How John Swofford Killed the BCS

This is another column whining about how college football needs to reform its Division I postseason. But it's got a little more sauce to it than that, a proposal that means it has no chance of becoming reality, as opposed to the normal slim chance.

I'll get to John Swofford in a minute, but first, let's get something out of the way: I really dislike the BCS. In this column, I will argue for a playoff, but I also believe that the traditional bowl system is superior to the BCS. The current system makes no one happy. Well, no fans, anyway. It's my understanding that the people making millions of dollars on it are fairly content.

The BCS title game — to say nothing of the other BCS bowls — has had a major controversy almost every season. Having said that, the BCS is the basis for my playoff proposal. I want to keep the BCS as a basis for choosing playoff teams, using the top eight teams, with one exception: any team that is undefeated and has at least ten wins against I-A opponents (or whatever you want to call them these days) automatically gets in.

For example, this year my playoff would include Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC, Utah, Texas Tech, and Boise State. The first round would look like this:

Oklahoma (12-1) vs. Boise St. (12-0), Florida (12-1) vs. Texas Tech (11-1), Texas (11-1) vs. Utah (12-0), Alabama (12-1) vs. USC (11-1)

Those are all exciting matchups, I think. In a rematch of the instant-classic 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Boise St. gets a chance to prove its undefeated credentials against number one Oklahoma. Florida and Texas Tech is a really interesting matchup, and an early test of the Big 12/SEC debate. Texas gets an immediate challenge against the best undefeated team in the country. And Alabama/USC is a coin-flip, maybe the most compelling and competitive game in the bunch.

The winner of OU/Boise gets the winner of ‘Bama/USC, and the winner of Florida/TT plays the winner of Texas/Utah. Champs advance and play for a national championship decided on the field.

Now, if you're a fan of the Big Ten, Big East, or ACC, you might notice something missing from my playoff scenario: any of your teams.

Let's start with the ACC. Virginia Tech, the conference champion, is 9-4, ranking 19th in the BCS, 21st in the AP poll, 19th in the Coaches' Poll, and 22nd in the Harris Poll. There is no reasonable argument to be made that four-loss VT deserves to compete for the national championship. In fact, this conference hasn't produced a BCS-worthy team in almost a decade.

The last eight ACC champs have all lost their bowl games. In the last seven seasons, the ACC champ's average BCS ranking has been 11th. What makes the ACC champ more worthy than the best teams from Conference USA (East Carolina, 9-4, beat VT), the MAC (Ball St, 12-1, beat Navy), the Mountain West (Utah), or the WAC (Boise St.)? These days, the Mountain West and WAC produce top teams just as frequently as the ACC.

Don't believe me? Let's look at the 2004-08 seasons, every year since Boston College, Miami (FL), and Virginia Tech joined the ACC. Renaming them Conferences X, Y, and Z, let's look at their highest ranked teams every year for those five seasons. In each case, I've used the final AP poll (most recent for '08).

	X	Y	Z
Best	5th	7th	4th
2nd	9th	9th	6th
3rd	12th	10th	11th
4th	19th	18th	14th
Worst	—	21st	16th

Which conference looks best to you: X, Y, or Z?

Conference X looks the weakest, since there's a year where no team from that conference made the final Top 25. Conference Y is the only one with three top-10 teams, but hasn't gotten anyone higher than 7th. Conference Z looks best to me. It's second-best team ranks higher than Y's best, and its worst finish, 16th, is better than the second-worst finish of X or Y.

Conference Z is the Mountain West.

Even if you don't think Z's top teams are better than the top teams from X (WAC) and Y (ACC), it's obviously pretty close, and that's the point. The ACC champ doesn't stand out from the MWC and WAC champs any more. Top-to-bottom, the ACC is still better, but it hasn't produced a serious national title contender since Florida State in 2000, and it doesn't deserve an automatic bid. The point of a playoff is to get championships decided on the field instead of in the corporate offices.

