College Football Final Exam Shootaround: Grantland Bids Adieu to the BCS
On Monday night, Florida State beat Auburn with a thrilling last-minute touchdown drive. The Seminoles’ victory ended the SEC’s streak of seven consecutive national championships, but it also put a bow on something far more fundamental: the BCS era.
Next season, the four-team College Football Playoff will commence. But before we say good-bye forever to the BCS, Grantland’s college football enthusiasts wanted to share some final thoughts. Some of us will miss the BCS. Some of us really, really won’t. Many of us will carry a specific BCS memory through the ages. We talked a lot about Notre Dame. And, weirdly, a whole lot about the Fiesta Bowl. Maybe it really was for all the Tostitos …
Careful What You Wish For
Chris B. Brown: The fate of the BCS was decided on a late November weekend in 2011 — a weekend dubbed “F--- It Saturday” after Lee Corso dropped an F-bomb on College GameDay while a stunned Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit tried not to break character. No. 2 Oklahoma State, no. 4 Oregon, no. 5 Oklahoma, and no. 7 Clemson all lost, paving the way for an LSU-Alabama rematch in the BCS title game.
The immortal LSUFreek summed up the weekend in the following GIF:
As grisly as that GIF is, it perfectly captures the gravity of those losses: They meant everything, just like this year’s Alabama-Auburn game did. The all-SEC title clash after the 2011 season created the final momentum needed to replace the BCS with a playoff, but “F--- It Saturday” was incredible, and as we gain games under a playoff, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the regular-season clashes that have defined college football for so long.
That’s not the only question, of course. The larger issue is figuring out how we should determine a sport’s “champion.” The wildly unpopular BCS was one method, while the new College Football Playoff will be another, but I’m referring to something more fundamental: What criteria should we use to determine who gets the title?
One answer is that the champion should be the season’s “best team,” possibly defined as the best overall team or the team we think would be favored to beat every other team on a neutral field. Another answer is the “most deserving team,” loosely defined as the team that produced the best overall season. These two things are not always the same. It’s perfectly possible for the best team — i.e., the most formidable — to lose a close game or even two on a bad kick or a fluke play, while another team runs the table by winning close games.
In theory, the now obsolete BCS was designed to create a championship game by blending these two approaches: The coaches’ poll would reward the teams that had put together the best seasons, while the computers would crunch numbers to objectively measure the strongest teams. In practice, however, the BCS was incoherent and flawed. If the computers spit out data the voters didn’t like, the computers were changed, and the coaches’ poll has long been riddled with inexplicable results.
And so, the BCS is dead. In the last few years, many fans and pundits allowed the word “playoff” to take on something of a talismanic quality. Replacing the BCS with a playoff system would surely cure the evils of the BCS, they thought, and quite possibly “save the sport” by “settling things on the field.”
Here’s the problem: A playoff does not even attempt to crown either the best or most deserving team. The very purpose of a playoff or tournament is the exact opposite: No matter a team’s talent or apparent destiny, everything can be undone on a single day by a single bounce of the ball. (Admittedly, that’s actually the allure of a playoff, hence why they call it March Madness.) Yet we’ve become so accustomed to playoffs that it’s difficult for us to think of any other way of selecting a champion. (Playoff-think is such a dominant paradigm that Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight proposed mitigating some of the arbitrary tendencies of the NFL playoffs by giving points to teams that had better seasons than their opponents before the games even start.)
The primary advantage of a playoff is certainty, and after years of endless BCS debate — which followed decades of debate under the earlier bowl systems — certainty has real allure. But in most sports that have playoffs, like the NFL or the NBA, the criteria for getting to the playoffs is basically objective. Most playoff spots are decided based on win/loss records, with certain mechanical tiebreakers in place and known in advance. It’s not that the playoff crowns the best or most deserving team — just ask the 10-6 New York Giants that knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It’s that the loser has nothing to complain about: Everyone knows the rules.
Yet the new College Football Playoff lacks the very thing that makes playoffs in other sports so palatable, namely a semblance of objective certainty. While the defective BCS formula should have been interred long ago, it has been replaced by a Council of Platonic Guardians. The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet confidentially, then announce the identities of the playoff participants by edict. That’s not exactly what I’d call “settling it on the field.”
