While college football fans were riveted to the two playoff games on New Year’s Day (make that one-and-a-half playoff games, as the second half of the Rose Bowl was hardly must-see T.V.), some commentators could hardly wait to seize the moment to criticize the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), college football’s previous format for determining its national champion. The point most often made by such commentators in the two games’ aftermath is that the BCS would have yielded a championship matchup that didn’t include Oregon or Ohio State, the two teams that have now earned their places in Monday’s championship game. That is true, but it is hardly the self-evident demonstration of the superiority of the new system, the superiority of the new system’s selection process, or the inherent wisdom of adding more rounds of playoffs, that those who make this observation pretend it to be.
If it had been used to fill this year’s 4-team playoff, the BCS selection process would have yielded the same four teams — and it would have done so without needlessly jerking TCU around from its penultimate to its final rankings, as the 13-member committee that determined this year’s field did. (TCU was #3 going into the season’s final week, beat Iowa State 55-3, and was rewarded by the committee by being dropped to #6.) The BCS selection process, however, would likely have changed the pairings, with Florida State meeting Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon playing Alabama in the Rose. But if these four teams had each played as well in these hypothetical matchups as they did on New Year’s Day, then the BCS selection process would presumably have yielded the same championship matchup that the committee’s pairings have yielded.
Nothing about what has transpired, in other words, suggests that the committee-based selection process is superior to the BCS selection process. Indeed, if the committee had picked the participants for a 2-team playoff, it would have left out not only undefeated Florida State — which, before the Seminoles’ defeat at the hands of the 1-loss Ducks, had surely earned a chance to play for the title — but also Ohio State, which has now shown itself to be one of the nation’s two best teams. So, the “problem” wasn’t with the BCS selection process — a process that is actually far better than the current one — but with the number of teams invited to the playoff field in the BCS era (two).
It may well be that college football has now found the sweet spot in terms of the number of teams that are invited to its postseason playoff. At the least, this was a season that seemingly benefitted from having a 4-team playoff, rather than a 2-team playoff, because there was no clear standout team. Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, and Ohio State (listed in the order of their pre-bowl accomplishments, as indicated by the Anderson & Hester Rankings) had as many combined losses in the regular season (3) as they had combined wins over the pre-bowl top-10 — again, based on the Anderson & Hester Rankings. (In comparison, in 2005 — a season in which college football benefitted from avoiding a semifinal round — powerhouses Texas and USC combined for as many wins versus the pre-bowl top-10 as this year’s top-4 did, against no losses.) Now Oregon and Ohio State have each notched a New Year’s Day win over a top-10 team, in the process truly earning their spots in next week’s title game — not only because they each won a playoff game, but also because they are now the two teams that have accomplished the most in college football this season, based on the totality of that season. Ideally, that’s what a playoff in any sport should strive to produce for its championship game — a matchup between the two teams that have been the best overall, not merely the two teams that have been the best since the playoff started.