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Original Issue

The BCS Mess

The Bowl Championship Series is facing the same old problems--and a few new ones. How did it all go so wrong?

The name was an afterthought, devoid of inspiration. Bowl Championship Series. By the winter of 1998 a cluster of bowl game officials, television executives and conference commissioners had completed the most sweeping changes in the history of postseason college football. When it came time to give their creation a title, they were almost too tired to try. "We picked Bowl Championship Series because it was easy," says Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. "The TV people mentioned other possibilities, but this was the simplest." ¶ It is simple no more. Six years later the words have been replaced by their initials--BCS--which are held up every autumn as a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude, power-conference greed, lip service to academic ideals and pompous disregard for the public's hunger for a playoff. The BCS founders couldn't have imagined that websites would be created to trash their brainchild, that an entire genre of jokes would be spawned, that Congress would find time to belittle the BCS (as it did last year) or that one day a recruit would tell Utah's Urban Meyer, "Coach, I like your offense, I like your facilities, I like your school. But you're not in the BCS." The three letters have become shorthand for the moat that separates the wealthy in college football from the impoverished.

A year ago the system notoriously matched LSU and Oklahoma in its championship game, even though USC was ranked No. 1 in the AP and the ESPN/USA Today polls. The result was a split title, the very thing fans assumed the system would prevent. This year the BCS nears implosion again. USC, Oklahoma and Auburn are unbeaten, and there's a strong possibility they'll remain that way, guaranteeing that one worthy contender will be left out of the Orange Bowl, ostensibly the national championship game. Meanwhile a mediocre Boston College team (8--2 after beating Temple last Saturday) from the mediocre Big East needs one more win to earn an automatic spot in one of the BCS bowls. Payout: $14 million to $17 million.

Last Saturday, Utah's 52--21 win over Brigham Young virtually ensured that the undefeated Utes will finish in the BCS top six, becoming the first team from outside the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac10 and SEC to earn a place in one of the BCS games. In the aftermath of the Utes' victory, Meyer got a ride on fans' shoulders as he waved a sombrero, signifying a likely Fiesta Bowl invitation. The reasons to celebrate weren't all obvious. "Not long ago the NCAA legislated out the $750,000 free throw [by implementing revenue sharing for the NCAA basketball tournament]," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill three days before the Utes played BYU. "Well, on Saturday we're playing a $14 million football game."

Such issues will earn the BCS another December's worth of slings and arrows, but last weekend member schools solved a much bigger problem when they signed a new, four-year television contract with Fox. The situation had reached a critical point, underscoring the BCS's unsteady foundations, when current rights holder ABC pulled out of the negotiations last Friday. ABC, which had already renewed its contract with the Rose Bowl through 2014 for an increase in fees, offered 11% less annually for the other BCS bowls over the four-year life of the proposed deal, largely because of the addition of a fifth game that will increase access to non--BCS conferences but that BCS insiders and TV executives fear will water down the product. Fox will pay upwards of $80 million annually for the four non--Rose Bowls, a 4.5% increase in the total package but a drop in per-game average from $25.5 million to around $20 million. "People complain that we make decisions in the BCS based on money," says one BCS insider. "Well, of course it's about money. We're all running businesses: our bowls, the athletic directors, the television networks. Tell me what business accepts being told that over the next four years you'll have no revenue growth."

To understand the system, enroll in SI's three-part BCS 101 class.

LESSON I: How We Got Here

The process that led to the creation of the BCS in 1998 began seven years earlier, when college football was in the midst of a massive overhaul. Notre Dame had signed an exclusive contract with NBC. Onetime independents Florida State, Miami and Penn State had joined conferences. The SEC expanded to 12 teams and added a lucrative championship game; the Big 12 would soon be formed and do likewise. An air of insecurity hung over the sport, and bowls and conferences scurried to solidify their postseason tie-ins, forming first the Bowl Coalition (1992--94) and then the Bowl Alliance (1995--97). Those were improvements on the old system, under which deals for bowl berths were often struck in early November, but they didn't include the Rose Bowl and its partners, the Big Ten and Pac10.

In 1996 ABC, which owned the rights to the Rose Bowl, persuaded the Tournament of Roses, the Big Ten and the Pac10 to join the other four major conferences in a postseason system beginning in '98, then enlisted SEC commissioner Roy Kramer as coordinator. This arrangement--the BCS--increased the likelihood of getting No. 1 and No. 2 together in any given year, but that was just part of the value.

"One big factor was that this would be a system controlled by the commissioners and the major conferences," says a person who was involved with the '96 negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity. "There was noise back then about the NCAA getting involved in postseason football, and that was something nobody at the commissioner level wanted. This gave them control over where their teams went and how the money was shared."

Kramer, now retired, says, "There were several purposes, but clearly we wanted to preserve conference stability and the bowl structure." Those underpinnings continue to motivate the BCS powers.

LESSON II: Why It's Unsatisfactory

In its early form the BCS title game was meant to match up the top two teams in the polls. However, the AP and the football writers who vote in its poll balked. "They wanted to report the news, not make it," says Kramer. So a system was created that used not only the two polls but also computer rankings, which have become the biggest target on the BCS's back, for an obvious reason. "The system couldn't guarantee a One versus Two," says Tranghese. "We knew that from the beginning."

The public would like a full-blown eight- or 16-team playoff. "We're not going there; the presidents do not want it," says Pac10 commissioner Tom Hansen, voicing the BCS's mantra, usually couched in worry for the players' classroom schedule (sidebar, left).

