COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, coaches, players and administrators, we are gathered here today to say farewell to the Bowl Championship Series. I'm sure many of you would say the 2014 season can't arrive soon enough. But please, could we put our grievances aside and pay our proper respects? I'm looking at you, '04 Auburn Tigers. Also, space is a bit tight in this room, so perhaps the LSU and USC championship teams from '03 could share seats? Alas, there was not enough room to invite both the Oklahoma and the Texas teams from '08, so we let a computer decide. (Congrats again, Sooners!) And all you undefeated Boise State teams, we'd love to have you too, but perhaps you could peek in from a door in the back?
The BCS has not been beloved, but I'm sure if it could speak for itself it would say, "I tried." Created in 1998 as an alliance between the most powerful conferences and the most prestigious bowls, it was built upon what seemed at the time to be a revolutionary concept: the top two teams in the nation should face off in an officially sanctioned national championship game. Many of the younger folks here today may find it hard to believe, but for much of the last 60 years we had simply sent the Big Ten and the Pac-10 champs off to the Rose Bowl, the Big Eight champ to the Orange Bowl, etc. Then we waited for the voters to tell us who was No. 1.
We were hoping BCS executive director Bill Hancock would speak today, but he is pulling double duty as the executive director of the new College Football Playoff. Alabama coach Nick Saban seemed a logical choice too, but the winner of four BCS trophies said he was too busy breaking down tape of Week 5 opponent Georgia State. And we reached out to several BCS bowl directors, but they were all on the golf course.
So I'll pay tribute to our soon-to-be extinct friend. My support might come as a surprise, since I spent years advocating for the very four-team playoff that will replace the BCS after the 2014 regular season. This new postseason tournament will be more fulfilling than the current version, but as a fan and a journalist I will miss the BCS, primarily because of the entertainment value it provided—on and off the field.
College football's long-awaited shift to a playoff will have an impact on more than just the games played in January. Love it or hate it (and most fall in the latter category), the BCS made college football's regular season more dramatic than any other sport's. Just look at the NCAA's slogan, "Where every game counts." (Stop laughing!) Case in point: Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. The day began with three undefeated teams, No. 1 Kansas State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Notre Dame. As has been the custom in the BCS era, fans had spent the week feverishly debating which two should play for the championship if all three were to hold serve, ignoring 14 years of evidence that this scenario almost never happens. (Apologies, again, to the undefeated 2004 Auburn Tigers.) And then, in one suspenseful evening, everything changed. While 4--5 Baylor was delivering a 52--24 smackdown to 10--0 Kansas State, the 10--0 Ducks found themselves in an uncharacteristic defensive struggle with 8--2 Stanford. Oregon had routed its previous 10 opponents by an average margin of 32.5 points and was widely considered the most capable challenger to the SEC's hegemony. But when Jordan Williamson's 37-yard field goal in overtime sealed a 17--14 Cardinal upset, Oregon went from national title hopeful to eventual Pac-12 North runner-up. That's how quickly a team's fate can change under the BCS system. And that's why viewers in Tuscaloosa, South Bend and many other college towns were on the edge of their seats for a pair of games involving other teams.
THERE WILL still be crucial late-season games in the post-BCS era, but they will more likely involve teams ranked fourth or fifth than No. 1s or No. 2s. The same goes for momentous early-season games. Only in college football does a game in the third week of the season carry championship consequences, as will be the case on Sept. 14 when Texas A&M hosts No. 1 Alabama in a rematch of last year's landmark Aggies upset. While it's certainly possible the loser will climb back into the national title picture, that's far from guaranteed. The loser will have to hope that no more than one team finishes undefeated. In the playoff era, however, the result will be largely inconsequential outside the SEC. A highly ranked team that loses early will almost certainly be given one of the top four spots if it wins its remaining games.