Most fans realize the new system is flawed, but figure it’ll be an improvement over the BCS since we’ll be talking about no. 4 versus no. 5 rather than no. 2 versus no. 3. Maybe so. But that logic works even better for no. 8 versus no. 9, and better still for no. 16 versus no. 17. And while an eight- or 16-team college football tournament sounds genuinely amazing, it’s naive to think that wouldn’t have a real effect on how the regular season actually works. It also makes me wonder what happened to trying to crown the best or most deserving team as champion, rather than the team that happened to win a single-elimination tournament.
I’m not at all sad to see the BCS go, but I’m not sure any playoff, let alone this particular playoff, will solve much in a world of conference realignment and more than 100 FBS teams scattered across the country. It was time to do something — but that something better not mess with my F--- It Saturday.
10 Reasons I’ll Miss the BCS
1. College football is supposed to drive people crazy.
2. Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel. Whether it was his columns or his book, it was always fun watching him use logic and sanity to expose exactly how crazy this whole enterprise has been all along. This became part of the college football experience, too.
3. The executives were some of the most openly corrupt humans in sports. Everyone go savor this article about John Junker’s expense reports. This system was so corrupt you couldn’t help but be a little impressed.
4. Stupid corporate Twitter accounts aside, every game mattered. That’s why the college football regular season has always been more fun than the NFL regular season.
5. Two years ago, on November 18, 2011, I was at a restaurant on a Friday night in Eugene, Oregon. Everyone was eating and minding his or her business, but gradually the whole place noticed that the no. 2 team in the country, Oklahoma State, was struggling with Iowa State. If the Pokes lost, it would mean that no. 3 Oregon would have the inside track to the national title game. So I watched as everyone in the bar turned into die-hard Iowa State fans for the last 90 minutes of that game, and a random Friday-night game in Iowa turned a bar in Oregon ecstatic. It was great.
6. The next day, I went to the USC-Oregon game, watched Oregon go down 24-7 in the third quarter, then come all the way back, only to lose in the worst way possible at the end. The roller coaster of those 24 hours in Oregon was the absolute best, mostly because of the BCS drama looming over everything. And the BCS gave us a weekend like that at least once a year.
7. This is from Monday’s title game. It looked kind of gross, but I ate the entire thing, and it tasted a lot better than you’d expect. Possible BCS metaphor? I don’t know.
8. The first year of the BCS, the final Saturday of the regular season brought us Edgerrin James taking down undefeated UCLA and Texas A&M taking down undefeated Kansas State. It was the best kind of chaos. Tennessee stayed undefeated that year and wound up winning the national title. And the Vols were the best team. The final year of the BCS ended with the Iron Bowl, the SEC championship game, and Michigan State taking down Ohio State to give us Auburn vs. Florida State, and one of the best title games we’ve ever seen. In the end, the best team won this year, too. This system worked more than people realize.
9. Every game will still matter with a playoff, and we’ll still have all those amazing weekends full of anarchy. And if it’s corruption you want, then college football will still have plenty of it. But nothing will ever drive people crazy quite like the BCS.
10. It was a complete mess, full of corrupt executives, and at least one team got royally screwed every year. But that’s college football! That’s the sport I fell in love with. The threat of being screwed by an unfair system really just adds to the drama. The only thing cheering me up now is knowing that filling the four-team playoff every year is going to be just as messy as the BCS, and more insane than anyone realizes. Can’t wait.
Raise Your Glasses to ‘The Runaway Beer Truck’
Holly Anderson: I don’t have a special set of BCS feelings I keep burnished and tucked away in a corner of the black pit where my heart should be. I watched all the BCS games, dumbly matched or not, because they were football and they were there and after they ended there was no more football for many moons. I’m interested to see what a playoff format brings, and how quickly it expands, but I know that, like the BCS, it’ll be beholden in some way to the wealthier conferences. The most honest approach might be to scrap any pretext of fairness entirely and simply let the bowls invite whichever teams they want, let the conference championship games take center stage, and let the commissioners and bowl-hawkers decide among themselves who wants to play whom after that.
