Anyone old enough to remember the pre-BCS bowl system can remember the years in which a chain reaction of results, not a single designated Championship Game, led to the crowning of a national titlist. One of the best-known chain reactions took place on January 2nd, 1984. Unbeaten Nebraska entered the day ranked number-one, with unbeaten Texas ranked second, 10-1 Auburn third, 10-1 Illinois fourth and 10-1 Miami fifth. In the opening game of the day, the Cotton Bowl, Texas fell to Georgia 10-9. Next, Illinois saw whatever slim national-title hopes it had brutally squashed in a 45-9 rout to unranked UCLA. That night in the Sugar Bowl Auburn sleepwalked through a 9-7 victory over Michigan, while in the Orange Bowl Miami toppled Nebraska 31-30. When the dust settled, the Hurricanes were National Champions.
Nowadays of course, Nebraska and Texas would meet in the BCS Championship Game, with everyone else jockeying for a place outside the top two spots. And that isn't a bad thing- when you have a clear-cut top two teams, it's always preferable for those teams to settle things on the field. Still, the separation of Nebraska and Texas on January 2nd, 1984, and the series of events that resulted in Miami winning the mythical crown made for an exciting eight hours. More teams had a hand in the process, and if it wasn't quite as definitive as it is now, it certainly made for good theater- theater that stretched out to encompass an entire day of New Year's football.
Which leads us to a question- all things considered, has the BCS been a better method to decide the National Championship than the old bowl system, with its chance meetings and chain reactions? In some cases yes- in some, no. On one hand, the BCS has given us a couple of classic one-versus-two match-ups that wouldn't have taken place under the old system- the 2003 Fiesta Bowl showdown between Ohio State and Miami and the '06 Rose Bowl shootout between Texas and USC. On another hand, in some years the BCS has only served to muddy the waters further, as it did in 2002 when top-ranked Miami met a Nebraska team that didn't win its own conference, or in 2004 when top-ranked LSU and AP number-one USC failed to meet.
Let's take a look back at the eleven years of the BCS through the lens of the old bowl system- or at any rate, my interpretation of the old bowl system- to see if, all told, the new system has proven superior to the old. The following is my take on how the major bowls would have lined up from 1998-08 under the old system, along with teams that benefit from the reconfiguration, teams that are hurt by it, and finally, my take on whether or not the old system would have been a better method than the BCS in that given year.
Fiesta: Texas A&M vs. Syracuse
Rose: Wisconsin vs. UCLA
Sugar: Tennessee vs. Ohio State
Orange: Florida State vs. Kansas State
Winner- Ohio State: The Buckeyes were pre-season number one, topped the polls for most of the regular season, and not a few observers still considered them the best team in the country even after Tennessee ran the table and won the BCS Championship. Yet they didn't get the opportunity to play for the title. Florida State, which shrewdly lost in September instead of November, got it instead, and turned in a listless, dispirited performance in a 23-16 loss to the Volunteers. Under this scenario Ohio State plays Tennessee, with an opportunity to claim the national title that seemed like its destiny up until November 7th. Kansas State can also be considered a winner for getting the major-bowl bid it deserved, as opposed to the Alamo Bowl bid it actually got.
Loser- Nobody, really: Florida State could be considered a loser for having its Championship Game berth downgraded to an Orange Bowl match-up- but it isn't as if the Seminoles grabbed the tiger by the tail in the title game anyway. The non-BCS arrangement works better than the BCS in this case- after all, under the latter you've got the last undefeated major-college team facing the team that was odds-on favorite for most of the season.
Better than the BCS? Yes. Tennessee-Ohio State would have been a better match-up than Tennessee-Florida State. Except maybe for the Vols.
Fiesta: Nebraska vs. Tennessee
Rose: Wisconsin vs. Stanford
Sugar: Alabama vs. Michigan
Orange: Florida State vs. Virginia Tech
Winner- Everyone: The bowl arrangements are the exact same as they actually were under the BCS, save for the venue-switch between FSU-Virginia Tech and Alabama-Michigan.
Loser- No one: Florida State and Virginia Tech were the clear-cut one-two in 1999, and they're still playing under a non-BCS format, so it's all good.
Better than the BCS? It's no different.
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Miami
Rose: Purdue vs. Washington
Sugar: Florida vs. Virginia Tech
Orange: Florida State vs. Oregon State
Winner- Miami: The Hurricanes defeated Florida State on the field in 2000 but were mysteriously passed over by the Seminoles for the right to play for the title. That doesn't happen here. Miami gets its shot, although given its checkered history in the Fiesta Bowl it might not be so fond of the venue.
