Killing the BCS is a good start for college football

A sigh of relief went up in the homes and offices of many college football fans this past week with Brett McMurphy’s news that the 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick have agreed to recommend a seeded four-team playoff to the college president’s oversight committee, which will be discussed at a meeting of that committee this coming Tuesday.

This move isn’t set in stone yet, as the president’s approval isn’t guaranteed, but now that so many powerful conference commissioners are onside with the long-lived public hatred of the BCS and have managed to set aside their own differences to put forth a solution, it’s tough to see the status quo surviving.

When even a game seemingly designed to validate the BCS selection system creates plenty of problems, going to anything else appears like a good move. Of course, a playoff will still carry issues and provoke selection controversies of its own, and those should still be addressed down the road. For now, though, fans should celebrate the death of the BCS — in more than just name.

Team selection, which was one of the central problems with the BCS system, will still be an issue under this playoff proposal. However, it should be a much less significant one. Jumping from two to four teams with a title-game shot after the regular season will make the always-challenging comparisons across conferences much less important. 

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In the 2011-12 season in particular, LSU clearly deserved a title shot, but Oklahoma State had almost an identical claim to Alabama’s. As Matt Hinton wrote, because the system was only designed for two teams, “a strong contender that effectively earned 50 percent of the vote is rewarded with zero percent of the opportunity.”

Although Alabama beat LSU handily in that title game, the Cowboys took down another impressive team (Stanford) in the Fiesta Bowl, and what would have happened between them and the Tigers remains an open question. Under a four-team playoff, a team that strong would have the chance to prove their worth on the field rather than have their title game eligibility decided by voters.

There are still going to be deserving teams left out here, of course. Last season, LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma State would all likely have made a playoff under this model, but either higher-ranked Stanford or Pac-12 champion Oregon would be left in the dust. There’s also no clear answer as to how much support a  mid-major candidate like Boise State would have for one of these playoff berths following an undefeated season, and any model would have to give mid-majors a shot to really be legitimate.

Still, in the history of the BCS, many of the biggest controversies have revolved around a third excluded team which could have made a strong case for a title shot but never got one. In addition to last year’s Cowboys, other examples include the 2001 Oregon Ducks, the 2003 USC Trojans and the 2004 Auburn Tigers.  Under this model, all these teams would get a playoff berth, and that represents substantial progress.

The annual debate between the #4 and #5 teams which will surely follow a move to this system isn’t insignificant. It’s the same basic principle as the BCS, with some teams chosen as deserving of a title shot while others aren’t based on the opinions of various voters and algorithms rather than on-field contests, and it’s why a larger playoff down the line would have substantial advantages. From this corner, the more teams that have a real chance to claim a championship, the better; let the decisions be made on the field, rather than from votes and number-crunching.

However, while a move to a four-team playoff isn’t the ideal long-term solution and won’t fix all the issues posed by the BCS, the mere fact that college football appears set to go this way is proof that the sport can change for the better when fans demand it (and when the money’s obviously there).

Sure, the proposed solution isn’t going to solve all of the problems the BCS had, but it’s a solid starting point. Ding dong, the BCS is dead; let’s celebrate that, enjoy the new system and think about how to make it even better down the road.

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