the bcs is dying-its replacement isn’t great

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Saturday was one of the wildest days in college football, highlighted by one of the craziest finishes in history. Tied up with one second left to go, Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide elected to kick a field goal. It was short, and Auburn player Chris Williams returned it the length of the field to give the Tigers the win.  Williams’ return upset the number one team in the country and severely limited the SEC’s chance to get another national title. What a great way for the BCS to end.

Introduced in time for the 1998 football season, the Bowl Championship Series was designed to create a way to put the number 1 and number 2 teams in the championship game after years of polls determining the best team in the country.  Credit where it’s due, the system did put the two “best” teams in the game more times than none. Unfortunately, it lacked behind every other collegiate sport and lower divisions of football.

Unlike other sports, such as basketball, the top level of college football did not have a playoff or tournament for several years. Instead, writers would argue about the relative quality of teams and then vote on who the champion was after the season.  When the BCS came about, it averaged two human polls (the coaches’ poll and AP Poll, which would be replaced by the Harris Poll) and another average of computer rankings. Those computer rankings would not have to reveal their formula.

Instead of creating a clearer picture, it often resulted in a lot of criticism and omissions. Two of the more notable teams to be excluded from a championship berth were the 2004 Auburn team and 2003 Southern California team. Nonetheless,  they went to other BCS games. In every other sport, both of these teams would be included and given a chance at the top prize.

What ultimately did the BCS in happened during the 2011 season.  In the regular season, LSU and Alabama played a boring game that the Tigers ultimately won. LSU would go on to win the SEC title. Most thought that Oklahoma State would go on to play in the title game. Instead, the powers-that-be insisted on a rematch between LSU and Alabama. The game wasn’t close, with Alabama winning in a rout.

A playoff was introduced, to start at the conclusion of the BCS’ run. We’re in the last season of the BCS and it’s going to be confusing if a few things happen on Saturday. Number one Florida State is in the driver’s seat, and only needs to get by a surprisingly good Duke team in the ACC Championship Game to get to the National Title. It’s very unlikely that the Blue Devils win here, so we’ll ignore it.  What’s more important happens in the Big Ten and SEC.

Indianapolis will see an undefeated Ohio State take on 1-loss Michigan State, while Atlanta has a pair of one-loss teams in Auburn and Missouri. Conventional wisdom says that Ohio State should beat the Spartans and play Florida State in the title game. What if Michigan State wins? We’re then in an unusual situation. Florida State is still the clear number one, but who do they play?  Our choices are Michigan State, the winner of the SEC game, and maybe the Big XII Champion.

Let’s take out the easiest omission first. Oklahoma State is poised to win the Big XII after a big win at Baylor. However, their only loss is to a bad West Virginia team. Let’s take them out of it completely. Now we’re left with the SEC and Big Ten scenarios. We’ll say that Michigan State, with their top ranked defense, beats Ohio State. Their only loss was a one-possession game to a middling Notre Dame.  Are they in? Not necessarily.  Let’s have Missouri win, which is highly probable. Mizzou’s only loss is an overtime squeaker against a very good South Carolina team.

If that scenario played out, I’d take Missouri to match up against Florida State. What if Auburn wins? This is where it gets tricky. Auburn, while a good team, has a couple of narrow wins against Georgia and Alabama with a loss to a somewhat disappointing LSU. In this case, I would actually want Michigan State in the game. The BCS has left us with this mess.

The playoff would be great this year. We could have the Big XII Champ, the SEC Champ, the Big Ten Champion, and Florida State playing each other. It still speaks to one flaw-the playoff is only 4 teams.

If the playoff was a larger field, we could have a better sense of the best teams in the country. Until then, we’ll have to deal with progress in increments.  Saturday will be a great day to see what unfolds.

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