How I Learned to Live with But Not Love the BCS
Posted: January-June 2011
Part I: If the NFL Post-season Were Like the NCAA FBS
  • The #1 team in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons, met the #1 AFC squad, the New England Patriots, in the 2011 NFL Championship Game on Sunday, February 5, five weeks after the end of the regular season.
  • In the meantime, the other top teams in the two conferences played each other in staged games at various cities like New Orleans, Orlando, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, etc. (not Dallas because that's where the Championship Game was scheduled).
  • The participants in the non-championship post-season games were chosen by the committees that stage and promote the games to attract fans to their cities. The game organizers were not limited to the top six teams in each conference. For example, the Houston committee chose the Cowboys despite their poor record in order to assure maximum attendance.
  • Since the games are essentially meaningless, attendance at all sites is not nearly as high as regular season games. However, TV contracts allow the host committees to make money and pay the teams enough to entice them to participate.
  • After years of fans complaining about the quality of the staged games, the NFL finally forced the host committees to use a more organized method of selecting teams. For example, #2 in the NFC would play #2 in the AFC, #3 vs. #3, etc. And no team not in the top six of its conference could play in a post-season game. At least not at first. But after awhile, more cities established committees and demanded the right to stage post-season games. So the NFL allowed teams that did not finish in the top six of their conference to participate to satisfy the demand.
  • Eventually, the NFL teams would demand the right to pick their own divisions. For example, the Texans would join the division containing the Cowboys so that they could play them home and home every season. The Raiders would jump to the NFC West to be with the 49ers (or vice-versa). The Cowboys would be enticed by almost every other division of each conference since they are such a draw.
  • What started out as a logically organized league that made the playing field as level as possible for all teams would soon be out of kilter. Some divisions would die as two or three teams jumped to other divisions, leaving the remaining one or two to align themselves as best they could. All this movement would be possible because changes in the structure of the league are not subject to approval by the owners at large but depend only on the vote of the owners in the division the team wishes to join.
  • Jerry Jones and other owners of the most affluent franchises would sign their own TV contracts with the network as well as participating in any league contracts. They would also fight to eliminate the annual draft so that they could recruit the top players coming out of college by offering more money than other teams. Although the total number of players they can have on their roster is limited, there is no salary cap.
  • After a period of time, some divisions prosper and continually provide the teams in the championship game. Other divisions languish. With no central scheduling, teams in the weakest divisions schedule road games at Dallas and other financially solid franchises.

Of course, none of this happened or will happen (except for the possibility of no salary cap if the owners and players union cannot agree on a new contract).

  • When the NFL began in the 1920s, the owners organized their league like the dominant sport of the time, major league baseball. After a shakedown decade when franchises came and went yearly, the league in 1934 divided into two divisions, the Eastern and Western (like MLB's National and American League).
  • The NFL's central office, like the National and American League offices in baseball, made the schedules for all the teams starting in the 1930s. Unlike baseball, the NFL had inter-division play from the beginning. Teams within the same conference played each other home-and-home and played the opposite division teams once each.
  • Also like baseball until 1969, the Eastern and Western champions met for the championship – no wild cards. Sometimes, a playoff would be needed to break a tie in one or the other division (such as the 1941 Bears-Packers playoff for the Western Conference that was highlighted recently when the two teams met in the post-season for the first time since that year), pushing back the championship game a week.
  • When television entered the picture in the 1950s, individual teams at first negotiated their own TV contracts. A far-sighted commissioner, Pete Rozelle, persuaded the owners to let him negotiate a single contract for the entire league with equal sharing of the revenues. Rozelle later presided over the merger between the NFL and AFL (which had also been organized like the NFL with a league TV contract and central scheduling). Pete also created the Championship Game between the winners of the two leagues. Within a few years, that game became known as the Super Bowl.
  • At no time did polls of sportswriters and former coaches or computer programs determine which teams participated in the post season. The championships of the two conferences and of the league were always decided on the field.

As we know, college football's regular season and post-season have never been organized according to the MLB or NFL model.

Part II: If the NCAA Post-season Were Like the NFL's

The top 12 teams at the end of the regular season would enter a playoff.

  • The NFL uses the teams' regular season record to determine who qualifies for the post-season and who is seeded where. However, the NFL has the advantage of having only two conferences, each divided into four divisions of four. So it is fair to compare the records of teams. While a given team does not play every other team in its conference, it does play nine of the 16.
  • The NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) includes 120 teams as of 2010 season. It is divided haphazardly into eleven conferences, from powerhouses like the SEC and Big Ten to hanging-on-by-their-fingernails collections like the Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt.
  • So determining the teams for a playoff cannot be done just by ranking teams based on their records. Several teams would be undefeated. Another cluster would have one loss, then an even larger group with two losses, etc. Within each group of teams with the same record, it would be the exception if two of the teams played each other during the regular season.
  • So an FBS playoff would require either a ranking system as currently used by the BCS that combines human polls and computer ratings or a human selection committee as is the case in NCAA basketball and baseball.
  • Let's say that the FBS used the current BCS system. Then the 12-team playoff (12 rather than 8 or 16 to continue our analogy with the NFL) for 2010 would have been seeded as follows.

Round One - games played at the stadium of the higher ranked team

#1 Auburn - bye
#2 Oregon - bye
#3 TCU - bye
#4 Stanford - bye
#5 Wisconsin vs. #12 Missouri
#6 Ohio State vs. #11 Boise State
#7 Oklahoma vs. #10 LSU
#8 Arkansas vs. #9 Michigan State

Round Two - games played at the stadium of the higher ranked team

#1 Auburn vs. winner of Arkansas-Michigan State
#2 Oregon vs. winner of Oklahoma-LSU
#3 TCU vs. winner of Ohio State-Boise State
#4 Stanford vs. winner of Wisconsin-Missouri

Semifinals - games played at the stadium of the higher ranked team

Winner of Auburn game vs. winner of Stanford game
Winner of Oregon game vs. winner of TCU game

