Bowl Championship Splendor
The golden age of college football
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
To be sure, the BCS generated its share of controversy—and the computer rankings, being its most mysterious part, provided an easy scapegoat. To this day, however, few people seem to realize that an important change was made to the BCS formula after its sixth season. The formula, which had previously been a bit too complex and unwieldy, was streamlined, simplified, and significantly improved. From the 2004-05 season onward, this revised formula included only two basic components: the polls (with the Harris poll replacing the AP poll after the 2005 season) and the computer rankings (which by then consisted of ours, Sagarin’s, Richard Billingsley’s, Peter Wolfe’s, Kenneth Massey’s, and Wes Colley’s). In another important change from the original formula, the polls were given more weight. Going forward, they accounted for two-thirds of the formula, while the computer rankings accounted for the other third. This reflected a recognition that it’s the fans’ game, and the fans’ opinions (largely reflected in the subjective polls) need to hold sway—although not unlimited sway.
The improved formula worked like a charm. Controversy about the BCS persisted, but it started to sound more like an echo from the earlier days, with that echo fading further over time. For the past 10 seasons (from 2004‑05 through 2013-14), the BCS national championship matchup has reflected the public consensus each and every year—a remarkable feat for any formula that isn’t based strictly on popular opinion.
Under the BCS, college football has flourished. In 1997, the last pre-BCS season, attendance for the sport’s Football Bowl Subdivision (its major division) was 27.6 million. Last season, it was 37.2 million—an increase of 35 percent. Some of that is because teams now play more games, but the average attendance has also risen, from 42,085 in 1997 to 45,440 last season. Over that same span, average attendance at Division I men’s college basketball games has dropped from 5,485 to 5,190.
What’s more, the BCS has opened up college football’s loftiest heights to more teams. While not a single team from a nonpower conference or school was invited to what we’d now call a BCS bowl game in the 27 years between 1971 (when Air Force played Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl) and the onset of the BCS, 8 such teams have been invited by the BCS in the past 10 seasons alone (Boise State twice, Utah twice, TCU twice, Hawaii, and Northern Illinois).
The BCS took a sport that had developed organically across decades—with all of its unique bowls, conferences, and rivalries—and sought to improve it at the margins rather than fundamentally transforming it. The BCS’s obvious benefit has been the staging of a genuine national championship game. But its less obvious benefit, which even Kramer has indicated he didn’t fully anticipate, is that it has caused fans across the nation to care far more about games in other regions than they did before—thereby greatly enhancing the most compelling regular season in all of sports.
Thus, when Alabama lined up for a potential game-winning 57-yard field goal against Auburn on the game’s final play, two days after Thanksgiving, it wasn’t just the state of Alabama that held its breath. When the Crimson Tide’s well-struck kick dropped about a yard wide and two yards short of its intended destination, it wasn’t just the Deep South that watched with surprise as Auburn’s Chris Davis caught the ball in the back of the end zone. And when Davis started to run it out, when he broke toward the left sideline and into the open field—it wasn’t just SEC country that erupted along with the frenzied home crowd. When Davis crossed the goal line, completing perhaps the most improbable play in college football since Stanford’s marching band ran onto the field more than 30 years ago, it was all of America (minus the Bama fans, of course) that cheered the triumph of an underdog squad (0-8 in the SEC a year ago) that had found a way to beat its archrival, the defending national champions.
Who cheers that way for regular-season college basketball—or, for that matter, for regular-season NFL football?
Before the BCS, that game would have been played with a potential Sugar Bowl berth on the line, not a potential National Championship Game berth. And while people outside the South might have watched, they likely wouldn’t have been watching closely or caring much. For the most part, fans used to pay attention to what was happening in their own regions. Now the irresistible drama of college football—particularly of late-season college football—is shared throughout the land, and there is nothing quite like it.
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