American Enterprise Online | 12.9.04
Alan W. Dowd

What if the World Series or Super Bowl was determined not by a playoff to match the best of the best on the field of competition, but by an average of computer rankings and sportswriters’ opinions? Well, in 2004, we would end up with the Yankees and Cardinals in the Series (sorry, Boston fans), and the Eagles and the Steelers in the Super Bowl (sorry again, Boston fans).

It’s unthinkable, but that’s exactly what happens in Division I college football—the only major sport I know of that doesn’t settle things on the field. Supporters of the Bowl Championship Series—a strange amalgam of the six major athletic conferences and a quartet of bowl games—will disagree, of course. In their view, the BCS has done what it promised to do: guarantee a #1 vs. #2 match-up in January. But the BCS actually promised to do much more: determine a national champion.

It will fail to do that this year, just as it failed last year. Why? Because a two-team playoff, as those examples from other corners of the sports world illustrate, leaves too much room for error and doubt. With five undefeated teams heading into the heart of the bowl season, the odds are that there will be more questions than answers in the college football world at the conclusion of the bowl games next week.

But that begs another question: Why don’t those conferences and bowls change the system to create a multi-team playoff, and thus avoid this annual argument?

Some say the answer is academics. But that rings a bit hollow. After all, if academics were really that important, would university presidents allow their “student-athletes” to play on weeknights? (Tuesday and Thursday night football match-ups sometimes run past 10 p.m.; likewise, made-for-TV college basketball games sometimes don’t even tip off until 9:30 p.m.) Would they allow star players to juggle class schedules and study time to do a dozen interviews with a dozen different TV and radio programs during the week? Would it make sense to fly these “student-athletes” all over the country—often at the expense of time in the classroom—for glamour TV match-ups?  

Some say the reason for the BCS stubbornness is a desire to preserve the traditional bowl system, which has been around for about a century. The bowl system ensures that a couple dozen teams will end their seasons on a high note, rather than just one. And it generates a good amount of revenue: Last year, for example, conferences and schools took home $181 million from bowl games.

Speaking of money, some say that’s the answer to the BCS stubbornness, but there is more to it than money. To be sure, the six conferences that are part of the BCS—the AtlanticCoast, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Big East, Pac 10, and Southeastern Conferences—make a lot of money off the BCS system. Each school fielding a team in a BCS bowl is guaranteed to bring home between $14 and $17 million this January.

Yet if it’s only a matter of money, an authentic playoff could generate far more in revenue, at least if the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is any guide. CBS signed a gaudy $6-billion, eleven-year deal with the NCAA in 1999 to televise every second of “March Madness.” That’s about $540 million per year. There is every indication that a college football tournament would generate just as much television and advertising revenue.  

I would submit that the perpetuation of this half-measure known as the BCS is a byproduct of power and the desire to hold on to it. As Tom Layden of Sports Illustrated has observed, “The Bowl Championship Series is essentially a house game run by the AtlanticCoast, Big Ten, Big East (for now), Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern Conferences, along with Notre Dame. These 63 colleges have a setup whereby they control the championship system and its incumbent revenue.”  

Is there a solution? Yes, and a very sound and sensible one. But another round of postseason BCS tweaking is not it.

To legitimize its national championship and retain the unique flavor of the bowl season, college football should hold a bona fide national championship tournament at the major bowl sites—a “Tournament of Bowls.”

This would address the real problem with the BCS, which is not so much who’s #1 and #2, but who’s #3, #4,# 5,# 6, and so on. Neither computers nor coaches nor columnists can decide if an 11-0 Utah is better than a 12-0 Auburn, or if 10-1 Cal is better than a 10-1 Texas. The BCS "solution" of a two-team championship leaves too much power in the pollsters’ hands and the computers’ chips, and it leaves far too much room for controversy.

The model for Division I football is Division I basketball’s March Madness. We love that fortnight-plus of hoops because of its surprises, tradition, drama and emotion. But we love it as well because of its honesty and simplicity: Conference champions are guaranteed a ticket to the “Big Dance;” another batch of teams is invited from an at-large pool by a committee of experts; and then they compete for the right to be called “National Champion”—no arguments, controversies or what-ifs. The real madness, it seems, is to try to decide a championship in any other way.

