BCS Changes - It's A Good Start, But ...
The new changes are going to be good, but more needs to be done.
By Matt Zemek
The Bowl Championship Series – in the person of spokesman Bill Hancock – has finally made some preliminary pronouncements about the way the college football postseason will look when the 2014 season begins and the current BCS bowl rotation ends. The two branches of this story that demand both attention and compartmentalization are as follows:
1) What rules, policies and procedures will guide the creation, direction and maintenance of college football's postseason?
2) Who will get to write the rules?
Yes, it's objectively better that college football will have a four-team playoff of some kind. It is objectively good that four teams will contest the sport's championship in the postseason, as opposed to only two, because such a development means that a national championship game can no longer be comprised of teams who were placed in said title game by politics.
No, beginning in the 2014 season, any team that makes the national championship game of college football will arrive at that point by means of an on-field victory in a national semifinal or play-in game (whichever term you might prefer). That is an objective improvement. Politics will play a smaller role in determining who plays for all the crystal in early January.
Now, with that having been said, politics will still play a large role in this process - in fact, the political game is only just beginning to unfold. On one front, the Big Ten (Jim Delany) and the SEC (Mike Slive) are conducting the latest in a series of wrestling matches, this one surrounding the way in which a four-team playoff will be conducted. On another front, Hancock said that the "automatic qualifier" (AQ) designation tied to current BCS rules will be wiped away in 2014. College football finds itself in liminal space right now, in a threshold between the world it is leaving behind and the new world it is creating for itself.
What will the new world look like? It's all about the rules governing the process, who will write them, and who will enforce them when December of 2014 arrives. Having a four-team playoff is better than the current BCS, but if the discussion ends there, that's not good enough… not even close… to any system that would truly benefit college football and college athletics as a whole.
First, let's look solely at the national championship selection process: The biggest and most important issue facing the way in which college football determines its postseason participants is not the creation of a playoff itself, but the thorny subject of non-conference regular season scheduling. A lot is being said about the clash between a Delany plan – campus sites for would-be national semifinal games – and the current (SEC-centric) model in which the BCS bowls, which just happen to reside in weather-friendly environments – host the semifinals.
On the raw merits, the campus sites plan is better because it seeks to give an advantage to the top two seeds, thereby enhancing the value of the regular season. However, one must then stop and ask: "Is the regular season a model of robust competition as currently constructed?" It would be hard to say "yes."
Consider this: When Florida visits Texas A&M this season, the Gators – mandated by a conference schedule – will be playing their first regular season game west of Fayetteville, Ark., since 1983. Auburn in 2010, Alabama in 2009, Florida in 2008 and 2006, LSU in 2007 – none of these national champions played one road or neutral non-conference game outside their own region. (In 2009, for instance, Alabama played Virginia Tech in Atlanta, taking a non-conference risk, but a risk within its own region.) Texas, by visiting Ohio State in 2005, stuck its neck out in non-conference play, and even then, the Longhorns played only one big road/neutral game outside their own region.
As I wrote last September, college football doesn't really crown truly "national" champions – not when teams aren't playing other elite non-conference foes outside their own regions:
The teams mentioned on the left are the 14 national champions from the past 26 seasons that played at least two credible non-conference opponents outside their regions during the regular season. (This obviously means that 12 national champions couldn’t meet that modest standard of regional diversity in their schedules.) The national champions are followed by the credible (non-conference, non-regional) teams they played.
2004 USC - Notre Dame and Virginia Tech
2003 USC (split title with LSU) - Notre Dame and Auburn
2002 Ohio State - Washington State and Texas Tech
2001 Miami - Washington and Penn State
1997 Michigan - Colorado and Notre Dame
1995 Nebraska - Michigan State, Washington State, and Arizona State
1994 Nebraska - West Virginia and UCLA
1991 Washington - Kansas State and Nebraska
1991 Miami - Houston, Arkansas, San Diego State, and Penn State
1990 Colorado - Texas, Illinois and Tennessee
1989 Miami - Michigan State, Notre Dame, and San Diego State
1988 Notre Dame - Air Force, Miami, and USC
1987 Miami – Arkansas and Notre Dame
1986 Penn State – Alabama and Maryland
Here are a few follow-up notes worth keeping in mind: First, Miami played in the Big East in 1991 but competed in only two conference games that year. Miami might as well have remained an independent program. Therefore, of the five college football national champions since 1986 that have played at least three non-conference, non-regional regular season games, only two of them played a full conference schedule as well: the 1990 Colorado Buffaloes and the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
A second important note is that in the Bowl Championship Series era, not one team has played at least three credible non-conference, non-regional foes in the regular season. A third note is that while 14 national champions have played at least two credible non-conference, non-regional opponents during the regular season, those 14 champions come from just nine schools.
There's a very simple point at the end of this analysis on the semifinal portion of a playoff: Don't focus on the campus-sites-versus-BCS-bowl plan for the national semifinals. Focus on the need for college football to force its schools to play two tough non-conference games each season, at least one of them outside their own regions. Unless or until this problem is reformed in a meaningful way, the current playoff system will be almost as contentious as the old one, the only difference being that the fight moves from "second or third" in the rankings to "fourth or fifth." It's better, yes, but without regular-season scheduling reform, it won't mean much.
The other component of a semifinal structure that needs to be addressed is the set of parameters placed on eligibility. Simply stated, division champions – not conference champions – should be eligible for the four-team playoff. LSU could have won the SEC West last season, lost to Georgia in the SEC title game, and still been the team most worthy of a spot in New Orleans on January 9.
Winning a division, though, has to matter – that's your backyard, the mandated portion of each annual schedule. Nebraska never should have leapfrogged Colorado in 2001, and Alabama never should have been able to join LSU last year… if the regular season means anything, that is.
Next up on the list of issues to tackle, what about the ways in which a 4-versus-5 rankings controversy will be dealt with? This matter also requires new rules that must be written in the right ways for the right reasons. If college football cares about its process, merely having a four-team playoff won't mean much if the coaches' poll – transparent only in that it is a farce – isn't abolished. That has to go. Non-conference strength of schedule has to carry a lot more weight as well. Road/neutral wins, especially out of conference, need to be weighted more than home wins.
Finally, what about the elimination of AQ status? This clears the bowl landscape and allows the bowls (and the four-team playoff) to be arranged without constraints or conference lock-ins that have prevented the sport from creating the best possible matchups in postseason competition. However, the new rules, policies and procedures need to take advantage of this situation instead of erecting familiar obstacles.
The removal of AQ status obviously means that in future seasons, the Mountain West, Big East, and Atlantic Coast Conferences will compete for bowl slots. None of these conferences should automatically deserve a BCS bowl, so how should this specific competition be governed? First, these conferences should pit their best teams against each other in the regular season. (Let's hammer the point home, right?)
Second, teams with at least three losses should be barred from BCS bowl eligibility unless other at-large candidates all have three losses as well.
Third, conferences should be allowed to put three teams in BCS bowls, forcing the likes of the Mountain West, Big East, and ACC to earn their way into bowls.
Fourth, the non-playoff bowls – which will no longer have to weigh AQs versus non-AQs come 2014 – need to remove lock-ins so that the nation's best teams can meet on even terms with more say in how matchups get created.
Yes, you could rejoice now that college football has a four-team playoff. You would be well advised to hold your celebration, though, until this sport shows that it is truly serious about reforming itself, beginning with the regular season. If college football doesn't reshape the way in which teams compete during the regular season, the four-team playoff will create recognizable headaches instead of solving longstanding problems.