Finals - played at a preselected site like the Super Bowl

  • Just as the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots earned a bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs because of their #1 seeds within their conferences, the top two teams, Auburn and Oregon, would have the bye and home field advantage through the semifinals. The #3 and #4 teams would also earn a first round bye and then host a game the following round.
  • As is done now by the BCS, the championship game would rotate among a certain number of cities. Pasadena, home of the oldest bowl, would be awarded the championship game in the first year of this system if they wanted it. Three or four other bowl cities would participate in the rotation based on the longevity of their bowls: New Orleans, Miami, Dallas.
  • The playoff could start as early as the second weekend of December, one week after the conference championship games. Or it could start the following week. Even in the latter case, the top four teams would play three weeks after their final game and not five weeks as was the case in the BCS. New Year's Day could be the semifinals with the finals 10-14 days later - about the time the BCS championship game is played now.
  • After the top 12 have been determined, the 50 or so other FBS teams with 6-6 or better records would be paired in bowl games.
  • The current BCS bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta) would no longer pair teams as highly ranked as in the past. The Rose Bowl would have been damaged this past season because three Big Ten and two Pac 10 teams finished in the Top 9.
  • Returning to the final standings for 2010, the BCS bowls might have looked like this.

    Rose Bowl: Virginia Tech vs Nebraska
    Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs Texas A&M
    Orange Bowl: Florida State vs South Carolina
    Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State vs Utah

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Part III: Pros of NFL-Style Playoff Scenario in NCAA

The second installment of this series detailed a plan for a 12-team playoff in college football a la the NFL's post-season. Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of such a system, starting with the advantages in this installment.

Advantages of a Playoff System

  • Fairness: The system would be more fair than the BCS, which anoints two teams to play in the championship game - two teams chosen on the basis of human/computer rankings with all the built-in biases any such system entails.
    • An undefeated TCU from 2010 would be included in the top 12 whether determined by human/computer polls or a committee.
    • Even another "BCS-buster" like Boise State would get a chance despite their heartbreaking loss to Nevada when the kicker missed a chip shot FG at the end of regulation.
    • And perhaps the greatest injustice of the BCS era - undefeated Auburn of the SEC finishing #3 in the final BCS rankings in 2004 - would be corrected.
    • No conference champion would be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs just because it belongs to one of the six "BCS Conferences." So the injustice of Connecticut of the Big East, which was not ranked in the top 25 in the final 2010 BCS standings, taking a lucrative spot in the Fiesta Bowl ahead of many more deserving teams would be eliminated.
  • Income: "Experts estimate a college football playoff could approach $750 million in annual revenue, more than $600 million ahead of the current system ... As tuition rises to obscene levels, endowments dry up, donations plummet, and schools look for taxpayer subsidies, the BCS bosses continue to sit on a diamond mine because they so relish their position." (Death to the BCS, p. 7) Even Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, one of the lead architects and staunch defenders of the BCS, admitted before Congress in 2005: "I am absolutely sure that an NFL-style football playoff would provide maybe three or four times as many dollars ... than the present system does." The revenue would increase in two major areas and expenses would decrease in another area.
    • TV: The BCS presidents know very well that the major networks will bid far more money for playoff games than they do now for the BCS package of bowls.
    • Game day revenue: With all games prior to the finals played in college stadiums, schools would earn amounts commensurate with what they take in from regular season games. Even given the fact that half the profit would be shared with the visiting team (which doesn't happen now for either conference or non-conference games), schools should pocket even more cash than they do for regular season games because they can charge 50% or 100% more for tickets to playoff games, just as NFL teams do. "A first round playoff game would net conferences 40 percent more than the current BCS championship game." (Death to the BCS)
    • Addition by subtraction: For a playoff game, the home team doesn't have to travel. This obvious statement is made to contrast a playoff game with a bowl game where the two teams are expected to arrive at the host site 5-7 days in advance and spend the school's money on hotel rooms and meals. In addition, the schools must bring their bands at least several days in advance to help promote the game. None of these expenses would be incurred by the host school of a playoff game. As for the visiting team, it would travel to the game site the day before and spend no more on meals and lodging than for a regular season road game. It might bring its band as schools often do for key road games. (Auburn's full band always travels to Tuscaloosa and vice-versa.) Further, the visiting team's expenses would be paid off the top of the income before the net profit is split 50-50. Continuing the comparison to bowl games, the two schools would not be forced to purchase a certain number of tickets that they might not sell. Any empty seats would mean less profit for the game as in the regular season but would not be charged against either team's profit as is done by bowl games. Furthermore, the concessions, parking, program sales, t-shirts, etc. would enhance the coffers of the home team and not a bowl corporation.
    • The bottom line is that universities would not hand over the profit from their most lucrative athletic asset - post-season football games - to a bowl corporation to parcel out as it sees fit.
  • Excitement: Late season games would pack more meaning for more schools than under the current system.
    • As an example, Missouri's 2010 regular season finale against Kansas would have meant more than just a chance to put the Tigers in a more lucrative bowl. It would have been a must-win for Mizzou to remain in the Top 12 (or Top 8 or Top 16 depending on the system used) and earn a spot in the playoff.
    • The Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will always be a big game regardless of the teams' records. But with a playoff the 2010 contest would not just have offered the Tide a chance to knock their archrival out of the BCS Championship Game but also provided Bama an opportunity to make the playoff themselves.
    • Ohio State would have had to beat Michigan to have any chance at a first round bye (in the 12 team playoff setup) or host a first round game (in a 16 team playoff).
    • Tying this back to the revenue discussion, attendance would increase at many late-season games involving teams that have no chance at their conference titles but would contend for a playoff spot - the same advantages that baseball enjoys in September when multiple teams vie for wild card berths.
    • Alabama - Auburn, Ohio State - Michigan, and Texas - Texas A&M will always sell out. But that isn't the case with Rutgers - West Virginia or Virginia Tech - Virginia. Playoff implications for one or both teams in "second level" rivalries would put more fannies in the seats.
    • Games with implications for conference championships would have an added layer of excitement because they would also determine teams' playoff positions.
    • "By playing games on campus, the tournament would also include what is perhaps the best part of college football: its historic stadiums and game-day environments. There's no good reason to conduct playoff games in sterile, often-under-capacity crowds at municipal stadiums in far-off cities when the incomparable feeling of The Swamp in Gainesville, The Horseshoe in Columbus, or the Coliseum in Los Angeles beckons." (Death to the BCS)
  • Growth of the Sport: Simply put, a playoff would engender more interest in college football than the bowl system. Currently, college football abandons the stage to the NFL for several crucial weeks between the first Saturday in December when the conference championship games are played and the week after Christmas when the bowl games crank up - and even then the early bowls generally hold little interest for the nation at large. A playoff beginning the week after the conference championships would build on the momentum generated at the end of the regular season just as happens with the NFL playoffs.

