Parity has never really been college football’s thing, but it is difficult to escape the feeling of inevitability that hangs over the start of the 2019 season.
The five years that have made up the College Football Playoff era to date have felt more like a steady stream of reruns than the blockbuster spectacle we were promised. The programs that are qualifying for the postseason tournament haven’t changed much. Neither have the teams winning national championships under the new system.
The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers have played in the final game of the season in three of the last five years, and the two programs look like the odds-on favorites to square off for the title belt again this year. Despite their sustained excellence, the prospect of seeing round four – or five, if you want to count their meeting in the 2017 semifinals – of Tide-Tigers feels pretty uninspiring to most college football fans who don’t worship at the altars of Saban and Swinney.
Fatigue over the Bama-Clemson axis seems to be inducing a broader malaise that is spreading over college football in the playoff era. The best way to spice up what is becoming an increasingly bland sport? Bring back the BCS.
Let’s start by acknowledging that the CFP has yet to fulfill the promise of giving us a better postseason. Increasing the number of annual championship-relevant games from one under the BCS to three in the playoff was, in theory, going to add excitement and uncertainty to the postseason.
“It’s a best-of-both-worlds result,” said then Virginia Tech president Charles W. Steger, who chaired the oversight committee that approved the move away from the BCS in 2012. “It captures the excitement of a playoff while protecting the best regular season in sports and also the tradition of the bowls. A four-team playoff doesn’t go too far. It goes just the right amount.”
Reality hasn’t lived up to the hype.
The semifinal games have mostly produced duds, with eight of 10 being decided by 11 points or more. In addition to the fact that the vast majority of semifinal games haven’t been competitive, the better-seeded teams keep winning them. The No. 1 and No. 2 teams have beaten the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in seven of 10 semifinal matchups to date.
The three instances in which a three or four seed won in the semifinal weren’t titanic upsets, either. No. 4 Ohio State took down No. 1 Alabama in 2014, and No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama beat No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Oklahoma in 2017, respectively (and it’s worth noting that Alabama and Georgia were both favored in the 2017 games cited).
In the four playoff games in history with point spreads in the double digits, the favorites have won by scores of 38-0, 24-7, 45-34 and 30-3. That doesn’t rule out the possibility of a heavy underdog winning a game in the future. In fact, it’s inevitable. Yet, the truth of the matter is that adding an extra round of semifinal games has done little to improve the quality or meaningfulness of college football’s postseason. Most often, those games have served as nothing but a nuisance for the best teams to deal with on their way to the national championship game.
Would anyone really miss the semifinal games if they were eliminated? It doesn’t feel like they serve much purpose in determining which team deserves the national championship. They’re just kind of... there.
Meanwhile, the CFP hasn’t exactly opened up access to new challengers for the national championship. A grand total of 10 programs have claimed one of the 20 bids that have been handed out since 2014. Four schools – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio St. and Oklahoma – have combined to nab 14 invites. The Crimson Tide, Tigers, Buckeyes and Sooners are four of the most likely participants in the tournament again this season, according to oddsmakers.
For all its faults, the BCS at least resulted in a bit more variety. In 16 years, the same two teams never faced off against each other in the national championship game more than once. Eleven different programs won national championships during that period, and 15 different teams made at least one appearance in the title game.
And if it’s the squads outside the Power Five conferences that you’re worried about, they would have at least a marginally better shot at playing for a national championship under the BCS system than what we have now. In 2010, for example, undefeated Mountain West Conference champion TCU finished on the doorstep of the national championship game at No. 3 in the final BCS rankings. TCU also finished fourth in 2009, while Boise State finished No. 6 that year. Utah was ranked No. 6 in 2008 and 2004.
Since the CFP selection committee took charge of picking the participants, undefeated teams from Group of Five conferences have barely finished within spitting distance of the top four. Central Florida checked in at No. 8 in the final committee rankings of 2018 after capping off its second consecutive undefeated regular season, making for the best finish by a non-Power Five team in the playoff era.
If you like rooting for the little guy, which system sounds like your better path to a shot at a title? Even if you had qualms with the BCS process for determining a national champion, a system that spreads the wealth – at least a little more – would be healthier for the sport as a whole.
Of course, the BCS was not without its faults. The primary point of criticism centered around its hodgepodge formula. It tabulated rankings based on a mesh of opinion polls and proprietary computer ratings that infamously removed margin of victory from their algorithms at the direction of the BCS architects.
At the end of the regular season, the BCS spit out opaque numbers. Between a conglomeration of conflicted pollsters and dodgy analytics, the system as a whole lacked accountability for its results.
Both sources of discontent can be easily remedied. For starters, the public’s familiarity with quantitative computer models has grown significantly since the heyday of the BCS. The use of analytics has become ubiquitous across pro sports, and the media now relies more on advanced stats in sports analysis as a whole.
College football isn’t hurting for widely cited statistical tools. For example, Bill Connelly’s S&P+, Brian Fremeau’s FEI, and ESPN’s FPI have all been refined over time. Stat geeks have even come up with metrics such as Strength of Record, ESPN’s system for evaluating the quality of a team’s overall resume.
As such, we now have superior statistical rankings with more public credibility than predecessors such as the Colley Matrix and the Billingsley Report. Those in charge of administering the new BCS could license however many computer models they deemed necessary and make their formulas available as a boost to transparency. (And, hopefully, including margin of victory in the new BCS-approved metrics wouldn’t hurt too many feelings.)
As for the human element, instead of the polls used previously by the BCS, why not keep the CFP’s selection committee? They could submit public ballots or continue to produce their consensus rankings at the end of the season, which could be blended with the output from the statistical model(s) to arrive at the final BCS standings.
In the end, this version of a human-computer hybrid system would give us rankings that are more transparent and credible than the original BCS metric.
Ultimately, the best reason to revive the BCS would be to allow college football to get back to its roots.
Let’s face it: A mind-meld occurred five years ago between College Football and the College Football Playoff. It frames the entire conversation around the sport now.
College football thrived for 145 years without a playoff at its highest level. The people who run the sport didn’t even make a concerted effort to pair the No. 1 and No. 2 teams against each other in bowl games until 1992. For most of its history, the postseason was college football’s side show, while the sport allowed the provincial eccentricities and traditions that have long defined its regular season to stand on their own.
Those carry less relevance over time because the CFP sucks more air out of the room every year. There’s less appreciation for things like conference championships and rivalry games because they really only seem to matter now in the context of how they impact the playoff picture.
Yet, some of the best stories in college football history have played out outside the national championship race. Take Northwestern’s 1995 run to the Rose Bowl, for instance. Today, it would spawn innumerable segments on “College Football Live” discussing the Wildcats’ worthiness of a spot in the playoff with a loss to Miami (Ohio) on their resume. Countless callers would be dialing up the “Paul Finebaum Show” to moan about the strength of NU’s conference schedule. Columnists would be asking if the rise of a non-name brand was bad for the Big Ten’s playoff hopes.
That’s what happens when you build your sport around its postseason. When the little things matter less, the sport gets less enjoyable for everyone.
Admittedly, reviving the BCS wouldn’t put that genie back in the bottle. It’s still promising to crown one out of 130 teams as college football’s national champion, a fantastical idea in and of itself. It won’t stop people from fixating on who’s number one.
But the BCS was far closer to the soul of college football than what we have now. Moving backwards would be better for the sport than what is coming in the future as the playoff’s grip on college football grows tighter.