All college sports and their championship tournaments are governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Well, this is true except for the Division 1 college football. The process by which the national champion of Division 1 college football is determined is largely controlled by an arrangement described as the Bowl Championship Series or BCS.
On the website of the BCS, it is stated that “The BCS is not an entity. Instead, it is an arrangement of five bowl games that are managed by the 11 Division I-A conferences and the University of Notre Dame together with the local bowl committees … it is merely an event that the conferences and Notre Dame manage along with the bowls in order to create a match-up between the No. 1 and No. 2 team in a bowl game” (BCS, 2009).
The first ever college football post season game was play in 1902 as part of the celebration of the Tournament of Roses (Rose Bowl History, 2006). The Tournament of Roses was started as a way to encourage tourism to California by celebrating the beautiful winter weather. For this first game, “Stanford University accepted the invitation to take on the powerhouse University of Michigan, but the West Coast team was flattened 49-0 and gave up in the third quarter” (Rose Bowl History, 2006).
The one-sided nature of the results discouraged any continuation of the game. In 1916, the game was revived and the Rose Bowl is today the longest continuous post-season college football game. The success of the Rose Bowl and the economic benefits it brought to its community encouraged other cities to start independent bowl games that had absolutely no national championship implications.
The Associate Press (AP) began to rank teams after the bowl games in 1936. The AP polling was joined in 1950 by the United Press International Coaches’ Poll. By the mid 1970s, the polls increased and also took these post-season exhibition games and began to attach championship implications to them. Yet, none of these bowl games is under the auspices of the NCAA.
“Between 1936 and 1992, the country’s top two teams faced off in a bowl game just eight times, generating many disputed and unsettled national champions” (BCS, 21009). In 1997, two teams (Michigan 12-0 and Nebraska 13-0) were declared national champions by separate polls. After the 1997 season, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the University of Notre Dame, Rose Bowl, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Nokia Sugar Bowl, and the FedEx Orange Bowl joined to form what is now the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
The group increased in membership in 2004 with five additional conferences: Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference, Sun Belt Conference, and Western Athletic Conference (BCS,2009).
If the BCS was established to eliminate the problem of multiple national champions, then its formula failed. Since the inception of the BCS, there have been multiple national champions three times. Oklahoma, USC, and LSU were all declared national champions in 2003. Missouri and LSU were both declared champions in 2007.
Again in 2008, there were multiple champions, Florida State and Utah, as determined by the polls (See Table 1). The formation of the BCS has the solved the problem of producing one undisputed national champion for Division 1A college football. Unfortunately, BCS has added its own problems to the situation.
Whether it is an arrangement or an entity, the BCS seems to operate in a manner that is not in accordance with the American principle of fairness. Of the 11 Division 1-A Conferences that make up this “arrangement”, six are entitled to an automatic bid for a bowl game. According to information revealed in recent Congressional hearings, “Conferences that get an automatic bid — the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC — get about $18 million each, far more than the non-conference schools” (CBS Sports, 2009). Such information led Rep.
Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that conducted the hearings, to call the BCS “communism.” He went on to deride the organization or the “arrangement” by saying that it should drop the C in its name and it should be called the “BS system” (CBS Sports, 2009).
The current Bowl Championship Series format has too many problems and it has not solved the problem for which it was originally established. Continuing with the current format is not feasible. Changes have to be made. The sense of unfairness among conferences that do not get the automatic bids, Congressional hearings, and a popular President Obama calling for a playoff system all point to the fact that current system can not be sustained (CBS Sports, 2009).
A playoff system is the most likely scenario. Unfortunately, arriving at a playoff system will be very difficult given the fact that the NCAA seems to be opposed to such a system. “In order for a NCAA Division I-A Football Championship to be established, the NCAA Division I membership must consider such a proposal through its normal legislative process. As of this date, legislation to establish a I-A championship has not been considered by the membership” (NCAA, 2009).
It is not that the NCAA membership has not considered the issue of a playoff system. They have simply refused to take up the issue. A proposal advocating a playoff system was submitted in 1976. It was withdrawn. At the 1988 NCAA Convention, a counter-proposal which stated that “the Division I-A membership did not support the creation of a national championship in the sport of football,… passed by a vote of 98 in favor, 13 opposed and one abstention” (NCAA, 2009). The NCAA again rejected an opportunity to take up the issue in 1994 (NCAA, 2009).
Two major arguments are put forward against the playoff system. First, college administrators say they don’t want the football season to extend into the second semester. Surprisingly, these same administrators don’t make this same claim for college basketball that goes midway into the second semester. Secondly, they don’t want college football to conflict and compete with NFL playoff. There is some validity to this point because some of the bowl games, the Peach Bowl for example, are play in NFL stadiums. There is one solution to both problems.
Some conferences play 13 games while others play 11 games. All conferences could play 11 games or less to end by the first week of December. Currently, bowl games are played as late as the January 7th. If all conference games end by the first week of December, from that time through the first week of January is a period of four weeks. This is sufficient time for a playoff series that does not run into the second semester and does not compete with or conflict with the NFL playoffs.
Before all of this can be implemented, the automatic bid system must be revised to extend to all Division 1-A conference champions or the top ranked 16 teams which would play in eight bowl games. The eight winners can play in an NLF style playoffs to determine the winner. Secondly, distribution of the income from the games should be based on winning and not on automatic bids. This system would go a long way in determining an undisputed national champion.
The current Bowl Championship Series was set up to fix the problem of multiple national champions. It has not succeeded in its mission. Secondly, the BCS system has a built-in bias for a few conferences in terms of the bid and the distribution of the income. Such a bias is contrary to the American sense of fairness. It cannot be sustained. It needs to be changed. If college administrators are not willing to take the necessary steps to remedy the problems, then either Congress or the courts may have to intervene in a system that seems to violate antirust laws.
BCS (2009): Bowl Champship Series. Bowl Championship Series FAQ. Retrieved on May 20, 2009 at http://www.bcsfootball.org/bcsfb/faq.
CBS Sports (2009)Lawmakers press for playoff; BCS chief says bowls would be harmed. Retrieved on May 18, 2009 from: http://www.cbssports.com/collegefootball/story/11699846/rss
NCA (2009). . Why doesn’t the NCAA administer a Division 1-A Football Championship? Postseason College Football FAQs. National Collegiate Athletic Association information retrieved on May 17, 2009 from http://www.ncaa.org/wps/ncaa?ContentID=2222
Rose Bowl History (2006). Rose Bowl History. Retrieved on May 18,2009 from http://www.rosebowlhistory.org/.