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Part IV: Cons of NFL-Style Playoff Scenario in NCAA

The second installment of this series detailed a plan for a 12-team playoff in college football a la the NFL's post-season. The third installment detailed the advantages of such a system. Now it's time to look at the flip side - the disadvantages - of a playoff system.

Disadvantages of a Playoff System

  • Less Important Regular Season: With a 12- or 16-team playoff - and even with an 8-team playoff to a lesser extent - regular season games would be less important in the sense that the loser would not be eliminated from the playoffs.
    • The 12-team playoff for 2010 that was detailed in Part II of this series looked like this:

    #1 Auburn - bye
    #2 Oregon - bye
    #3 TCU - bye
    #4 Stanford - bye
    #5 Wisconsin vs #12 Missouri
    #6 Ohio State vs #11 Boise State
    #7 Oklahoma vs #10 LSU
    #8 Arkansas vs #9 Michigan State

    • Three Big Ten and three SEC teams were included to make up half the field. So winning the championship of either conference was not a necessary step to capturing the national championship.
    • In fact, in the case of LSU and Arkansas, a playoff team didn't even win its conference subdivision (a situation that will also apply to the Big Ten and Pac-12 starting in 2011).
    • You could restore some importance to conference games by limiting the playoff teams to the top eight conference champions. If that rule were in effect in 2010, the first round of the playoffs would have looked like this:

    #1 Auburn vs #8 Central Florida
    #2 Oregon vs #7 Virginia Tech
    #3 TCU vs #6 Boise State
    #4 Wisconsin vs #5 Oklahoma

    • Wisconsin is included as the highest rated of the three Big Ten co-champions. Same for Boise State over Nevada - unless the WAC declared the Wolfpack its representative in the playoff by virtue of its victory over BSU. (You could have a situation where giving a lower-ranked co-champion the spot because it beat the higher-ranked co-champ would cost the conference a place in the playoff because another conference champ would then be higher rated.)
    • One BCS conference, the Big East, would have no team in the playoff because its champion, Connecticut, was not ranked high enough. Of course, the Big East didn't have a team in the 12-team playoff listed above either. That illustrates one of the many reasons why the so-called BCS Conferences oppose any kind of playoff. Under the current system, a mediocre UConn team went to the Fiesta Bowl, and the school and conference reaped the monetary benefits.
  • Diminution of the Bowls: BCS executive director and Chief Mouthpiece, Bill Hancock, has declared: "We believe the bowl system wouldn't survive a playoff." However, the authors of Death to the BCS interviewed a number of bowl directors and other analysts who disagreed with Hancock's dire assessment.
    • With eight or twelve or sixteen of the top teams removed from the bowl pool, some bottom tier bowls will go under because the 6-6 teams they feature now will move up to higher-paying bowls. But while the number of bowls may diminish by 3 or 4, the vast majority will stay in business.
    • Conferences like the MAC and Sun Belt will make any financial concessions necessary to insure that their champions and one or two additional members play in bowl games because of the prestige and exposure the conference receives. (Death to the BCS explains how Florida Atlantic received an invitation to the 2008 Motor City Bowl by agreeing to play for nothing.)
    • Fans will want their favorite teams to play in bowl games. Traveling to the New Orleans Bowl to watch your Sun Belt or C-USA team play will hold the same attraction it does not. And college football fans across the country who watch bowl games on TV will still do so with a playoff because they love football and know that some bowl games that matching 7-5 and 6-6 teams produce exciting contests. (Many people fondly recall the 2000 Independence Bowl when Mississippi State and Texas A&M played into OT in the snow in Shreveport.)
    • As long as networks can find sponsors, they will televise bowl games. Since TV provides most of the revenue, bowls will continue. In fact, a playoff would actually increase the number of companies wanting to sponsor bowl games and their telecasts. Since playoff game advertising would cost much more than bowl game ad spots, only the major corporations could afford playoff ads. So the Meinekes, Chick-fil-As, and Little Caesars will be even more willing to sponsor bowl games.
    • All the points above argue against the diminution of bowl games under a playoff scenario. So why is this listed as a negative for a playoff? Because the current BCS bowls will definitely take a hit if a playoff is implemented. Returning to the theoretical 12-team playoff listed above for the 2010 season, here's how the major bowls might have shaped up.
  • Rose Bowl: Texas A&M vs Utah
    Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs Nebraska
    Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs South Carolina
    Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State vs Nevada

    • This past season, the Rose and Sugar Bowls would have taken the hardest hits because both the Big Ten and SEC contributed three teams to the playoff. If there must be a playoff, the bowls would undoubtedly favor the alternate plan above of limiting conferences to one team. Then the top four bowls would have looked like this.

    Rose Bowl: Stanford vs Ohio State
    Sugar Bowl: Arkansas vs Michigan State
    Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs Alabama
    Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State vs Nevada