We all have treasured postseason memories from pre-BCS years, and we’ll add new ones in 2014 and beyond, and eventually they’ll all run together. But here’s one I’ll never, ever forget. It has nothing to do with the BCS, other than the BCS being the driving agent that brought West Virginia and Oklahoma together one balmy Arizona evening. It has everything to do with the above clip of Owen Schmitt, lumbering his way into legend.
Irish Eyes Were Definitely Not Smiling
Charles P. Pierce: As far as I’m concerned, saying farewell to the BCS is very much like that glorious morning when you wake up and realize that the head cold you’ve had for six weeks is gone. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t immortalize last year’s BCS championship game — or The Schadenfreude Championship of the Universe, as it’s known around my house.
Notre Dame got the hell kicked out of it by Alabama, after a season in which the Irish fattened their record by nearly losing to Pitt. Shortly thereafter, a scandal exploded all around the program involving star linebacker Manti T’eo getting catfished by an imaginary girlfriend, thereby turning a year’s worth of insufferably sanctimonious twaddle — something for which Notre Dame’s campus has been the home office since the 1920s — into one of the most hilarious sports comedies of all time.
All that was missing was for somebody to dig up Knute Rockne and hit him in the face with a pie. If the BCS did nothing else, it gave us this.
United We Stood (in Hatred)
Mallory Rubin: Lots of things bring people together. The holidays. Office doughnuts. Harry Potter.
So, too, did the swirling chaos perpetually surrounding the BCS. Sure, the system divided fan bases by team and conference and region when it came to specific “this team or that team” debates. But that division occurred on a micro level. On a macro scale, the BCS unified the masses in disdain for a system that seemed to never quite get it right.
Of course, that’s not entirely true or fair. The BCS got it right more often than we ever wanted to admit. But there’s no fun in agreeing, or even in agreeing to disagree. We need to argue. We need to yell. We need to besmirch the character of 18-year-old kids on opposing teams so that we can feel like we’ve done our part as fans. We’re very weird. We’re not quite rational. And if the BCS was anything, it was a halfway house for weird, irrational fans ready to come together in their hatred of everyone and everything.
And so, I’ll miss the chaos. I’ll miss the power those three letters had to evoke a level of wrath totally out of proportion to any actual offense committed. I’ll miss the fact that in a place and time when few people can agree on few things, college football fans were able to come together to shred a system that was really just trying its best. The BCS was a semi-competent leader that made campaign promises it failed to keep, and people of all parties united to strip it of its platform and power. What a country.
Good thing we’ll all wind up hating the four-team playoff just as much.
S-E-C! B-C-S! You’ll Yell About Something Else Soon! Promise!
Doug Gillett: There’s only one thing I’ll miss less than the BCS … I just can’t decide what it is. It’s either the system’s detractors clutching their pearls and decrying how horribly unjust it all is, or its supporters singing its praises to the heavens.
But I’ll always treasure Tommy Tuberville, then the coach of the Auburn Tigers, griping to Joe Schad in October 2006 about what a stacked deck the BCS was and declaring that a playoff was “about the only chance [the SEC has] have to make it” to a national title. Three days later, Tuberville’s second-ranked Tigers got blown up at home by an unranked Arkansas team. A week after that, Auburn bounced back to beat a Florida squad that, wonder of wonders, made it to the BCS National Championship anyway, kicking off a run of eight consecutive seasons in which an SEC team played for the big one. The SEC claimed seven of those titles, including the 2011 matchup, which, you’ll recall, was an all-SEC affair.
There are so many layers of rich irony here that I want to eat them like baklava, but it’s also a useful reminder that nobody knows anything in this sport. The BCS was the big cure-all, until it wasn’t. The four-team College Football Playoff will be, too, until a prominent, moneyed program ends up no. 5 and can convince its state’s senators and/or representatives to raise hell about it.
Will I watch the playoff games next season? Of course I will. But I know better than to think we’re done arguing about all this. Somewhere, deep down, I bet Tuberville knows it too.
