College football wasn’t always like this. The eyes of the nation weren’t always riveted on a massive stadium in a tiny town in southeastern Alabama, wondering whether the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide could really—against all probability—be knocked off by archrival Auburn. They weren’t always glued a week later to a game in Big Ten country, wondering whether Michigan State could really hand Ohio State its first loss in two years and knock the Buckeyes out of the national title picture. No, the race for the national championship wasn’t always so exciting. In fact, not that long ago there wasn’t even a national championship—at least one decided by anything other than a purely subjective vote of sportswriters or coaches. There wasn’t a clear national champion because there wasn’t an official national championship game.
All of that changed during the 1998 offseason, when the Bowl Championship Series was created, and a new era of college football began.
On the morning of May 18, 1998, I answered the phone, suspecting nothing out of the ordinary, and was quite surprised to hear that the voice on the other end was that of Roy Kramer, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Kramer said he was devising a new formula to determine which college football teams would play in which bowls, and he wanted to know if Chris Hester (co-creator of the Anderson & Hester Rankings) and I would have a problem if our computer rankings were included. I replied (in what was certainly an understatement), “We would welcome being included.” Three weeks later—once Kramer had gotten buy-in from the other conference commissioners, NBC, ABC, and CBS—the creation of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was publicly announced.
The BCS was designed for one central purpose: to provide college football with an annual national championship game. That game would be hosted on a rotating basis by the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange Bowls. (Since January 2007, it has been hosted separately from these bowls, although still on their sites, as the National Championship Game.) Kramer, a former successful head football coach at Central Michigan, knew that the championship-game matchup needed to be determined on the basis of something beyond the subjective polls, which ask coaches, sportswriters, and the like to rank the teams as they see fit. Kramer rightly sensed that it should be rooted in some sort of objective evaluation. So he turned to computer rankings.
That first season, the only computer rankings that were included in the BCS formula were ours (the Anderson & Hester Rankings, then called the Seattle Times Rankings), Jeff Sagarin’s (which were and are published in USA Today), and the now-defunct and truly terrible New York Times rankings. Collectively, the computer rankings accounted for one-fourth of the original BCS formula, with the polls (the average of the AP and coaches’) accounting for another fourth. The other two quartiles were based on a not-very-accurate internal BCS strength-of-schedule rating and each team’s number of losses. So three-quarters of the original criteria was objective, while only one quarter—the polls—was subjective.
The excitement began early. On the last day of the BCS’s first season, No. 2 (in the BCS) UCLA lost at Miami in a hurricane make-up game that had originally been scheduled for months earlier. Then, in perhaps the game of the year, Texas A&M overcame a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit to defeat No. 3 Kansas State in double-overtime in the Big 12 Championship Game. As a result, Florida State moved up from No. 4 to No. 2 in the final BCS standings, and the Seminoles played No. 1 Tennessee on January 4 in the Fiesta Bowl. The Volunteers won 23-16, to claim the first BCS national championship.
From the start, fans loved the BCS. And one of the things they loved most about it was complaining about it. That first season, a level-headed Kansas State fan wrote and told Chris and me that, by not having the Wildcats ranked in the top-two, our computer rankings were committing an injustice comparable to that of slavery.