    • With a playoff, the BCS bowl cities - Pasadena, New Orleans, Miami, and Phoenix - could rotate hosting the championship game just as they do now. But those four cities as well as Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, and other bowl venues would also lobby to host some or all of the playoff games. However, removing the playoff games from college campuses and putting them in bowl cities would gut most of the financial benefits of the proposed playoff. Instead of Ohio State, Nebraska, or LSU enjoying revenue equivalent to what they currently make for conference home games, they will incur the large expense they do now for traveling to the bowl site as well as foregoing the revenue from parking, concessions, program sales, etc.
  • Severing Traditions: If you hate the BCS because the Rose Bowl is no longer guaranteed a match between the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions, then you don't want a playoff. And that's not the only tradition that will be tossed aside.
    • Even with the BCS, no team plays more than one post-season game. Fans learn on the first Sunday of December where their favorite team will play its bowl game and make plans accordingly. The earliest 2010 bowl games were played December 18, giving fans two weeks to plan their trips. (A playoff system could also start the third weekend of December to, first of all, give players the opportunity to complete their semester exams and, secondly, give athletic departments and fans enough time to make plans for the first round games.)
    • This past season 34 teams received a bowl championship trophy to be displayed in perpetuity on their campuses. LSU has already hung a banner proclaiming "2011 Cotton Bowl Champions." With a playoff, the only team that receives a trophy is the ultimate champion. The second place team could hang a banner touting themselves as finalists.
    • With a playoff, a participating team is guaranteed one post-season game. But it may not be in a warm weather city. It might be in Madison WI or Fayetteville AK in mid-December. Fans will travel as they do for a regular season road game - arrive the day before and leave the night of the game or the next day.
    • The players on the higher ranked team won't travel at all. They'll follow the same routine they do for any home game. The visiting team will arrive the day before and leave right after the game. There will be no sightseeing or pre-game banquet hosted by a bowl committee. Players won't receive iPhones, cameras, luggage, and other gifts as they do from bowls. It will all be strictly business.
    • If a visiting team wins its first round playoff game, it may have to make another trip the following week. Even though it's another quick in-and-out visit, it will cost fans money for tickets, travel, and lodging. Some will decide to skip their team's first round road game (in which their heroes are the underdog) to save money for the next round if their team wins.
    • BCS defenders question how many visiting team fans will travel to playoff games. To the argument that basketball fans follow their teams during March Madness even when their team is sent across the country by the bracket, playoff opponents argue that you're talking about filling only 15-20,000 seats for basketball games as opposed to 80-90,000+ for football games. But they conveniently omit the fact that you're drawing from a much larger pool of season ticket holders for football than for basketball. And if you play the games at the stadiums of the higher ranked schools, you guarantee the turnout of the home team. Furthermore, fans of Missouri, Boise State, LSU, and Michigan State - the first round visiting teams in the playoff scenario above - will snap up all their allotted tickets just as they do now for almost every regular season road game. Wisconsin is a much larger school than TCU. Yet half the Rose Bowl was purple this past January 1.
    • Bill Hancock glorifies the wonderful experiences teams have at bowl games and argues that no playoff system could possibly provide a comparable experience. It would nice if someone (ESPN?) would poll players to determine how many would gladly give up all the perks of bowl games to participate in a playoff. After all, they experienced playoff games in high school in every state in the union.
  • Interference with School: Ohio State president Gordon Gee made an interesting statement in defense of the BCS while in New Orleans for the most recent Sugar Bowl.

    I don't think of our football players as wearing football uniforms. I think of them as wearing backpacks. They are students, and, therefore, we have to treat and act with them and think of them as students.

    • The academic argument has mercifully been downgraded by BCS proponents the last few years after the presidents were lambasted for their hypocrisy in adding a 12th game to the regular season and scheduling week night games for TV, both of which disrupt the class schedules of players as much or more as any playoff games would. And the presidents don't seem at all bothered by the academic disruption caused by March Madness and the baseball post-season, which begins just as most schools have spring finals.
    • The scheduling of the playoff games would determine how much of an academic disruption they would cause. If you played the first round the second weekend of December, that would hit schools at semester exam time. (Many basketball coaches currently keep that week open because of finals.) If the playoff started the third weekend of December, some visiting teams might have to make special exam arrangements for their athletes depending on the school's academic calendar. But teams that played in the December 18 bowls this past year (for which they were expected to arrive at the host site 4-5 days in advance) had to do that already.
    • If the games were played on college campuses, the home team's players would take their exams as scheduled. The visitors might have to make special arrangements for any exams scheduled the day before the game when the team travels. (This provides another argument for holding playoff games in college stadiums and not at bowl game sites.)
    • The bottom line is that there may be academic disruption at some schools but not to the degree that the college presidents claim nor to the extent that they tolerate for other sports.
  • Professionalizing of College Football: Let's start with another quote from Gordon Gee.

    They'd have to drag a playoff system out of my cold, dead hands. It's a slippery slope toward professionalizing intercollegiate athletics, and we've gone way too far in that regard anyway.

    • As the cash cow of every athletic department, football is the most competitive (that is, "cutthroat") college sport. Every coach feels enormous pressure to have a winning season and play in a bowl game. When that goal is achieved, the demands increase to winning the conference championship. At schools like Alabama, Texas, and Ohio State, fans expect to be in the hunt for the national championship year after year.
    • Every season brings recruiting violations that result in penalties of various degrees for the offending schools. This past summer, USC was hit with some of the most severe penalties the NCAA has ever levied because of the improper gifts Reggie Bush and his family received.
    • Sports Illlustrated just published the results of its six-month probe with CBS News into the criminal background of players on the teams on SI's Preseason Top 25. Only one team, TCU, had no players with run-ins with the law, although the school did experience such incidents several years ago. Several coaches admitted in the article that they hesitate to conduct thorough background checks on recruits lest opponents use that fact against them in recruiting. (The article casts a new meaning on the title of this article: CONS of NFL-Style Playoff in NCAA.)
    • If the temptation to bend the rules is great now, won't a playoff system increase the pressure many times over? Reading between the lines of what the presidents say about college football, one surmises they have enough difficulty controlling "the beast" now without adding the challenge of a playoff system.

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Part V: Is There a Compromise Position?

Let's recap what we've covered so far.

Advantages of a Playoff System

  • Fairness: All undefeated teams, regardless of conference, would have a chance for the ultimate championship.
  • Income: A playoff would pull in far more money than the current BCS and bowl setup.
  • Excitement: More teams would have a chance at the ultimate prize, increasing interest the final weeks of the regular season on many more campuses.
  • Growth of the Sport: College football would not abandon the national spotlight to the NFL for most of December and early January.

Disadvantages of a Playoff System

  • Less Important Regular Season: Regular season games would be less important in the sense that the loser would not be eliminated from the playoffs.
  • Diminution of the Bowls: The vast majority of the bowls would continue, but the current BCS bowls would involve only the best teams not in the playoff.
  • Severing Traditions: Playoff winners would play multiple post-season games. Many games would be held in winter climates. Visiting teams would arrive the day before and leave the day after the game.
  • Interference with School: Depending on when playoff games are scheduled, they could cause problems with final exams at some schools whose teams must travel.
  • Professionalizing of College Football: The already-great pressure to win at all costs would increase, leading to even more recruiting violations.

