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Just A Little Cooperation

Why college football doesn't need a play-off or the BCS.

by James Leroy Wilson
October 24, 2001

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Just A Little Cooperation_James Leroy Wilson-Why college football doesn't need a play-off or the BCS. What the National Football League wants on "any given Sunday" is what Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association get on "any given night." The best teams in those leagues lose fairly often, and there's no shame in that because of the frequency of games with little rest between. This expectation continues in their play-offs, in which a team can lose two or three games and still continue to the next round. Being the better team on a given night is not particularly noteworthy, but rather, being the best over the long haul.

The intent of the NFL is valid: it wants all of its games to be competitive to entertain the spectators. But the games are normally spaced a week apart, allowing the athletes to rest and the coaches to prepare them well. Further, when looking at the standings, each NFL game is ten times more important than any regular season game in MLB, and five times more than games in the NBA or NHL. Teams with superior starting talent, depth, and coaching will win most of the time because the stakes are too high for them to take "days off."

The premium on winning each game is even greater in college football. In popular American sport, this is the only one in which a superior team has a reasonable chance to go undefeated, the only one in which it is a prized goal.

There is no NCAA-sanctioned "National Champion" in college football, and this fan's perspective believes there shouldn't be one. For in a 12-13 game season, there is no excuse for the supposed best team to not win every single game. Any national champion, official or not, that has lost a game or two is tarnished. Their boast is that they won a play-off game, not that they got the job done every week, which they would have done if they were genuinely great.

And this is one of the flaws of the Bowl Championship Series that seeks to match the most deserving two teams to compete for the (still unofficial) national championship. Using polls of biased media writers and self-interested football coaches, computers that value margins of victories more than winning percentage, and weighing "strength of schedule" which is largely out of a team's control, the system seeks to impose fairness and consistency where there can be none.

The problem with the BCS is two-fold:
1. If there is only one undefeated team, or more than two, or none, there is no fair way to determine which two teams deserve to claim the two spots in the title game. Last year was a classic case. Florida State got the nod to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl (I think it was the Orange Bowl) and the national title. This despite losing to Miami (Fla)- at Miami - early in the season. Miami perhaps deserved to go; it's lone blemish was to Washington - at Washington - even earlier in the season. But Washington also had only one loss, at Oregon. Oregon itself finished 9-2, losing to an 8-4 Wisconsin team at Wisconsin and a 10-1 Oregon State team at OSU. Oregon State's one loss? Like Miami, its defeat was at Washington.

So we have four one-loss teams, three of whom lost on the road to another 10-1 team, the fourth having beaten two of those teams and itself losing on the road to a 9-2 team. While the BCS tried to create a system that relied on strength of schedule as well as on polls and computers, even that isn't a fair measure. Teams schedule games well in advance and shouldn't be punished for having to play what turned out to be a weak team. There isn't a fair way to eliminate teams from title contention.

2. Factors like the judgment of press and coaches' polls and strength of schedule can favor one-loss teams over undefeated teams. There was speculation - fear - that this could happen in 1999 when a highly regarded Nebraska team that fumbled a game away at Texas might sneak in ahead of an undefeated Virginia Tech team to play undefeated Florida State. Fortunately for the system, that didn't happen.

The easy solution would be to just go to a play-off system. Fine. Would that be a four-team play-off? Which of the four 10-1 teams in 2000 should have been voted out? An eight team play-off won't do, either. It might resolve questions of fairness among the top five, six, or seven teams, but it would cheapen the importance of the regular season by inviting two-loss teams that probably had already lost to teams they would face again in the play-offs.

The incentive for establishing the BCS system was to allow undefeated conference champions that are normally contractually obliged to play in Bowl games affiliated with their conference, to be released from that to play in the de facto national championship game. Three times in seven seasons (1991-97) the undefeated #1 or #2 team came from the Big Ten or Pac-10 conferences and had to play in the Rose Bowl instead of facing the only other major undefeated team for the national championship. The results were mixed: the national championship was "split" twice and once, in 1994, a Big Ten team (Penn State) was denied even a share of the national championship. Meanwhile, college football fans those years were forced to ask what if the two undefeated teams had a chance to settle it on the field.

Unfortunately, a vain desire for "fairness," of matching the two on-paper "best" teams for a national championship game got in the way. We will, if not this year, soon see the day when a computer or poll voters disrespect an undefeated team and cost it the chance to play for the national title. They'll forget - actually they don't know now - that for a college team to attain "greatness" in history it can't merely win the national championship, it must, at minimum, go undefeated. So it is far better to match the undefeated teams together, decide the national championship, and let historical perspective decide greatness.

The lessons are clear: where there wasn't complete conference cooperation, the two undefeated teams often could not complete. And what we want is for the two undefeated teams - when and if there are two and only two - to meet on the field, not on a ballot or computer.

While the BCS ended up working fine in 1999, the system for determining #1 and #2 is flawed because it is unfair. We don't need it, but we still need conference cooperation. Here's a compromise plan:

In any scenario in which there are not two and only two undefeated teams, the Bowls will proceed as usual, inviting the conference champions they would normally invite and seek out the best or most popular opponent. Let it all shake out, perhaps in as many as three or four difference contests where perhaps as many as six teams may believe they have a shot at the title. But when there are only two undefeated teams, give them an opportunity to be released from their contracts to play each other if they desire. It is virtually guaranteed that at least one of them will be ranked #1; the other may not be #2, but has earned the opportunity to get both respect and the national title, regardless of what voters or computers say. No more of this "What if Nebraska had played Penn State?" or "What if an unbeaten team will suffer in the BCS standings?"

The devil is in the details. I say that if two undefeated teams are contractually obligated to separate bowls, it is the bowl that had, among the two, most recently hosted a national championship game that should release its team from its obligation, so that the team is free to play in the other bowl if it desires.

This will "settle things on the field" when they need to be settled, when there are only two undefeated teams. In all other years, if there are three, one, or no undefeated teams, let the glorious mess of the bowls and the voting decide things. The simple message is: when things are complicated, let them be complicated, but when they're not, don't make them so. Play-offs aren't needed and the BCS isn't needed. Just a little cooperation.

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