The Magazine

Obama & the BCS

A playoff is not the change we need.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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Under the bright lights, Florida scored 10 fourth-quarter points to beat Oklahoma 24-14 and claim the BCS National Championship. When asked for his thoughts following the Gators' tremendous win, President-elect Obama replied, "We need a playoff."

That's not necessarily the best way to endear oneself to Florida voters. But, more to the point, I would argue that it doesn't express a particularly keen understanding of college football, the BCS, or the pros and cons of a playoff versus the current bowl system.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was formed in 1998 to ensure that college football would finally feature an annual championship game. (The participants are decided by a coaches' poll, the Harris poll, and the average of six computer rankings.) Prior to the BCS's creation, there were four times in the 1990s alone when two major undefeated teams weren't matched up in a bowl game.

Contrast this with the BCS era. There has been some controversy over title-game selections, although very little in the past five years. But when a given matchup clearly should have taken place, it has taken place--as in the 2006 Rose Bowl, when Vince Young and Texas beat USC on a fourth-down touchdown run with 19 seconds left, and the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, when Ohio State beat Miami in double-overtime.

What no one could have imagined when the BCS was conceived was how much interest it would generate in regular season games. As teams across America vie for only two spots in the National Championship Game, fans are glued to results and broadcasts of games in other regions in a way that they never were before--and wouldn't be with a playoff. If winning the Southeastern Conference title were to mean winning an automatic playoff berth, why tune in to USC-Oregon State?

Let us consider the most common playoff proposals. The most viable is a "plus-one," which would place the top four teams in two different bowls, with the winners playing each other. This season, Utah--the team that emerged as the consensus national runner-up (and was #2 in my rankings prior to the bowls and #1 afterward)--would have been left out of such an arrangement, in favor of Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and USC. So a "plus one" wouldn't have resolved much of anything.

Some have argued that Florida, Utah, Texas, and USC should now all be invited to play in a four-team, post-bowl playoff. But why then did Oklahoma have to play Florida (and vice versa) instead of getting an easier road into that four-team field? Furthermore, you can't just decide ad hoc what to do each year after the bowls have already been played. And who wants to see a post-bowl playoff in the years when a Vince Young scores a dramatic touchdown in Pasadena or when the Buckeyes prevail in double-overtime?

Another common proposal is an eight-team playoff, which would do still greater damage to the bowls and the regular season. And this season it would have excluded then-undefeated Boise State (winners on the road versus an Oregon team that would win the Holiday Bowl). It would also have excluded Texas Tech, authors of the most dramatic and biggest win of the fall--over then-number one Texas on a 28-yard touchdown pass with one second left on the clock.

In fact, that memorable game is a perfect example of the adverse effect that a playoff would have on college football's regular season. A playoff would have stripped that game of its drama, as Texas would have been playing for a higher playoff seeding, instead of for a coveted spot in the title game.

Despite such common-sense objections, some fans speak of a playoff as if it were ordained by the heavens. What, however, is so magical about wiping the slate clean after the regular season and declaring that only the games from that point forward will count?

The truth is, a playoff would be less--not more--likely to produce a matchup of the two best teams on the field, would compromise the uniquely rich slice of Americana that is the college football bowl games, and would diminish the most dramatic regular season in all of sports.

The BCS preserves all of this, while ensuring that half of the bowl teams go out as winners. Furthermore, it gave unsung Utah the chance to play, and beat, an excellent Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl.

President-elect Obama seemingly doesn't realize how unlikely that opportunity would have been in the pre-BCS days. In the 30 seasons prior to the BCS's inception, what we now call "non-BCS-conference teams" didn't play in a single major bowl game--not one. Since the 2005 bowl season, they have played in four--and won three.

In truth, the president-elect probably didn't see too much college football this fall, being somewhat busy with other things. The guess here is that he likely spent about as much time sharing his thoughts about how to reform college football as he spent watching games.

If so, he missed a great show. College football is alive and well, and more popular than ever--largely because of the Bowl Championship Series and the title game it provides, the bowl games it preserves, and, most of all, the meaningful regular season it produces.

The change we need is to stop bashing the BCS and start recognizing what a great thing it is for college football.

Jeffrey H. Anderson (with Chris Hester) created one of the six computer rankings used in determining which college football teams will play in the National Championship Game.