Is it possible to find a middle ground that achieves the most important of the advantages of a playoff while at least lessening the disadvantages?

  • The chief advantage of a playoff was listed first above - fairness. As educators first and foremost, college presidents should advocate athletic competition that rewards excellence rather than mediocrity and doesn't discriminate against teams because of the conference they belong to.
  • The main disadvantage of a playoff was also listed first above - diminution of the regular season. To take the 2010 season as an example, why should LSU still have a chance to win the national championship after losing to Auburn (with a loss to Arkansas on top of that)? Why should a team that did not win its conference championship have a shot at the national championship?
  • The added excitement that a playoff would create the final weeks of the regular season derives from giving teams that have already lost key games a second chance to redeem themselves. So in that sense it's phony excitement.
  • Yet, the problem with the current setup is that it's too restrictive by limiting the number of teams anointed to play for the championship to two. You could argue that none of TCU's 2010 games were significant because, despite winning every one of them, they still didn't get a chance to win the ultimate championship. Yes, they got to beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to complete an unforgettable undefeated season. But name any other sport at any level where an undefeated team is denied the opportunity to compete for the final championship. And TCU's victory in the Rose Bowl underscored the unfairness of not giving the Horned Frogs an opportunity to compete for the national championship. We'll never know if TCU could have beaten Auburn.

Another point to show the deficiency of the current system: In order to get a better shot at playing in a BCS bowl every year, TCU is making the otherwise-ridiculous move of joining the Big East, where the nearest school is Louisville. Starting in 2012, TCU's women's teams as well as men's basketball, baseball, etc., will travel long distances - as far as Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey - for half their conference games.

  • On the other hand, even an 8-team playoff allows too many teams into the post-season and inevitably lessens the significance of regular season games unless you require that each of the eight be a conference champion. But that artificial rule may create more problems than it solves.
    • Which one of the three one-loss teams would have represented the Big Ten in 2010?
    • If you want the eight "most deserving" teams, why should WAC champion Nevada take one of the eight playoff berths over either of the two Big Ten one-loss teams that had to be eliminated by a tie-breaking procedure? (That problem will solve itself for the Big Ten and Pac-12 because they will now have championship games. However, the Big 12 - known here as TAND ("Texas and the Nine Dwarfs") - has eliminated its championship game after dropping to ten teams.)
    • But if you let two or all three of the one-loss teams from a conference without a championship game into the playoff, isn't that giving that conference an unfair advantage simply because it had no clearcut champion? No undefeated team in a conference may mean balanced competition among multiple strong teams or it could mean that no team was really good.
  • So the choice comes down to this.

    Include enough teams to be fair, but don't take too many and cheapen the regular season.

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Part VI: A Compromise Proposal

My proposal is usually called the Plus One Format although there are several ways that it could be done.

  • After the regular season, including the championship games of various conferences, use a system like the current BCS rankings to determine who plays in the bowl games.
  • After the bowl games, choose the top two teams to meet in the Championship Game 10-14 days later (mid-January).

I don't consider this a "playoff" scheme. I think of it as extending the regular season to include the bowl games.

You could determine the bowl participants in several ways. I list the better alternative first.

  • Final Four: #1 meets #4 in a bowl and #2 and #3 meet in another bowl. In effect, these bowls serve as semifinal games. The winners meet for the championship.
    • The bowls hosting the 1-4 and 2-3 matchups could rotate each year. For example, the first year it would be the two oldest, the Rose and Sugar. The next year, Orange and Fiesta.
    • An alternate plan would be to assign the games to the bowls based upon the participants. For example, if the #1 team is Ohio State, the Rose Bowl is the host. If the #2 team is Alabama, the Sugar Bowl hosts that game. This would maintain the traditional conference tie-ins with the bowls. This system could also be used in the first plan above (predetermined rotating hosts each year) to determine which of the two games the Rose and Sugar host. (In other words, don't predetermine that the Rose Bowl will host 1-4 and Sugar 2-3. Decide that after the teams are determined.)
  • Return to Conference Bowl Tie-ins: The Rose Bowl matches the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions. The SEC champion goes to the Sugar Bowl, Big 12 to Fiesta, ACC champion to Orange, etc. After the bowls are played, the same system used to determine the rankings before the bowls is applied again. Whichever teams come out 1 and 2 play in the championship game.

Here's how the two systems might have worked in 2010.

  • Final Four

#1 Auburn vs #4 Stanford in the Sugar Bowl
#2 Oregon vs #3 TCU in the Rose Bowl

Note: You could have a rule that only one team from a conference can be in the Final Four. If that were the case, then #5 Wisconsin would replace #4 Stanford in the Sugar Bowl. That would avoid two teams from the same conference meeting again in the championship game.

  • Honor Conference Tie-ins

Rose Bowl: #2 Oregon vs #5 Wisconsin
Sugar Bowl: #1
Auburn vs #4 Stanford
Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs Connecticut
Fiesta Bowl: #3 TCU vs #7 Oklahoma

Some of the same rules governing the BCS could continue. For example, a team from a non-BCS conference, like TCU, that finishes in the Top 8 would have to be chosen for one of the four major bowls.

The problems with the second system are obvious.

  • The three undefeated teams could all win. So which one is eliminated from the championship game? Still, the advantage over the current system is that you would have one more game - against a highly-ranked opponent - to help the pollsters vote and the computers rerank the teams.
  • The Orange Bowl, in this example, would face the same problem the Fiesta Bowl had this past season under the BCS. It would be stuck with Connecticut, not even in the Top 20, just because they're the Big East champion. Teams like #6 Ohio State, #8 Arkansas, and #9 Michigan State would be bypassed because they were not their conference champions.

Part VII: Advantages of the Plus One Format

In our last installment, I proposed that the two teams in the Championship Game not be determined until after the bowl games are played. I gave several ways to determine the bowl participants, the better choice being to set up a Final Four, with one bowl hosting #1 vs #4 and another, #2 vs #3. The two winners would then meet in the Championship Game 10-14 days later.