Blood vs. Water
Matt Borcas: You have a major dilemma on your hands, and it’s all because your boyfriend wants to pummel your younger brother into oblivion in front of 76,196 screaming, inebriated individuals. WITH WHOM DO YOU SIDE? Think long and hard about it before moving on to the next paragraph.
OK, you can now properly empathize with Laura Quinn, sister of Brady, girlfriend of A.J. Hawk. Travel with me for a moment back to January 2, 2006, and into the mind of this conflicted college football spectator …
Brady is your prototypical golden-boy quarterback, and is largely responsible for Notre Dame’s present return to glory, a bi-decade occurrence marked by fraudulent 9-3 records and retrospectively hilarious magazine covers. A.J. is the top linebacker in the country, subsists entirely on a diet of raw eggs and protein powder, and plays for Ohio State, which happens to be facing off in the Fiesta Bowl against — of all the teams! — Notre Dame.
Brady jokingly got you a scarlet-and-gray jogging suit for Christmas; A.J. thinks you should be rooting for your brother. It’s a tough predicament to say the least. Notre Dame running back Darius Walker summed it up best when he asked Brady, “The star player on their defense is dating your sister, really man?” REALLY, MAN.
Of course, there are only three ways to handle this.
1. Watch the game at home and keep your rooting interests to yourself.
2. Attend the game and wear a Notre Dame jersey, effectively making a statement that family trumps everything else in your life.
3. Attend the game and wear an Ohio State jersey, because your future hubby really needs to boost his draft stock. Those credit card bills aren’t gonna pay themselves, you know.
What you absolutely shouldn’t do is wear a hokey half–Notre Dame, half–Ohio State jersey, practically begging the camera to pan to you roughly 4,567 times just so Brent Musburger can point out that you are, in fact, Brady Quinn’s sister and A.J. Hawk’s girlfriend.
But you do, unwittingly spawning a cottage industry of co-eds for Musburger to ogle on live TV, which doubtlessly wound up being one of the oddest and most memorable phenomena of the BCS era. Jenn Sterger and Katherine Webb should write you a thank-you note.
Sometimes UConn, Sometimes UCan’t
Ian Cohen: Before we bid a fond farewell to the BCS, let’s take some time to remember the 2010 UConn Huskies, who availed themselves of the system’s nagging little loophole: Every year, some Big East team had to get in. The league had produced plenty of good clubs before that season, but the same question seemed to linger: Was going 11-1 in the Big East akin to going 9-3 in the Big 12?
Of course, the 2010 Huskies didn’t go 11-1, and they proved that the BCS bosses couldn’t claim a team that would have been Belk Bowl bound if not for its automatic-qualifying status and hope that no one would notice. UConn failed to crack the Top 25 that season and finished 8-5; with the exception of a three-point loss to a Rutgers team that finished last in the conference, all of UConn’s losses came by at least two touchdowns, including a season-opening 30-10 defeat against the Michigan team that ultimately fired Rich Rodriguez, a 30-16 blowout against Temple (hey, it was at the Linc), and a 26-0 shutout against a Louisville team that was still two years away from fully shaking off the Steve Kragthorpe era. The Huskies’ golden ticket? Wins against Big East co-champions West Virginia and Pittsburgh, by a combined five points.
The Huskies didn’t have a single household name — not even 1,500-yard rusher Jordan Todman — but they didn’t fit the mold of a plucky BCS buster, either. In his last game as head coach, Randy Edsall oversaw a team that featured more than a dozen players who would eventually earn spots on NFL rosters. Yet despite being the only BCS program in its state, UConn couldn’t galvanize its own fan base, let along the nation. According to the Wikipedia page for the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, “pregame coverage focused on Oklahoma’s struggles in past BCS games dating back to the 2004 Sugar Bowl as well as Connecticut’s difficulties in selling their designated ticket allotment.” Shockingly, Oklahoma won the game, 48-20.
And so, UConn deserves our recognition and our memories. The Huskies managed to be not only the least qualified BCS participant, but the least interesting one as well. And remember, the field also includes an Illinois team that somehow went to the Rose Bowl under Ron Zook.
And of Course …
Filed Under: College Football