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Did the BCS Work?

Comparing it to previous years.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 7, 2014

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Did the BCS Work?

College Football Crown Update: Oklahoma holds the crown, for now, by beating Oklahoma State a few weeks ago, who beat Baylor before that, who beat (on and on to the first intercollegiate game played, in 1869). The following, however, isn't about the "crown," but about the BCS Championship game.

This is the last year of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Next year, major college football will have a four-team playoff.

The BCS was harshly criticized over the years. But in retrospect, many of the problems seemed related to which teams got invited to the non-championship bowl games that comprised the BCS coalition: Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange. But the critics came from all sides: in the early years of the BCS, they were angry that powerhouse teams from non-BCS conferences weren't invited, such as Brigham Young or Boise State. By last year, however, after rules were tweaked, critics complained that Northern Illinois didn't belong in the Orange Bowl.

So, the BCS could never please everybody.

But when it came to a national championship game, a #1 vs. #2 post-season game, did the BCS work?

To explore this, I compared the sixteen seasons of the BCS with the sixteen seasons that preceded it. Then, I used the Associated Press poll of college football writers as a proxy for public opinion. That's because the coach's poll is prone to bias, the formulas injected into the "computer polls" sometimes create strange outcomes, and because the sportswriter is more likely to reflect the view of an objective college football fan. The AP poll's #1 and #2 best reflects the public's opinion of who's #1 and #2.

What I did, then, was find out which teams were ranked #1 and #2 in the AP poll each year, and where they ended up in the post-season. If #1 played #2 in a bowl game, the system "worked."

So, here's the record:  

1982: #1 Georgia vs. #2 Penn State in Sugar Bowl
1983: #1 Nebraska vs. #4 Miami (#2 Texas in Cotton Bowl)
1984: #1 Brigham Young vs. unranked Michigan in Holiday Bowl (#2 Oklahoma in Orange Bowl)
1985: #1 Penn St vs. #3 Oklahoma (#2 Miami-Fla in Sugar Bowl)
1986: #1 Miami-Fla vs. #2 Penn St. in Fiesta Bowl
1987: #1 Oklahoma vs. #2 Miami-Fla in Orange Bowl
1988: #1 Notre Dame vs. #3 West Virginia in Fiesta Bowl (#2 Miami in Orange Bowl, but had lost to Notre Dame in regular season)
1989: #1 Colorado vs. #4 Notre Dame in Orange Bowl (#2 Miami in Sugar Bowl)
1990: #1 Colorado vs. #6 Notre Dame in Orange Bowl (#2 Georgia Tech in Citrus Bowl); split national champion (AP and coaches polls disagree)
1991: #1 Miami vs. #11 Nebraska in Orange Bowl (#2 Washington in Rose Bowl); Split national champion (AP and coaches polls disagree)
1992: #1 Miami vs. # 2 Alabama in Sugar Bowl

Bowl Coalition/Bowl Alliance, a proto-BCS involving major conferences except Big 10 and Pac 10:

1993: #1 Florida State vs. #2 Nebraska in Orange Bowl
1994: #1 Nebraska vs. #3 Miami in Orange Bowl (#2 Penn State in Rose Bowl)
1995: #1 Nebraska vs. #2 Florida in Fiesta Bowl
1996: #1 Florida St. vs. #3 Florida (#2 Arizona St in Rose Bowl)
1997: #1 Michigan vs. #8 Washington St in Rose Bowl (#2 Nebraska in Orange Bowl); split national champion (AP and coaches polls disagree)

Bowl Championship Series Bowl game era

1998: #1 Tennessee vs. #2 Florida State in BCS/Fiesta
1999: #1 Florida St. vs. #2 Virginia Tech in BCS/Sugar
2000: #1 Oklahoma vs. #3 Florida State in BCS/Orange (#2 Miami in Sugar Bowl)
2001: #1 Miami vs. #4 Nebraska in BCS/Rose (#2 Oregon in Fiesta Bowl)  
2002: #1 Miami vs. #2 Ohio State in BCS/Orange
2003: #1 USC vs. #4 Michigan in Rose Bowl, a NON-BCS championship game; #2 LSU vs. #3 Oklahoma in BCS/Sugar Bowl; split national champion (AP poll and BCS result disagree)
2004: #1 USC vs. #2 Oklahoma in BCS/Orange

(Note: in the first seven seasons of the BCS, the AP poll was a component in the BCS formula, determining 1/3 of the outcome; it refused to be included after 2004 and was replaced by the Harris Interactive Poll)

2005: #1 USC vs. #2 Texas in BCS/Rose

BCS Title Game era:

2006: #1 Ohio State vs. #2 Florida  
2007: #1 Ohio State vs. #2 LSU
2008: #1 Florida vs. #2 Oklahoma
2009: #1 Alabama vs. #2 Texas
2010: #1 Auburn vs. #2 Oregon
2011: #1 LSU vs. #2 Alabama
2012: #1 Notre Dame vs. #2 Alabama
2013: #1 Florida St vs. #2 Auburn   

From 1982 to 1992, #1 faced #2 in a bowl game four times. To be fair, the 1988 Fiesta Bowl was also a fair match-up because #3 West Virginia was undefeated and #1 Notre Dame had already beaten #2 Miami.

But the era as a whole was dysfunctional, especially considering that Miami and Penn State were both independents and not tied to a conference championship or particular bowl game. It was an era in which, for example, the Orange Bowl invited #4 Notre Dame to play #1 Colorado, when it could EASILY have invited #2 Miami.

What was more amazing, in retrospect, is that the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl were often played at the same time. The Bowls were in competition with each other for television ratings. Since both games may have had national championship implications (#1 in one of the bowl games, #2 in the other), one had to make sure the remote control's batteries were fresh.

In a way, the old bowl system made things interesting just for that reason: one often had to watch two or more bowl games that had national championship implications. But obviously, the system didn't please anyone. As time went on, rules were tweaked. A Bowl Coalition/Alliance was formed to match up the top teams in participating conferences. The PAC-10 and Big Ten initially refused to participate, placing value of their Rose Bowl over national championships. Then, when it became apparent that their arrogance may have cost them titles in 1994 (Penn State) and 1997 (Michigan, split champions with Nebraska), they decided to help form the BCS.

The early years were shaky. The AP's #3 Florida State got in ahead of Miami in 2000. #4 Nebraska got in 2001 despite getting blown out in its conference championship game. #3 Oklahoma also got in after a conference championship blow-out loss in 2003, in which the AP's #1 team, USC, didn't even get a chance to play.

But after that, the system was tweaked and has seemed to work. There've been nine consecutive seasons where the AP #1 and #2 agrees with the BCS, and thirteen out of sixteen overall.

For all the criticisms the BCS received, it was far more fan-friendly than the preceding years. Let's give credit where credit is due.    

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