Advantages of the Plus One Format

  • The system is more fair than the BCS. An undefeated team from a non-BCS conference, like TCU in 2010, would play its bowl game with a legitimate chance to make it to the championship game.
  • The bowls would be preserved, and the top bowls would be enhanced because their games would determine or help determine which teams play in the championship game. Even the minor bowls would play a role because victories by teams in those games will affect the computer rankings of the top four teams. (This would be an especially important point if the top four teams were not seeded in bowl games (1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3) but, instead, the bowls would revert to their traditional conference tie-ins. In that case, you could still have more than two undefeated teams after the bowls. So the question of who's #1 and #2 could come down to which teams' vanquished opponents won more bowl games.)
  • The regular season retains its importance. A team must make the Top Four to have a chance at the national championship. You could enhance the regular season even more by requiring that the Final Four participants be conference champions or, if co-champions (as in the Big Ten in 2010), be the higher/highest ranked of the co-champions.
  • The Plus One satisfies this important criterion for determining which teams have a shot at the title game.

    Include enough teams to be fair, but don't take too many and cheapen the regular season.

  • Players, coaches, and fans could have their Week in the Sun at a bowl game - that magical experience that Bill Hancock of the BCS waxes eloquent about. Players would get their Goody Bags filled with iPods, shirts, caps, etc. The economies of the host cities would continue to get their annual boost from the major bowl games.
  • Only two teams would play an additional game beyond the bowls, unlike in an 8-or-more team playoff where four or more teams would play two post-season games.
  • College football wouldn't take that giant stride into the abyss of "professionalism" with an "NFL-style playoff." Presidents like Gordon Gee of Ohio State who vow that a playoff will take place over their dead bodies can be outvoted by presidents who see the Plus One system as satisfying critics [like me] who say the BCS is discriminatory without plunging into a full-blown playoff.
  • The BCS Conferences maintain control of the post-season. They can still gobble up most of the money but would allow a TCU or Boise State to have a shot at a major bowl and the championship game with the attendant financial benefits.

Part VIII: Disadvantages of the Plus One Format

  • Two teams would have to play another game after the bowls. This elongation of their season would carry over into the second semester of the school year when it is important for student athletes to get off to a good start in their new courses. Rebuttal: College presidents don't worry about their basketball players missing class to participate in March Madness, or even worse, baseball teams participating in post-season play during spring finals.
  • Related to the first objection is the second: A Plus One game would be one more step down the road of professionalizing college football and making it even more out of sync with the academic mission of each university. Universities have already made too many concessions to athletics and football in particular. More and more recruits are demanding payment now. Even more would put their hand out if a Plus One were implemented. Enough is enough! Rebuttal: There really isn't any. If a president believes football has already crossed the line, no argument will persuade him/her otherwise.
  • If the top four teams at the end of the regular season were not intentionally paired in two of the bowls (preferably 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3), a Plus One format would not solve the main argument against the current system. Namely, a deserving team, such as undefeated TCU in 2010, would be left out of the championship game because you could still have three undefeated teams after the bowls were played. You could solve that problem by seeding the bowls, making two of them semifinal games. But the Rose Bowl, in particular, would fight that tooth and nail. Already unhappy that in the BCS the Pasadena game doesn't always match the Big Ten and Pac 10 champions - witness upstart TCU from the Mountain West crashing the party this past season - the Rose Bowl officials and the Big Ten and Pac 10 commissioners might just take their ball and go home; that is, leave the BCS high and dry. Would the other four BCS conference call their bluff and proceed with a Plus One championship game without the Big Ten and Pac 10? Probably not because the TV money would not be nearly as good with two major areas of the nation missing.
  • Some will claim that any Plus One format will diminish the significance of the regular season. Most years, at least one one-loss team would be included in the Final Four. In 2010, that team would have been Stanford if you simply took the top four in the final regular season BCS standings. So their defeat at the hands of #2 Oregon would have been wiped clean. If Stanford upset #1 Auburn and #2 Oregon defeated #3 TCU, two teams from the same conference would meet again for the championship. Rebuttal: This dilemma could be avoided by requiring that the Final Four teams be conference champions, effectively barring two teams from the same conference from participating in the semifinal bowls. But would the conference commissioners agree to such a rule when it could bite their conference one year when it has two teams in the top four?
  • Critics will say that the Plus One would still provoke arguments over who is selected for the Final Four. Fans of the #5 team will argue that their team was unfairly left out. "If you're still going to have disputes, then why change the current system? The new one would be no better." Rebuttal: It might not be better in the sense that there would still be arguments. But isn't it better to argue over who's #4 than over who's #2? Extending the possible championship contenders to #4 would include all the undefeated teams most years. Two additional teams would be given a chance to prove their championship caliber on the field. Under the BCS system, TCU could have beaten Wisconsin by 50 points and not have a chance to win the championship because they weren't one of the two ordained teams in THE championship game.
  • A recurring argument against a Plus One boils down to this: "Your proposal is not perfect; so why change?" Rebuttal: If society followed that argument, no progress would ever be made. The first automobile or first airplane or first TV set were far from perfect. Yet they created improvements in society because they were better than the imperfect systems they replaced.

Part IX: Realistically, What Is Likely to Happen?

If left to its own devices, this is what the BCS may do. (I'll explain the phrase "if left to its own devices" in Part X of this series.)

