Death to the BCS

Three sportswriters call for sacking the Bowl Championship Series and replacing it with a true playoff.

Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series By Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, Jeff Passan Penguin 208 pp.

The college football season ends tonight as undefeated teams from Auburn and Oregon tangle in the BCS Championship Game (or Bowl Championship Series Championship Game, if you like redundancy).

This may come as news to millions of people on the street who continue to think the season ends on New Year’s Day. The BCS remains not only a source of confusion, but of controversy, especially for hard-core fans and media members who cry out for a true championship playoff rather than an arranged postseason based on subjective rankings, computer-generated polls, and a complex formula.

The views of this disgruntled camp are perhaps best summarized by three sportswriters who’ve devoted a whole book to their arguments: Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series. Their thesis is that the BCS format, which tries to maintain traditional bowl games while grafting a championship game on to the process, has been a disaster since initiated in the 1990s, and should be replaced by a 16-team national playoff.

The authors – Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Passan, who write for the Yahoo! Sports website – point out that Barack Obama and John McCain agreed on little during the 2008 presidential race other than their dislike of the BCS. The US Justice Department has even announced it might open an investigation into the legality of the BCS, which the authors contend is not a formal organization so much as a faceless cartel knitted together by a series of contracts.

The BCS website, in fact, states that the BCS is not an entity but an event managed by the 11 athletic conferences and the University of Notre Dame. The confusion only begins there.

What really sticks in the craw of the authors is that the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of college sports, holds 88 championships in different sports and for different divisions. The one exception is major-college football. There are many reasons for this, but basically what it boils down to is that the bowls have benefited the sport for many years and few in power want to see them go away or be marginalized into insignificance.

The BCS was created, in a sense, to work around the NCAA’s resistence to a playoff by orchestrating a postseason lineup to produce an undisputed champion. The problem is, as happened this season, some worthy team gets left out of the championship game. This time it was Texas Christian University, which completed a 13-0 campaign at the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. But could the Horned Frogs beat either Auburn or Oregon? Maybe, but without a true playoff we’ll never know.

“Death to the BCS” proposes a four-week, 16-team playoff that would roughly coincide with the existing bowl season. (By the way, Mark Cuban, the owner of basketball’s Dallas Mavericks, has offered to spend $500 million to arrange such a playoff).

The champions of all 11 major conferences would be automatic qualifiers; the remaining five berths would be awarded to at-large selections. Up until the championship game, games would be played in the stadiums of participating teams, ensuring large crowds. The championship game would annually be played at the Rose Bowl, much as the College Baseball World Series is always in Omaha, Neb., but the finals showdown would be separate from the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl game. The authors contend that this would not only be the fair way to determine a champion, but would generate ongoing suspense and far greater revenue than the BCS currently does.

There may be a few weaknesses in their master plan (including the presumption that existing bowl games would mostly survive), but overall it seems a pretty compelling alternative to what exists.

Ross Atkin is an editor at the Monitor.

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