I'm hearing another round of grumbling in the audience, and I see it's coming from 2011 Oklahoma State. I get it. As you guys learned painfully well, an SEC team (Alabama) can lose to another (LSU) late in the regular season and still get a chance to play that team again in the BCS title game. It was at a meeting on the morning after that dreadful 21--0 Alabama rematch victory in the Superdome that previously adamant BCS defenders like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany finally began to consider a playoff. They had no choice. The public outcry against the BCS had become so passionate that officials could no longer plausibly defend it. It wasn't just the on-field controversies. By 2011 the BCS had been the subject of multiple congressional and judicial inquiries and a salacious scandal involving former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, who spent $1,241 of the nonprofit's money to "conduct business" at a Phoenix strip club. The addition of a fifth BCS bowl in 2006 was intended to appease the smaller conferences by giving more access to programs such as Utah's and Boise State's, but the plan backfired. The 10 least watched BCS bowl games have all been played since '06. The championship game, which has occurred as late as Jan. 10 and as many as six weeks after one of the participant's last regular-season game, is usually sloppy and lopsided. Auburn's 22--19 win over Oregon in 2011 was the only one out of the last seven in which the margin of victory was fewer than 10 points.
WITH THE exception of its archaic logo, the CFP is off to a roaring start—which could not be more different from the way the BCS kicked off. Back in 1998, SEC commissioner and BCS architect Roy Kramer devised a convoluted matrix for selecting the top two teams that mixed the traditional AP and coaches polls with three computer rankings. If that wasn't confusing enough, he added five more computer rankings the next year.
In 1998, Kansas State finished 11--1 and No. 3 in the BCS standings but was still not invited to play in any BCS game. No one had considered such a snub was possible, so the six major conference commissioners made it a rule that the No. 3 team would get an automatic bid to the BCS. In 2000 an 11--1 Florida State team (No. 2 in the BCS) got in ahead of a 10--1 Miami team (No. 3) that had handed the Seminoles their lone defeat. No one had foreseen that scenario either, so they tweaked the formula the next year to prevent it. It continued this way for years, with the commissioners basically running one of sports' most visible events as a side job.
Somehow, amid those near-annual absurdities, the BCS still produced some of the sport's most indelible moments—Ohio State ending Miami's 34-game unbeaten streak with a 31--24 double-overtime 2003 Fiesta Bowl win; Vince Young completing one of the college game's most implausible comebacks, against the Trojans in the '06 Rose Bowl; Ian Johnson's Statue of Liberty play (and subsequent on-screen proposal to his cheerleader girlfriend) for Boise State in the '07 Fiesta Bowl.... I see Delany rushing to get back on stage, but I already know what he's going to say—none of those three bowl matchups would have occurred without the BCS.
The new playoff will be no less controversial than the BCS, but there should be considerably less angst. The next generation of snubbed teams and their fan bases will likely direct their fury at the selection committee rather than the entire system. And more than a year before the CFP's launch, the calls have already begun to expand the field to eight. If nothing else, the BCS can be commended for getting us where we are now. For that, we owe Kramer and his cohort a debt of gratitude.
Finally, as you depart today, please note that those of you who failed to fill your allotted seats for this event will still be charged full price for the tickets, along with the required six-night hotel minimum. We welcome you to stay for the postceremony reception, where you can munch on unlimited Tostitos while watching a replay of last year's Orange Bowl, in which Florida State thrashed Northern Illinois 31--10. I know most of you missed it the first time. And as you leave, be sure to savor every moment of the coming season, the last time the national championship can be won or lost on any given Saturday. Don't worry, Alabama, that axiom probably doesn't apply to you after playing in, and winning, the past two title games despite suffering November losses. Consistency in logic was never a BCS hallmark. That's what made it fun.
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Illustration by BRYAN CHRISTIE DESIGN
EVERY GAME COUNTS ... LESS With the BCS disappearing in 2014, this will be the last season that a spot in the title game can be won or lost in any given week.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HITTING PAY DIRT The epic comeback by Young (10) and Texas against USC in the '06 title game was just one historic moment that wouldn't have happened without the BCS.