  • The BCS will not move to the Plus One Format.
    While there is heated discussion about the unfairness of the current system and calls for an 8- or even 16-team playoff, the ADs and college presidents are unmoved. The Big Ten and Pac-10 are both adamantly opposed. The six BCS conferences have established a tradition of not making major decisions without "consensus," which means a unanimous agreement among the six conferences. Some changes might be made on the basis of a private 5-1 vote if the dissenter is the ACC or Big East. But the Big Ten, Pac 10, SEC, and maybe even the Big 12 have de facto veto power over any initiatives they strongly oppose.
    And, obviously, if the BCS won't embrace a Final Four arrangement as in the Plus One, there is no chance it will go to an 8-team playoff.
  • The BCS will add the Cotton Bowl as a fifth BCS bowl.
    The most recent Cotton Bowl, played on the Friday night after New Year's Day, gave a foretaste of what will happen after the 2013 season. Many commentators remarked on the BCS-type atmosphere of the game in Jerry Jones' palace. With the backing of the Cowboys, the fifth-oldest bowl (1937) will regain its position in the top tier of post-season games.
    From the viewpoint of the BCS, adding the Cotton Bowl is a win-win proposition. Not only do the conferences gain another high-paying bowl, but the BCS opens two more slots that could go to "non-BCS" conference teams. If a fifth BCS bowl had been available this past season, Boise State could have reaped the financial reward for their 11-1 regular season. This would deflect if not defuse the anti-trust argument that the BCS is stacked against the so-called "non-automatic qualifying" conference champions.
  • It's not clear whether five BCS bowls would rotate in hosting the Championship Game.
    The Cotton Bowl will want a spot in the championship game rotation. The four current BCS bowls will resist because they would host the Big Game once every five years instead of once every four years. This negotiation could go several ways. The Cotton Bowl might be promoted to BCS status but, as the Johnny-Come-Lately, not granted a chance to host the championship game. Or the BCS could open a bidding war: top five bids based on monetary compensation to the competing teams gives you BCS status with the lowest bidder of the five not granted a spot in the championship game rotation. (If this all sounds venal, remember that the BCS is entirely based on greed - the desire by the colleges to squeeze as much money as possible from the bowls and TV networks.)
  • The BCS will keep the championship game as a separate event that follows all the bowl games.
    There has been criticism of the long delay between the end of the regular season and the championship game, which was played on January 10 this past season. However, reverting to the procedure used from 1998-2005 the championship game when the championship game rotated among the four BCS bowls (Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, Rose in that order) reduces the number of multi-millionaire dollar post-season games. Adding the Cotton Bowl would only continue the ten BCS slots currently available instead of adding two more. The advantage of making the Championship Game one of the bowls again is that it could be played as much as a week earlier. The reason for the current delay is to give the host city a week to gear up for a second game after its bowl game. That will happen after the 2011 season when the Sugar Bowl holds its regular game January 2 (the 1st is a Sunday) and then hosts the Championship Game January 9.
  • The BCS will neither add to nor remove any of the six conferences currently comprising the "cartel" (as critics call the BCS).
    Commentators targeted the Big East as not deserving an automatic spot in the BCS bowls for its champion after Connecticut finished out of the Top 25 in the final BCS rankings, yet played in the lucrative Fiesta Bowl. However, TCU's impending move to the Big East for the 2012 season improves the Big East's status while also weakening the Mountain West, which is the conference most often mentioned as deserving BCS membership. The BCS could change its rules to guarantee a BCS spot to the highest ranked team in each of the six conferences. But this is not likely since no conference wants outside interference in the manner in which it determines its champion. (Remember the furor after the 2008 season when Oklahoma made the Big 12 Championship Game over its South Division co-champs Texas and Texas Tech? Even though Texas wielded the most clout in that soon-to-be-defunct conference, the Big 12 refused to change its tie-breaking procedure.)

Part X: What Outside Forces Could Influence the BCS?

Having concluded that the colleges that make up the BCS will never make substantive changes in the system, people from the Attorney General of Utah to the U.S. Attorney General to an organization called Playoff PAC have launched sorties.

  • Senator Orrin Hatch
    On March 10, 2010, Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sent a letter to BCS executive director Bill Hancock seeking more information about BCS revenue sharing and TV contracts. The senators also questioned whether money that should go to colleges is instead being spent to lobby Congress.
    Hatch further issued a press release saying, "It's clear that the BCS is fundamentally unfair and harmful to schools, students, college football fans and consumers throughout the country." He added, "I think the architects of the BCS should provide the public with more information to dispel the notion that the system is explicitly designed to favor certain teams while disfavoring others."
    Hatch has been out to get the BCS since his Utah Utes went undefeated in 2008 but were not selected for the BCS Championship Game over one-loss Florida. At least Utah played in the Sugar Bowl, where they upset Alabama, lending credence to the argument that a team from a non-BCS conference can play with the Big Boys if given a chance. Hatch's latest salvo also mentioned that Utah's fellow Mountain West conference team, TCU, went undefeated in 2009 but gained no access to the championship game. Hatch also asked that the formulas used by the computer rankings that form an essential component of the BCS system be made public.
  • Utah Attorney Seneral
    Mark Shurtleff is preparing a lawsuit against the BCS claiming it's an illegal monopoly that violates antitrust regulations. Like Senator Hatch, Shurtleff turned his attention to the BCS after Utah's undefeated 2008 season. He says he'll pursue the action in federal court within the next couple of months and likely will be joined by attorneys general from at least two other states. The suit could seek hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, which would be trebled if antitrust violations were found.
    "A number of AGs have asked me: Why are you still interested now that the University of Utah is going to be in the Pac-12 and benefit from it [the BCS]?" Shurtleff says. "It actually helps my credibility. I've always said, 'Look, this isn't about my university. It's about the rule of law and a system that's corrupt."
  • Playoff PAC
    This is a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee dedicated to replacing the BCS with a playoff. They filed an IRS complaint last fall against the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls questioning inflated salaries and lavish perks for bowl executives. Additionally, PlayoffPAC volunteers have become really good at filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
  • U.S. Justice Department
    The United States Justice Department has informed the NCAA that it is conducting an antitrust inquiry of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The Justice Department wanted the answers to these questions:
    • Why does the Football Bowl Subdivision not have a playoff?
    • What steps, if any, has the NCAA taken to create a playoff among Football Bowl Subdivision programs? To the extent any steps were taken, why were they not successful? What steps does the NCAA plan to take to create a playoff at this time?
    • Have you determined that there are aspects of the BCS system that do not serve the interests of fans, colleges, universities, and players? To what extent could an alternative system better serve those interests?
    Dr. Mark Emmert, in his first year as NCAA President, responded by telling the Justice Department to ask the BCS for answers. Other than licensing the postseason bowls, "the NCAA has no role to play in the BCS or the BCS system," Emmert wrote in a letter to the department's antitrust chief, Christine Varney. He added that short of member colleges and universities discontinuing the BCS and proposing an NCAA championship, "there is no directive for the [NCAA] to establish a playoff."