BCS-backers are quick to argue that a playoff would render college football’s regular season meaningless. A corollary to this view is that the BCS transforms the entire college football season into a kind or single-elimination tournament, every week demanding a team’s best effort and thus producing high-drama and high-quality football.

But that’s yet another hollow argument. First, neither the college basketball season nor the NFL regular season is meaningless. In a Tournament of Bowls, as in the NFL playoffs or NCAA Tournament, the regular season would still mean a great deal. After all, it would decide if a team makes the playoffs—and almost as important, it would determine where, who and when each team would play in the playoffs. (Ask the Patriots and Steelers if the regular season means anything.)

Speaking of which, what kind of tournament would have one team’s road to the championship include Ball State, Rutgers, Massachusetts and Temple (not exactly the top tier of college football); and another’s include games against Iowa, Purdue, Notre Dame and Ohio State? Certainly not a legitimate one, yet that’s what can happen under the BCS system.

A legitimate championship would have to include more than two teams in its playoff, but how much is enough? The more teams included in the championship process, the less room there will be for human bias and error. However, too many teams would definitely dilute the regular season.

Contrary to the proponents of the BCS, a 16-team playoff would be relatively easy to put in place. Eleven spots in the field of 16 could be filled automatically by conference champions (as is the case in the Division I Basketball Tournament). The remaining five spots could be filled by at-large teams, which might include runners-up from the so-called power conferences, such as Texas or California; and worthy teams from mid-major conferences, such as this year’s trio of Cinderellas—Boise State, Utah and Louisville.

A committee comprised of athletic directors, NCAA officials and former coaches could select the at-large schools, seed the teams from 1 to 16, and balance the placement of the teams by strength and region. The committee could use computers, polls and power ratings as tools in the selection process, rather than surrendering the selection process to them—as the BCS does.

BCS defenders argue that a 16-team tournament merely shifts the anger from the third-ranked team to seventeenth-ranked team. Yet it’s important to remember that in a Tournament of Bowls, unlike the BCS, every Division I program would have a chance to compete for the National Championship. All they would have to do is win their conference championship.

A 16-team tournament is arguably just large enough for Division I football. Recall that college football has just over 100 Division I programs, while college basketball has well over 300. Thus, NCAA basketball’s 65-team tournament represents about 20 percent of the eligible schools. A 16-team football tournament would represent about 14 percent of eligible programs.

So what do I mean by a “Tournament of Bowls”? With those structural changes in place, the current BCS bowl sites—Pasadena (Rose Bowl), Tempe (Fiesta Bowl), New Orleans (Sugar Bowl), and Miami (Orange Bowl)—would host two first-round games each. The first game could be held on a Friday evening in early December, the other on the following afternoon.

A week later, on the following Saturday, those same bowl sites could then host one game each to determine college football’s Final Four. A week later, a site chosen prior to the season (as in college basketball) could host the National Semifinal. Possible sites could range from Syracuse in the East to Indianapolis or Detroit in the Midwest to Tampa or Atlanta in the South to San Diego or San Antonio in the West.

Finally, sometime around New Year’s Day, Pasadena, Tempe, New Orleans or Miami could host the National Championship game on a rotating basis.

By beginning and concluding this tournament at the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and Sugar Bowl, the unique atmosphere and prestige of the major bowls would be preserved, even as a genuine championship is forged.

Those teams not invited to participate in the Tournament of Bowls could still compete in other traditional bowl games, which could be held during weeknights prior to January 1, as most of them already are.

Since most of the Tournament of Bowls would be held during winter break, after or before final exams, the loss of classroom time would be negligible. In fact, the football tournament would almost certainly cut in to less classroom time than the basketball tournament.

Plus, a Tournament of Bowls would bring college football into the modern world of sports, where champions are crowned based on head-to-head competition and on-the-field performance. December would become for college football what March is for basketball—a showcase for the best programs in America, a celebration of the sport, and a time when champions are made.

But that won’t happen until the people who run the BCS conferences realize that holding a legitimate playoff and crowning a legitimate champion is better for college football than holding on to power.