What about the Big East? It rebounded surprisingly well from losing its three best teams, but it's not much better than the ACC.

	WAC	MWC	Big East
Best	5th	4th	5th
2nd	9th	6th	6th
3rd	12th	11th	6th
4th	19th	14th	12th
Worst	—	16th	25th

Again, I think this is pretty close. Maybe you give the edge to the Big East, maybe you give it to the Mountain West. But even the WAC is close here. The Big East doesn't stand out. Look at the average ranks for the best teams in these conferences: Mountain West 10th, Big East 11th, ACC 13th, WAC 14th. That's about even.

I'm not saying teams from the ACC and Big East can't or shouldn't compete in the playoff. I'm just saying they have to earn their way in. In fact, I'm saying the same thing for every conference. The SEC looks so strong that it's hard to imagine a year when no one makes the top eight, but if that happens, so be it. Don't lose twice next year.

That's where the Big Ten is this season. Do I feel weird that Penn State (11-1, 6th in AP poll) isn't in my hypothetical playoff? Yeah, I do. But I'd rather leave out Penn State than Texas Tech or Boise.

Boise State is undefeated. The Broncos dealt Oregon its only home loss, won at Nevada, and whomped Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Hawaii, and Fresno State by a combined 151-27. Those are four bowl-bound teams they blew out. The Broncs are ninth in the the polls, but there's simply nothing more they can do. They beat everyone on their schedule, routing most of them. You can't leave Boise State out of this process.

Everyone agrees that Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC, and Utah need to be in this, and Boise makes seven. That leaves Texas Tech or Penn State for the eighth and final spot.

Texas Tech can make an argument for being just as good as Oklahoma and Texas. The Red Raiders are 11-1 against a tough Big 12 schedule, including wins over Texas, Oklahoma State, and Nebraska. Their one loss came against top-ranked OU in Norman. They clearly have a case here.

Penn State has also had a nice season. Like the Raiders, they're 11-1. They beat Ohio State in Columbus and destroyed Oregon State and Michigan State, beating both by more than 30 points. Their loss came in a road game against Iowa.

So why are the Nittany Lions behind Texas Tech? Because the BCS computers hate Penn State. The Nittany Lions rank sixth in all the human polls (AP, Harris, Coaches), but they're ninth in the computer averages. A distant ninth, even. Texas Tech is fourth in the computer rankings. And in a case like this, when two pretty equal teams have identical records, I actually trust the computers.

Humans see a Big 10 champ who won in Columbus and the third-best team in the Big 12, favoring the former. The computers, seeing a team that lost to unranked Iowa and a team whose only loss came against the best team in the country, prefer the latter. What the computer averages show is that Texas Tech played a significantly harder schedule than Penn State this season. The Red Raiders faced some extremely soft out-of-conference competition, but they also played two of the top three teams in the country and three of the top 15. Penn State faced the 10th-ranked Buckeyes and the 18th-ranked Spartans. Jeff Sagarin ranks Penn State's schedule as 61st in the nation. The top of Texas Tech's schedule — which is the part of the schedule that really matters — is mucher tougher than Penn State's.

Penn St			Texas Tech

at #10 Ohio St at #1 Oklahoma
#18 Mich St #3 Texas
#24 Oregon St #13 Oklahoma St
at 8-4 Iowa 8-4 Nebraska
at 7-5 Wisc. at 7-5 Kansas
5-7 Illinois at 7-5 Nevada
5-7 Temple at 5-7 K-State
at 4-8 Purdue at 4-8 Texas A&M
at 3-9 Syracuse 4-8 Baylor
3-9 Michigan 1-11 S. Methodist
3-9 Indiana I-AA E. Washington
I-AA Coastal Carolina I-AA Massachusetts

Do I believe that Texas Tech is definitely better than Penn State? No, I do not. But I believe they've earned a rematch in the Big 12's three-way tie. More to the point, though, who cares about the eighth team? In a given year, there are probably no more than five or six teams who can legitimately claim that they deserve a shot at the national title. We only invite eight to get a round number. You want to get into that top eight? Don't lose to Iowa. Besides, is either team likely to beat Florida, much less win three straight for the national championship? Uh-uh.