Loser- Florida State: Just as in 1998, the Seminoles are deprived of a National Championship shot they hadn't done much to deserve in the first place. No team in the last twenty years has benefited more from the whims of pollsters and the capriciousness of fate more than Florida State. To wit:
1993: Awarded the National Championship over Notre Dame despite losing to the Irish in November.
1998: Finagle their way into the title game when Ohio State, Kansas State and UCLA all blow double-digit leads and lose late-season games.
2000: Reach the title game over Miami despite losing to the Hurricanes in October.
That's three cases of the Seminoles basically lucking their way into a shot at a national title- four if you count the Springs Slip in 1996.
Better than the BCS? Yes. Miami should have been in the title game over Florida State anyway.
Fiesta: Colorado vs. Miami
Rose: Illinois vs. Oregon
Sugar: LSU vs. Nebraska
Orange: Maryland vs. Florida
Winner- Nebraska: At least the Cornhuskers wouldn't have to face the Miami juggernaut, although a keyed-up LSU in the Superdome would have presented its own issues.
Loser- College Football Fans: There's nothing resembling a one-versus-two showdown in this scenario. Miami and Oregon still don't play; instead the Hurricanes and Ducks get two-loss opponents in what would likely be milk runs. There really isn't a notable football game to speak of here. Maryland's inclusion gives me pause as well. The Terps went 10-1 during the regular season, won the ACC Championship, but were uncompetitive in their lone loss- a 52-31 thrashing at the hands of Florida State- then got blown out by Florida in the Orange Bowl, 56-23. In the old days prior to FSU's joining the conference, an ACC team like Maryland wouldn't have sniffed a major bowl- they would have been relegated to the Gator or Citrus.
Better than the BCS? No better, no worse. The best match-up- the only match-up, really- was Miami-Oregon and that isn't happening under either scenario.
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Iowa
Rose: Ohio State vs. Washington State
Sugar: Georgia vs. Miami
Orange: Florida State vs. USC
Winner- Georgia: The Bulldogs, who went 13-1 and finished third in the final polls, get a shot at top-ranked Miami, with a possible National Championship in their grasp. There's a possibility that Georgia takes home the title with a win over Miami even if second-ranked Ohio State wins the Rose Bowl.
Loser- Ohio State: Instead of the dream match-up with Miami, the Buckeyes are off to the Rose Bowl to play a Washington State team they had pasted during the regular season. Beating the Cougars a second time wouldn't have captivated the pollsters; besides, same-season re-matches can be a tricky proposition, especially for the team that won the first game. The fact that the Big Ten title was split between Ohio State and Iowa doesn't help here; the Buckeyes had the best-record tie-breaker over the Hawkeyes, so there would no chance of Jim Tressel's team being allowed out of its Rose Bowl obligation to play Miami while Iowa heads west.
Better than the BCS? No. The purest form of National Championship Game is the one between the final two undefeated teams. Thanks to the BCS, the 2002 season climaxed in just such a game; one that ranks among the greatest in the history of the sport. The old system would have deprived college football fans of this classic showdown, just as it deprived them of Miami-Washington in 1991 and Nebraska-Penn State in 1994.
Fiesta: Kansas State vs. Ohio State
Rose: Michigan vs. USC
Sugar: LSU vs. Oklahoma
Orange: Florida State vs. Miami
Winner- Nobody: The Bengals still get the de facto home game against an Oklahoma team that was ruthlessly exposed by Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship, but they don't get what they and their fans really wanted- an opportunity to play USC, the Associated Press champion. Making matters worse for LSU, the absence of the BCS and the predominance of the AP would also rob them of any part of the National Championship. If Tiger fans were disgruntled by the half-loaf quality of their 2003 title, they'd be irate at the prospect of finishing behind USC altogether.
Loser- Everybody: See above.
Better than the BCS? Unsatisfactory in both cases.
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Utah
Sugar: Auburn vs. Texas
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh
Winner- Utah: Instead of three-loss Pittsburgh, the undefeated Utes get a shot at undefeated Oklahoma in the season's only match-up between teams with perfect records. Whether Utah would have received a major bowl bid at all in a non-BCS system is another story altogether.
Loser- USC: Another Rose Bowl match-up with Michigan instead of the chance to humiliate second-ranked Oklahoma and prove to the nation that it is without peer on the football field.
Better than the BCS? No. As ugly as it turned out to be, USC-Oklahoma was at least a somewhat legitimate title game. Auburn would feel left out in the cold in either case- then again, maybe the Tigers should have scheduled a little more adventurously out of conference in 2004, instead of gorging on Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech and the Citadel.
