather subjective way to select a national champion. Human polls were used to rank and select the best teams in college football. The final rankings would be determined after the final bowl game had been played and all the voters, many of whom were career journalists, had finished their rankings. Flaws were everywhere. The conferences had contractual tie-ins with the bowls. The Rose Bowl pits the Pac-12 champ against the Big-10 champ. The Orange Bowl has the ACC and the Sugar Bowl has the SEC. It has been that way for decades and many times got in the way of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.
Another flaw was with the obvious subject of voter bias. It is something still in play today. The games on the west coast or in Hawaii typically end at or past midnight for those on the east coast. How many voters stayed up to watch these games rather than reading the box score the next morning? One way a team would push the voter bias in their favor would be two build consecutive dominant season. Take the 1984 BYU Cougars as an example. The ‘84 team finished the season sporting the only unblemished record in college football that season. They were ranked as the fourth best team leading into their Holiday Bowl game against a 6-5 Michigan squad which were ranked in the top five earlier in the season. The Washington Huskies had only one loss on their resume, a loss to Pac-10 champions USC. The Huskies chose to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and dispatched the Sooners. They were voted number two in the country that year. BYU was propelled by their win and was ranked number one to end the season. They ended the year on a 23 game win streak which dated back to the ‘83 season and many consider that as the reason for the national championship.
From that we go to the Bowl Coalition implemented in 1994. The goal was to force a national championship game between the top two teams in the country. It was created by five conferences, six bowl games, as well as the independent, Notre Dame. The conferences were the ACC, Big 8 (the predecessor of the Big-12), SEC, Big East, and SWC. The bowls included in the coalition were the Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta, Gator, and John Handcock bowls. However, because it features only five conferences and the Fighting Irish, all other schools had no real chance at becoming a national champion. The champions of the Pac-10 and Big-10 were not able to play in the games because of their contracts with the Rose Bowl. The committee governing the Rose Bowl, the Tournament of Roses Association, feared to release the champions of both conferences due to possibly violating their contract with ABC.
The Bowl Coalition lasted for three seasons, ending at the conclusion of the 1994 season. The final season showcased the major criticism of the formula as Big-10 champs, Penn State finished the season unbeaten but was contractually obligated to play in the Rose Bowl against Oregon rather than take on no.1 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers defeated Miami in their bowl game and was the unanimous selection as national champions. It was the result which vindicated the criticisms.
Following the Bowl Coalition was the Bowl Alliance. The Bowl Alliance brought together the Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta bowls along with the five conferences which made up the Bowl Coalition as well as Notre Dame. Six slots from the three bowls with five conferences and an independent to fill them. There was a single at-large spot available for the games. However, 1996 saw the demise of the SWC and the change of the Big-8 to the Big-12 which in turn created an extra spot.
Once again the main criticism was that the system could still create a scenario with a split national champion due to only the Coaches’ Poll being tied to the Bowl Alliance and the Associated Press poll being independent. Another point of criticism, which would later become an antitrust suit, was that “mid-major” schools were left out in the cold. This happened when the 1996 BYU Cougars were ranked No. 5 nationally in both polls but was not able to play in any of the Bowl Alliance games. They instead were relegated to the Cotton Bowl against Kansas State and finished the season with a 14-1 record.
In 1996, No. 1 Florida State faced off against No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl because No. 2 Arizona State played in the Rose Bowl. Luckily for the Bowl Alliance, ASU lost to Ohio State and prevented a possible split champion. The following year, luck ran out. Michigan was ranked No. 1 in both polls leading into their Rose Bowl victory. However, it was already assured that they would lose that ranking in the Coaches’ Poll regardless of a victory due to the Bowl Alliance formula. Michigan wound up defeating Washington State while Nebraska defeated Tennessee. The AP selected Michigan as national champs thereby creating a split champion.
The BCS was created the following year to avoid split national champions and to create a matchup of the number one and number two teams in all of college football. It provided a rankings system was set up to find the two best teams in the FBS. The formula takes into consideration multiple human polls combined with a few computer rankings. The formula has been tinkered with over the years and has featured components such as strength of schedule, margin of victory, computer rankings, and human polls.
The goal of eliminating split champions seemed to be accomplished until the 2003 season. That year there were three teams with one loss records; LSU, Oklahoma, and USC. The BCS algorithm placed LSU and Oklahoma in the BCS title game while USC was left in the Rose Bowl. A dominant victory by the the Trojans secured the No. 1 ranking in the AP polls for the season. Meanwhile, the BCS championship game was won by LSU, thereby the Tigers were named national champions by the Coaches’ Poll.
What happened? Critics pointed to the unbalanced weight of computer rankings over human polls. The following year would bring additional changes.
The BCS has maintained a connection with the major conferences in college football. The ACC, Big East, Big-10, Pac-12, Big-12, and SEC have all maintained their seats at the table. Notre Dame has continued to hold its spot as well, leaving very little room for anyone else. The schools in the major six conferences as well as Notre Dame are given automatic qualifications. Each conference champ gets an invite to a BCS game while Notre Dame receives a bid if ranked in the top-eight of the BCS rankings. The schools from non-AQ conferences have yet to make an appearance in the BCS title game, although TCU, Utah, and Boise State have all claimed victories in the other BCS bowl games.
In June of 2012, the commissioners from the AQ conferences announced that the BCS would be replaced by the College Football Playoff. The inaugural season will be in 2014 with there being two semifinal games and a championship game played. Unlike the previous systems, there will be no polls or computer rankings which place the teams in the games. This new system will be similar to the NCAA March Madness tournament committee. A group of between 14-20 people will make the four selections. Under the guidelines, the system will feature six bowls; Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Cotton, and Chick-fil-a Peach Bowls. The semifinal and championship games will be rotated on a yearly basis. The committee will choose the four teams to play in the semifinal round as well as rank them accordingly. Those teams will then play to crown a national champion. The remaining spots will also be selected by the committee, however, the AP and Coaches’ polls will not be used for the selections. The system is set to run until 2025 and is contracted to ESPN.
The new playoff system makes strides in getting rid of the use of polls and computer rankings for the selections. However, as is the case with the college basketball selections, there will likely be a formula assigned to best identify the worthy teams. Also, it is human nature to follow polls and rankings, and to have those same pieces of information be used in our own assessments. Realistically, there is not a way to safeguard against that possibility. That said, it is entirely possible that the large committee will be able to choose the best four out of the country due to the sheer size of possible opinions in the same room. It is entirely possible that the mix of experiences which compose the committee would create an eclectic and near fully objective selection process. However, it is entirely possible for the powers that be within the power conferences to exert pressure on the selection process. It is also entirely possible that the committee members hold biases towards their conferences or schools and will vote accordingly.
In the end, this is not the best possible system to move forward with . Make no mistake, this is a much better system. However, there is likely a host of better ideas which were likely scrapped due to the lack of financial incentive for the parties involved. Regardless of the system, there is a reason why we saw the BCS conferences make this change. There is a reason why the new format still favors the BCS conferences. The simple answer is money. It will always be the answer.
Ultimately, you can make the conclusions yourself as to whether the new College Football Playoff is better than the BCS. Do I believe it is better? Yes. Do I believe it has its flaws? Yes. Do I believe it will work. Yes. The new College Football Playoff will work. It will work because it doesn’t reward a team for looking good on paper before the start of the season over a team who plays its way up the polls throughout the season. It will work because the public is too crazy to do anything but serve as a watchful eye over the selection committee. Yes, the College Football Playoff will work, now can it just get here already?