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College Football Playoff: Did The BCS Really Get It Wrong?


College football fans finally have what they — we — have all been craving for decades. The playoff era of the greatest sport on the planet is upon us.

And fans are already concerned with selection committees, bowl sites, future playoff expansion and TV revenue. But don’t miss the forest for the trees. Take a second to sit back and truly embrace the fact that we now have a playoff system in college football. And while an eight-team playoff could certainly be coming down the pike soon, the four-team bracket is the only way a champion should be crowned.

Yet, the BCS, for all of its criticism, was a dramatic improvement on the previous system. And in reality, few times did the BCS get it wrong.

Where Did The BCS Get It Wrong?

Ideally, a selection committee will be allowed to use the eyeball test to overcome some obvious discrepancies. In the 14-year history of the BCS, only three times did the BCS get it wrong. Although Michigan fans in 2006 and Oklahoma State/Stanford fans last year have plenty to scream about, most would agree that the BCS got the correct match-up in the national championship game in those two seasons. So the BCS went 11-3 in 14 years. Again, it wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the three split national titles and controversial unbeaten 1994 Penn State team that college football fans experienced the eight years prior to the advent of the Bowl Championship Series.

2004 Auburn Tigers (13-0)
This team was loaded with NFL talent and absolutely deserved a chance to compete for the national title. War Eagle beat five top-15 teams, including four in the top 10 en route to an unbeaten season. We don’t know that Auburn would have beaten Oklahoma or USC, but I know how I would have picked those games. I got the Tigers over the Sooners and the Trojans over the Tigers. The right match-up, in hindsight, would have been USC-Auburn. The 55-19 drubbing of the Sooners has since been vacated by the Men of Troy, only furthering the idea that Auburn should have been involved somehow. A playoff would have fixed this entire quagmire.

2003 USC Trojans (12-1)
Oklahoma played only three ranked opponents in 2003 but defeated all comers in impressive fashion. But a 35-7 destruction at the hands of Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game makes it hard to think that the No. 1 team in both polls, USC, shouldn’t have gotten a shot at the eventual one-loss champion LSU Tigers. Who knows which one-loss team was the best? The result was the last split national title in the college game. A playoff would have obviously fixed this situation as well.

1998 Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1)
The Buckeyes were the No. 1 team in the nation for the first nine weeks of the year before a turnover-filled four-point loss to Michigan State derailed the OSU national title train. This team was as talented as Tennessee and was clearly a better football team than Florida State — who faced the Vols in the first-ever BCS title game. This Buckeyes team pounded five ranked opponents and finished fourth in the final BCS standings. An Ohio State-Tennessee match-up would have been a much more fitting way to end the season instead of Marcus Outzen flailing against a stacked Vols defense.

Certainly, the 2001 championship game that featured a Nebraska team that allowed 62 points to No. 3 Colorado in the season-ending loss gets plenty of scrutiny. However, who deserved to be in that game over Nebraska? Tennessee should have played in the game but was beaten in the SEC championship game by LSU. Oregon, Colorado and Florida could make cases, albeit very weak ones, for a bid. The truth of the matter was that the Miami Hurricanes were going to slaughter anyone it played. It might have been the greatest football team ever assembled. And frankly, no team had a strong case to be on the same field as Miami that night in Pasadena.

Did the BCS really squeeze out the Mid-Majors?

The little guy has been screaming about being left out of the national title picture for decades and many pointed fingers at the BCS system. Thirteen teams have gone undefeated in the BCS era and didn’t play for the BCS National Championship game. So the ill-suited BCS completely failed on 13 different occasions to acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments of a few, right? Not so. Of those 13 undefeated teams, only four landed in the top four of the BCS standings at the year’s end. I’ve documented the 2004 Auburn Tigers, but only Cincinnati (2009), TCU (2009) and TCU again (2010) would have landed in a "Football Four" playoff system.

Both the 2009 teams went on to lose in BCS bowl games, and in the Bearcats case, were demolished. That leaves TCU in 2010, who finished unbeaten after defeating a powerful Wisconsin Badgers team in the Rose Bowl, and Auburn in 2004 who had a rightful claim to some piece of the national championship. So twice, not 13 times, did the BCS “screw a team out of a chance at a title.” Strangely enough, Boise State has gone undefeated four times since 2004 and the highest it has ever finished in the BCS standings was sixth in 2009.

So the argument that the new playoff format will allow for the little guy to compete for a title is technically true — but only twice would a "mid-major" have landed in the top four. That means 54 of the potential 56 playoff teams during the BCS era would have been the “big boys” of college football.

Teams that finished the regular season unbeaten and did not play for the national title:

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  • Tulane, 1998 (Final BCS Standing: 10th)
  • Marshall, 1999 (12th)
  • Auburn, 2004 (3rd)
  • Utah, 2004 (6th)
  • Boise State, 2004 (9th)
  • Boise State, 2006 (8th)
  • Hawaii, 2007 (10th)
  • Utah, 2008 (6th)
  • Boise State, 2008 (9th)
  • Cincinnati, 2009 (3rd)
  • TCU, 2009 (4th)
  • Boise State, 2009 (6th)
  • TCU, 2010 (3rd)

The Separation of Haves and Have-Nots

Initially, the BCS only released a 15-team ranking (until 2003). In the 14-year history of the series, only nine different mid-major programs finished in the Top 15 of the BCS. Even worse, only five mid-major programs have ever finished in the Top 10 of the final BCS standings: Boise State, TCU, Utah, Tulane and Hawaii. The other four top-15 finishes were Marshall (12th, 1999), Miami-Ohio (11th, 2003), BYU (14th, 2009) and Nevada (15th, 2010). Only twice, TCU in '09 and '10, did a mid-major finish in the top four. Clearly, the BCS wasn’t looking out for the little guy.

Meanwhile, 14 current “BCS conference” teams, not counting Temple, have failed to finish in the top 15 of the BCS. The SEC and Big East lead the way with four programs each who have never sniffed an elite final ranking. Some names are obvious — Vanderbilt, Indiana, Duke — and some are downright startling — North Carolina, Pitt, NC State. Interestingly, Iowa State has never been ranked at any point of any season in the BCS and the Pac-12 is the only league to have gotten every member into the Top 15 at season's end.

BCS Conference Teams That Have Never Finished in the BCS Top 15:

SEC (4): Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
Big East (4): UConn, Pitt, Rutgers, South Florida
ACC (3): Duke, North Carolina, NC State
Big Ten (2): Indiana, Northwestern
Big 12 (1): Iowa State
Pac-12: None

Of the possible 210 slots available in the top 15 of the BCS’ history, 192 of them were filled by power conference teams while only 18 times has a mid-major team landed in that final top 15. In fact, the NC States and Pitts of the world are the type of programs that will be the real winners in the new playoff scheme. The bottom halves of the power leagues are the schools who now have an open door to the national title party. Not the New Mexico or Southern Miss.

The BCS certainly wasn’t perfect but it was a vast improvement on the previous system, and frankly, got it right most of the time. That said, a playoff system is a vast improvement on the BCS and won’t be allowed to get it wrong. Yes, the fifth team will complain about being left out. No, the selection committee isn’t perfect. Yes, it could expand to eight teams in the future due to greedy TV executives. No, the bowls shouldn’t be shoe-horned into the playoff structure. Yes, the little guy has a marginally better shot at a title. No, it won’t win one.

But let’s not forget the key to this whole BCS mess: Four teams are now playing for the national championship on the field.

And the most important piece of the college football machine is the biggest winner of all.

The fans.

- by Braden Gall

Follow @bradengall

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