  • Arizona Attorney General
    In December 2010, an article in The Arizona Republic claimed that Fiesta Bowl employees wrote checks to political candidates and that the bowl reimbursed them. The article triggered a series of investigations that resulted in the firing of the bowl's founding Executive Director John Junker in March 2011. An internal investigation spurred by the inquiries of the Arizona Attorney General found a number of improprieties in the disbursement of funds. The most embarrassing revelation was that Junker and fellow officials visited a Phoenix strip club where they charged more than $1,200 in expenses to the bowl.
    As a result of these revelations, the new executive director had to appear before the NCAA Bowl Licensing Committee to plead for the Fiesta's license to be renewed based on the new accounting procedures he had put in place. After the committee granted the request, the BCS held its own hearing and decided to keep the Fiesta in its annual rotation. However, the bad publicity added to the outcry for a full-scale investigation of all the BCS bowls.

Part XI: What Impact Will These Developments Have on the BCS?

Future of the BCS

Sports Illustrated's "SEC Preview" magazine includes an article by Austin Murphy entitled "Why There Needs to Be a Playoff." Austin reiterates most of the points he made in an article last fall but updates it with some new tidbits.

  • "The current BCS system is locked in through 2014. After that, however, things get murky, and - for the vast majority of college football fans who yearn for a postseason playoff - encouraging. Who, exactly, is in favor of the status quo? Mainly the slender minority benefiting from it: those running the bowls and the commissioners, presidents and athletic directions of the power conferences that the system serves. But the BCS is losing support among the rank and file of college administrators disillusioned by the seamy Fiesta Bowl revelations and desperate to stop their athletic departments from hemorrhaging red ink. One way to do that is to stop handing over more than half the profits from their most lucrative product - the football postseaon - to the bowls. And one way to do that is to put a playoff in place."
  • "With a 16-team postseason beckoning, late-season battles for a conference title and the jockeying for those precious at-large bids would inject enormous significance, interest and drama into games that under the current system have zero impact on the national title. SEC fans who could otherwise care less about the Mountain West might wonder whom their team would face in the first round and suddenly find themselves rabidly interested in the outcome of, say, Air Force-BYU. Thus would a playoff enhance the value of the regular season - dramatically - rather than diminish it, as BCS acolytes would have you believe."
  • "For all but two or three of the non-AQ teams [teams from conferences that do not Automatically Qualify their champions for the BCS bowls], the reality is this: They have no shot at a national title. Even if Nevada had gone undefeated last season (the Wolf Pack lost only to Hawaii), there's no way it would've leapfrogged any number of one-loss teams from the power conferences. 'They didn't start the season ranked high enough, and they're from a non-AQ conference,' says Alan Fishel, an antitrust attorney with the law firm Arent Fox, which has been retained by the Mountain West Conference because of its desire to reform the BCS. 'They were eliminated before the season began.'"
  • "That reality undercuts a primary BCS talking point - the one assuring us that in a world without a playoff, 'every game counts' in the regular season. Not only does every game not count, Fishel points out, for the vast majority of non-AQ schools under the current system 'no game has ever counted' - at least in terms of its bearing on a team's hopes for winning it all." [Read Fishel's 22 BCS Tall Tales.]
  • "Even if the BCS is found guilty of anticompetitive practice, say true believers, the Justice Department cannot force us to adopt a playoff. What could happen instead, they threaten, is a return to the days of 1991, when (most) teams were free to make independent deals with bowls. Dan Wetzel, a coauthor of Death to the BCS, refers to the possibility of the BCS's 'take my ball and go home' scenario ... Of course, it woud pain the presidents of BCS schools to surrender control of the fortunes earned by college football's postseason - as they would have to do if a playoff were implemented. (Indeed, that's the single, overriding reason we don't have a playoff this instant.) But would they really turn back the clock to '91? Would they really choose retro-anarchy that pays less over a playoff system that pays them much, much more?"
  • "The bowls will survive, albeit it in the shadow of the playoff. The major ones would no longer have their pick of the elite teams, and the minor ones would have more trouble finding 6-6 squads. ... Exposed, at last, to free-market forces, the bowls would simply be demoted to the status of the NIT."
  • "Of the 120 athletic departments that play FBS football, 106 lost money in 2009, according to an NCAA report. All over the country schools are cutting entire sports programs while turning to student fees, academic funds and taxpayer support to balance the books of athletic departments. Meanwhile the presidents are missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars by outsourcing postseason football. Bowl organizers have taken them to the cleaners by such methods as the now infamous 'ticket commitment.' A school playing in a bowl is required to purchase a set number of tickets. When the university is unable to resell those (often wildly overpriced) tickets, it takes a bath. Forced to purchase $3,349,835 worth of tickets, Connecticut lost $2,673,587 at last January's Fiesta Bowl on admission sales alone."
  • "For a long time unversity presidents were credulous consumers of the BCS's so-called tall tales. Now many are wavering in their support of the BCS. At the request of Oliver Luck, West Virginia's AD, the Big East's annual spring meetings included what Luck hoped would be 'a legitimate and intellectually honest discussion about bowl finances.' Luck has also called on the NCAA to look at the issue and has decried what he perceived as 'a knee-jerk reaction to defend the system without engaging in a reasonable dialogue.'"
  • "Wetzel, also a Yahoo! columnist, has written of 'exhaustion' among commissioners and administrators who are weary of advocating for a system they no longer believe in. If they're sick of it now, imagine how they'll feel should a Department of Justice investigation kick in and the discovery process start. Imagine if they have to deliver reams of documents they would just as soon never saw the light of day."
  • "It only gets uglier from here on out, and if the presidents at whose pleasure Hancock serves decide to cut their losses, the result could be a compromise: a plus-one. That is, two finalists for a national title game would emerge from the traditional bowl season - regardless of conference. That would fall far short of what playoff advocates are asking for. And cash-strapped schools would still be handing over more than 50% of their profits to the bowl bandits. But it would be a start."
  • "Decades hence sports historians may look back on this as the year the BCS lost its grip on the postseason."

Top of Page



Part I: If the NFL Post-season Were Like the NCAA FBS

Part II: If the NCAA Post-season Were Like the NFL's

Part III: Pros of NFL-Style Playoff in NCAA

Part IV: Cons of NFL-Style Playoff in NCAA

Part V: Is There a Compromise Position?

Part VI: A Compromise Proposal

Part VII: Advantages of the Plus One Format

Part VIII: Disadvantages of the Plus One Format

Part IX: Realistically, What Is Likely to Happen?

Part X: What Outside Forces Could Influence the BCS?

Sports Illustrated: Future of BCS


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