Does BCS trump the old bowl system?

Originally Published: August 6, 2009
By Jemele Hill and David Schoenfield | Page 2

David Schoenfield: OK, let's get this out of the way: A playoff system isn't going to happen. We know most fans want one, but you may as well dream about Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer spending a week together on Marco Island. So the real debate here is whether the current BCS system is better than the old bowl system, when conference winners all had automatic bowl tie-ins.

Jemele, I hate to bring bad news, but I think my side of the debate is easier than Florida's nonconference schedule. (Seriously, Gators fans, you should be embarrassed about a slate that includes Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International, especially in a season in which you don't play either Alabama or Mississippi.)

No, the current system isn't perfect, but it does prevent scenarios such as what happened in 1984 from happening again. That season, BYU was ranked No. 1 heading into the bowls -- and played an unranked, mediocre 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars won 24-17, though it was hardly impressive. In fact, they didn't beat a single team that finished the season ranked in the top 20. Yet they were "crowned" (err … voted) national champs. Under the current system, they would have been forced to play a worthy opponent, such as Oklahoma or Washington, and prove themselves a deserving No. 1 team.

[+] EnlargeLaVell Edwards
AP Photo/Phillip DaviesBYU players carry coach LaVell Edwards after winning the 1984 Holiday Bowl, and ultimately, the national title.

Jemele Hill: You went back to 1984?? There are only two things I remember about that year -- Michael Jackson's hair catching on fire and my Detroit Tigers winning the World Series. Look, the Bowl Championship Series is like the French judge at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The BCS just doesn't work because it's a system that (A) isn't completely inclusive; (B) is based on the silly assumption that the nation's top two teams are easily identifiable; and (C) laughably believes it's creating healthy debate and controversy. Wrong! The old bowl system created just as much debate and, more importantly, gave you a reason to watch most of the bowl games. Let me take you back to 1991. These were the major bowl matchups: No. 1 Miami vs. No. 11 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, No. 2 Washington vs. No. 4 Michigan in the Rose and No. 3 Florida vs. No. 18 Notre Dame in the Sugar. Those games were all essentially national title games, even though Miami and Washington wound up splitting the title. The point is, it provided drama and must-see games (note the plurality). If the old bowl system were in place last season, the games involving USC, Penn State, Texas, Utah and Alabama would all have been unbelievably important. Instead, the air got sucked out of the BCS national title game because everyone was complaining that Utah got jobbed.

DS: Ahh, 1991 … as a Seattle native, I'm glad you brought up that season. While true that the dogfight for No. 1 added potential drama to all three bowl games, the fact is that none of the games themselves had drama: Miami beat Nebraska 22-0, Washington clobbered Michigan 34-14 (Steve Emtman crushed the Michigan offensive line that day) and Florida, without anything to play for, lost 39-28 to a three-loss Notre Dame team. The game that would have provided the most drama would have been Miami vs. Washington, two of the most dominant teams of the past 20 years, battling for the national title.

For the most part, that's what we get today, and it's what most fans want. Sure, there are seasons when it's unclear who the top two teams might be, but we know this: the current system means the winner of the BCS title game has to earn it on the field by defeating a highly ranked opponent. We don't end up with situations like 1990, when Colorado (11-1-1) shared the national title with Georgia Tech (11-0-1), with the Buffaloes defeating No. 5, two-loss Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl and Tech beating No. 19 Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl.

Brian Johnson
AP Photo/Dave MartinBrian Johnson and Utah settled for a Sugar Bowl victory last season instead of an invite to the BCS Championship Game.

Or 1993, when Florida State and Notre Dame both ended up with one defeat, but FSU was voted the national champion even though Notre Dame had defeated the Seminoles in the regular season. Or 1994, when Nebraska and Penn State both went undefeated, but Penn State got stuck playing 9-3 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Wouldn't you have loved to have seen those offensive powerhouses play for all the marbles? I know I would have.

JH: My young Padawan, the last thing the BCS does is let teams settle things on the field. It "settles" things using a complicated computer formula that would make Isaac Newton feel like a moron. College football was not meant to be figured out by decimal points. I shouldn't have to add and carry the one to figure out who plays for the national title. I don't disagree that the BCS produces exciting, tantalizing matchups, just not always the right matchups. How was the BCS settling things in 2003, when Oklahoma played for the national title, despite being whooped by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game 35-7? How was the BCS settling things when we wound up with a split champion, LSU and USC, that season? How does the BCS settle things when three times in the past five years we've seen undefeated teams left out of its fraudulent national championship game? The old system didn't always work, but I would take 1994's Penn State-Nebraska scenario over the mess often created by these computers. Under the old system, not knowing was part of the fun. Under the old system, if Utah or Boise State had finished unbeaten, their fans would just have proclaimed themselves national champions and nobody could do a thing to argue against it.

[+] EnlargeRay Zellars
AP Photo/Joe RaymondRay Zellars and the Irish beat Florida State in 1993, but the Seminoles won the title even though both teams had one loss.

DS: Why the hate for the computers? Did "Tron" scare you as a child? The voters actually carry more weight in determining the top two teams than the computers, but here's why involving the computers is a good thing: They factor in strength of schedule. In a perfect world, that forces teams to configure tougher schedules, which creates better regular-season matchups, which makes the entire season more exciting. (Granted, that doesn't apply to SEC teams, who apparently try to put together the easiest nonconference slates possible. Alabama's nonconference opponents this season include Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga, and Nick Saban would probably host the Alabama School for the Blind if it fielded a team. Congratulations, Alabama! Be proud.) Anyway, I loved the old system, but I like even better the fact that a team can't back into a national title. As for Utah, I watched its victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It was a thrilling game, and the stadium was full of excited fans. It sure seemed to matter -- even if it wasn't for the national title. The system works.

JH: It wasn't "Tron." It was "War Games." Moving on … I'm beginning to think you've got something against the SEC. What happened? Did you get a bad bag of boiled peanuts? Put down your Tim Tebow voodoo doll for a minute and listen to reason. You just argues the BCS discourages soft nonconference scheduling except for the SEC. Guess which conference has won three consecutive BCS titles and four of the past six -- the SEC. So, if anything, maybe the BCS is actually fueling the cupcake diet for many football factories. The BCS is like a broken-down Mercedes. It's slick and shiny, but can't get you from Point A to Point B. Besides, I miss the traditional conference matchups -- the Pac-10 versus the Big Ten every year in the Rose Bowl and the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. C'mon, Dave, rage against the machines.

Jemele Hill | email, ESPN The Magazine