The oft-discussed compromise is one extra game, played after the bowls, that matches the two teams still standing at No. 1 and No. 2. But while the BCS has agreed to add a fifth game for its next contract, that game does not create this hoped-for "plus-one" system. "That's also a playoff," says Hansen. "We aren't going there, either. ABC kept coming back to us with the plus-one, but it's not going to happen."

However, Miami president Donna Shalala suggests that the plus-one will not die easily. "We at Miami do not support a playoff bowl game," Shalala told SI. "But I think it's going to be a significant issue in the near future. There are going to be discussions."

LESSON III: Who's Left Out

Conferences outside the power six have sought access to the BCS bowls (and their money) from the start, and the fifth game, with two more at-large spots, is meant to meet that demand. But what the outsiders really want is the football equivalent of the NCAA basketball tournament's automatic bid. "The lower-level BCS-conference teams can be 1--10 every year but someday rise up and get a chance that we don't get," says Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. "It's all about access for us."

Why? Obviously, playing on the national stage boosts a program's profile. But the immediate, tangible payoff is even more important. Consider that the BCS currently throws the Mountain West and four other mid-major Division IA conferences a $1,050,000 annual bone. In the Mountain West that money is split among eight teams, in shares of $131,250. A Fiesta Bowl berth for Utah would bring the Utes more than $5 million and its conference brethren no less than $1 million.

BCS conferences budget this type of money every year. "We always count on X dollars in revenue sharing," says Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver. When the Hokies went to the national title game in '99 they earned more than $4 million. More than $1.5 million of that went to improving football facilities and coaches' salaries.

"I don't like the fact that we can't pay our assistant coaches enough," says Meyer. "That money would make a difference."

However, granting access to more teams from more conferences doesn't make everyone happy. This year Texas, No. 5 in the BCS rankings, will likely be driven out by Utah's guaranteed berth. "Good for them, bad for us," says Texas athletic director Deloss Dodds, a playoff proponent.

Bowls are not thrilled about selling tickets to representatives from mid-major conferences, especially for an extra game played at the national championship site, one week early, as will likely be the plan for the fifth BCS game. "It creates more supply, which is the worst possible thing for our industry," says the BCS insider. "You can't legislate a market. To argue that a 9--2 champion from a minor conference is as valuable to the bowls as 9--2 Nebraska, for instance, it won't work." Still, any new TV deal will increase access for mid-majors. While Utah has to finish in the top six in the BCS rankings for an automatic spot, future teams need finish only in the top 12.

on some levels the BCS is a roaring success. It has eliminated the antiquated bowl free-for-all and preserved the sport's cutthroat regular season, an underrated selling point. Plus, even controversy attracts attention. "Before the BCS our sport was getting flat," says Kramer. "Now we get interest in December we never got before. It's not all positive, but it's coverage."

The system, above all, has proved itself resilient. As long as the TV money keeps coming, the BCS will endure, shedding criticism like nonstick cookware and on occasion even putting together the perfect championship game. "We're going to see many more years like this," says Dodds. "There's no use in fighting it anymore."

ORANGE BOWL: It's Cal vs. Utah!

TO PLUMB the mind-boggling depths of the BCS's bowl-selection process, a team of SI analysts spent the better part of last weekend spinning bowl-lineup scenarios. We figured how the bowls will most likely look if all the top teams win out, imagined what the ideal bowl picture would be if BCS conference winners didn't have guaranteed slots, and came up with one among the many outrageous lineups within the realm of possibility. How crazy is the last? A Syracuse official, when informed on Sunday that his team (currently 5--5 and unranked in the BCS top 25) was still alive for a $14 million bowl, responded, "Really?"

Will Be

ORANGE: USC vs. Oklahoma

SUGAR: Auburn vs. Virginia Tech

ROSE: Cal vs. Michigan

FIESTA: Utah vs. Boston College

Should Be

ORANGE: USC vs. Oklahoma

SUGAR: Auburn vs. Louisville

ROSE: Cal vs. Boise State

FIESTA: Utah vs. Texas

Could Be*

ORANGE: Cal vs. Utah

SUGAR: Tennessee vs. Virginia

ROSE: USC vs. Michigan

FIESTA: Iowa State vs. Syracuse

*If: 1) USC loses to Notre Dame and UCLA to finish 10--2; the Pac-10 champ Trojans would play Big 10 champ Michigan. 2) Iowa State defeats Missouri to win the Big 12 North, then upsets Oklahoma in the conference title game. 3) Auburn loses to Tennessee in the SEC title game. 4) Cal beats Southern Mississippi and climbs to BCS No. 1. 5) Texas loses to Texas A&M; Utah rises to No. 2 in the BCS. 6) Virginia beats Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech beats Miami, leaving the Cavaliers, Hokies and Florida State in a tie in the ACC. The team with the highest BCS ranking--possibly Virginia--would get the bid. 7) Syracuse beats Boston College and Pitt beats West Virginia, leaving the Big East in a four-way tie among those teams. Because Syracuse and Pitt would tie for best head-to-head record among the four, the conference berth would go to the team with the higher BCS ranking or, if neither is in the BCS top 25, the better ranking in the BCS's 1 to 117 computer-poll compilation.


Illustration by Slim Films




Matt Leinart and Ryan Kalil, USC



Cedric Benson, Texas



J.J. Arrington, Cal