Fiesta: Texas vs. Notre Dame
Rose: Penn State vs. USC
Sugar: Georgia vs. Ohio State
Orange: Florida State vs. West Virginia
Winner- Penn State: Under the BCS system the Lions were deprived of a Rose Bowl trip and a shot at USC, with the National Championship as a reward for a victory over the Trojans. Instead they went to Miami and took on 8-5 Florida State in a battle of geriatric coaches.
Loser- Texas: The undefeated, second-ranked Longhorns don't get an opportunity to win the title on the field against USC. Vince Young could have piled up 500 total yards against Notre Dame's feeble defense- and probably would have- but it would have gone for naught had USC beaten Penn State in Pasadena.
Better than the BCS? No. See 2002.
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. LSU
Rose: Ohio State vs. USC
Sugar: Florida vs. Michigan
Orange: Wake Forest vs. Louisville
Winner- Michigan: Losers to Ohio State in the ballyhooed 1-vs-2 match-up on November 18, 2006, the Wolverines would get another, if indirect, shot at the National Championship, provided they beat Florida and USC beats Ohio State.
Loser- Florida: The Gators get the same indirect National Championship shot as Michigan. But it's a far cry from the direct shot they had when they routed Ohio State 41-14 in the 2007 BCS title game. Even a similar dispatching of the Wolverines would be good only for a second-place finish in the polls if Ohio State beats USC in Pasadena. Florida would probably still win the title under this system- I think the Gators would have beaten Michigan and I don't think the Buckeyes would have beaten USC in the Rose Bowl- but it's always better to have the chance to win it on the field than to hope for help from elsewhere.
Better than the BCS? No better, no worse. Florida's claim to a spot in the title game was really no more valid than Michigan's- both teams had one loss, and Michigan's was to the top-ranked team at the time. The Gators deserved their spot at the top after destroying Ohio State, but it's possible that USC would have served the Buckeyes in the same fashion in the Rose Bowl.
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Georgia
Sugar: LSU vs. West Virginia
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Missouri
Winner- West Virginia: LSU was generally considered the best team in the country throughout the glorious mess that was the 2007 season, and even though the Bayou Bengals were only the second-ranked team going into the bowls- Ohio State was number one- it's conceivable that a win for West Virginia in New Orleans, along with the right combination of falling dominoes elsewhere, would have vaulted the Mountaineers to the top of the polls for the first time in the history of that program. By the way, LSU-West Virginia would have been a fantastic match-up, much better than the Ohio State-LSU title game.
Loser- Hawaii: Like Boise State the previous season, the undefeated Rainbows would have gone unnoticed by the major bowls in the old system- or at least my version of the old system. Rewarding a team that gets through the Mountain West unscathed is one thing- see Utah in 2004 and '08- but giving a major-bowl bid to a WAC team is quite another. Beating the daylights out of a bunch of Big Sky-caliber opponents only means so much. And yes, I'm aware that Boise beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. I'm also aware that Boise lost to East Carolina in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl and to the third-place team in the Mountain West in the '08 Poinsettia Bowl, and that Hawaii didn't belong on the same field as Georgia in the '08 Sugar Bowl.
Better than the BCS? Yes. LSU-West Virginia would have been a better match-up than Ohio State-LSU, and in a season like this, with no undefeated major-college teams and only one major-college team with fewer than two losses, there's really no logic to picking two teams to play for the National Championship. There would have been more drama in letting the entire big-bowl schedule play out and picking a titlist based on the outcome.
Fiesta: Texas vs. Utah
Sugar: Florida vs. Oklahoma
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati
Winner- Oklahoma: With no BCS, there is no Big 12 tie-breaker based on the BCS rankings, and thus Texas gets the conference title and Fiesta Bowl auto-bid while Oklahoma gets an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl and a shot at top-ranked Florida with the National Championship in the balance.
Loser- Texas: The Longhorns just can't win under either scenario. Their reward for being declared the Big 12 Champion here is the Fiesta Bowl and a match-up with unbeaten Utah, in a game that would have absolutely no bearing on who wins the title. Even with the regular-season win over Oklahoma, Texas would still finish second at best in the polls if the Sooners beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl- which they wouldn't have anyway.
Better than the BCS? No different. Florida and Oklahoma would still play for the title, with an arguably more deserving Texas team on the outside looking in.
So what's the final tally according to Yours Truly? Out of eleven years, I've got three in which the BCS was superior to the old system, three in which the old system was superior, and five in which it didn't make a real difference one way or another. In other words, it's basically a toss-up. In years where there are two undisputed heavyweights at the top of the pile the BCS does its job to the best of its ability. But in all those other years where things are less definitive, maybe it would be best to do it the old way, and let that 1984-style chain reaction play out.