What I'm proposing isn't just an eight-team playoff. It's the end of conference privilege. Everyone has to earn their way in. No more automatic bids, for any of the major conferences, any of the mid-majors, or any of the independents.

So how does John Swofford play into all this? Swofford is the Commissioner of the ACC and the former Chairman of the BCS. He's the one who stole BC, Miami, and VT from the Big East. Somehow — and don't ask me why, because I don't know — adding those teams made the ACC worse. It also caused the Big East to dramatically re-tool, primarily by raiding Conference USA, which was the sixth-best football conference in the early 2000s. The C-USA realignment led to additional conference realignments affecting most mid-major football conferences.

Since that time, traditional ACC/Big East powerhouses like Florida State and Miami (FL) have stagnated, while teams like Boise State, BYU, Hawaii, TCU, and Utah have become important players on the national level. If anything destroys the BCS, I believe it may be watching undefeated MWC and WAC teams repeatedly passed over — not only for the pretend national championship, but for any BCS bowl — in favor of mediocre conference champions.

And if that happens, fans across the country — the estimated two-thirds of us that want a playoff at the highest levels of college football — will have reason to thank Mr. Swofford, the man who helped kill the BCS.

Comments and Conversation

December 12, 2008

Mike:

You have lost it. The ACC had a down year? OK, So because Fl State and Miami are not the powerhouses and the ACC has 10 teams at 500. I understand that the Big 12 is strong this year, but the ACC has 10 teams bowling. Say what you want. The ACC is also young. The fact that all of you writers forget is that these athletes are all STUDENT athletes. It’s a money making scam and on no front will it work. If there was a playoff, someone would be left out and you would be writing and crying about that.

December 13, 2008

Anthony Brancato:

What to do about conferences like the WAC is the most problematic aspect of all this.

A while back, I proposed a three-way split of what was officially still then known as Division I college football, with the pre-existing Division I-AA being re-designated I-AAA, the WAC and similar conferences being slotted into a new Division I-AA, with the schools in the true major conferences (plus Notre Dame) remaining in Division I-A.

This was also offered up as a solution to the “strength of schedule” problem, in that I proposed that any game a Division I-A team (as defined in the paragraph above) played against any team in any of the lower classifications not be counted as a win if they won, but would be counted as a loss if they lose (effectively taking away any incentive to even schuedule such games). It would then be feasible to determine the playoff teams (and the seeding thereof) strictly by record (in addition, I advocated reforming overtime so that a handful of games actually would end in a tie, making the teams easier to rank).

December 13, 2008

Brad Oremland:

Mike,
What’s relevant, with regard to a playoff, is the top team or two in a given conference. Top-to-bottom, the ACC isn’t bad. Even Duke did sort of okay this season. But it’s been almost a decade since the top team in the ACC was a serious national title contender. My point is less to pick on the ACC than it is to argue that college football should eliminate automatic bids for conference champions.

As far as crying for teams who get left out, I can assure you that is not the case. I think in most years, there are about four teams who deserve to compete in a playoff. I like the eight-team format to be sure no one deserving gets left out. But if a team is ranked 9th or below and not undefeated, I have no sympathy. Also, not sure where you’re going with the money thing, but money is the reason we have the BCS instead of a playoff. I think you’re backward on this.

Anthony, I think that’s a really problematic proposal. The best teams in the WAC are not merely better than the worst teams from the BCS conferences — they’re much, much better. We’re also seeing frequent shifts in the strengths of different schools and conferences, and it wouldn’t make sense to permanently label them as being stronger or weaker than each other. We should be eliminating the automatic bids and the discrimination between conferences — not strengthening those things.

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