Postseasonal Affective Disorder: College Football’s Long, Winding Journey To Determine A Champion, Part I

Word on the street is that there’s a problem with college football’s Bowl Championship Series format. The sports media hates it, and have always hated it. Bloggers hate it, and likely will always hate it. Saturday Night Live hates it, or at least Will Forte had written one of his Weekend Update songs and needed a three-syllable subject. Two separate branches of government are really jonesin’ to fill out a bracket for the Government office pool. And apparently the coaches are considering the option of removing the only tangible voice they have in the matter. As the BCS system remains under siege during another long college football off-season, I’ll look at some of the important issues involved in determining the best system for college football.

Part I. What Exactly Are We Talking About Here? History ( 1869-1997 )

The general sentiment is that the current system is not working. Before we can examine the validity of that claim, it’s important to identify what the current system is, relative to the history of college football’s postseason. The Bowl Championship Series name itself is now 10 years old, but the formula to which that name applies has undergone many, many transformations in its lifespan.

Although the current format is apparently the worst thing in the world ever, it’s certainly better than its predecessors. The formation of the current Bowl Championship Series progressed through several incarnations, many of which were forced when the errors of the previous system were pointed out. To paraphrase a certain Coach Of The Year changes usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event. Since the decision to start structuring college football’s postseason, its changes have been dictated by its previous shortcomings (or perceived shortcomings). Let’s put the history of this beast in context before we start swinging away.

Postseason Format #1
Dawn Of Time-1992 – Pandemonium
Less than twenty years ago, college football had no format for deciding a national champion. From its inception in 1936 up until 1968, the Associated Press poll ended after the regular season, not including bowl results before awarding their championship. The Coaches Poll, created by United Press in 1950, followed suit in 1974. In this barren, mercenary-filled wasteland of a postseason, final rankings did not dictate where a team played its final game. With conference tie-ins taking precedence, the Big Ten and Pac-10 Champions played in the Rose Bowl, the SEC champion played in the Sugar Bowl, the SWC champion played in the Cotton Bowl and the Big 8 champion played in the Orange Bowl. If one of those teams was ranked #1 or #2, they couldn’t play the other because both had obligations to their host bowl. The exceptions were independent schools like Miami and Penn State, who, coincidentally, found themselves in a number of the rare AP #1 vs. #2 games between the start of postseason polling and 1992. In fact, their epic 1987 clash in the fledgling Fiesta Bowl (which had no conference ties and could thus pursue both independents) is one of the most important games in college football history, for good or bad reasons depending on how you look at it. Since the existence of the two major polls in 1950, they had disagreed seven times before 1990. But in 1990, the writers declared 11-1-1 Colorado national champion amidst controversy while the coaches awarded their title to 11-0-1 Georgia Tech. The Big 8 champion Buffaloes were tied to the Orange Bowl, while the Yellow Jackets appeared in the Florida Citrus Bowl. One year later, the writers favored 12-0 Miami and the coaches selected 12-0 Washington. Due to the Huskies’ allegiance to the Rose Bowl against the Big Ten champion (#4 Michigan), the two teams were unable to play once again. Clearly, something had to change.

Postseason Format #2
1992-1994 –
Bowl Coalition
Too many split championships led to an agreement between conferences and bowl games and the creation of the Bowl Coalition. The ACC, Big 8, Big East, SEC and SWC participated along with Notre Dame. The Sugar Bowl kept its arrangement with the SEC champ, the Cotton kept theirs with the SWC, and the Orange kept theirs with the Big 8. The remaining bowl was the Fiesta, whose profile had gone up since hosting that fateful Penn State-Miami game. Along with the two remaining conference champions, the coalition hosted three at large teams, selected from Notre Dame and the conference runner-ups (as well as the SEC’s third place team, due to its newly formed championship game). Notably absent from the coalition were the Pac-10 and Big Ten (including new Big Ten member Penn State), who remained allied to the Rose Bowl and thus had little interest in joining the Coalition. The way the system worked is that the overall #1 and #2 teams in the Bowl Poll* (a combination of points from the AP and Coaches polls) would meet in whichever game had hosting ties to their respective conference.

In 1992, #1 Miami (Big East champion) met #2 Alabama (SEC champion) in the Sugar Bowl, the SEC’s host game, because the Big East had no such ties. If the top two teams were from conferences that both had hosting obligations, one of the games would “release” their respective team to make a championship game possible. That situation (and the vague resolution of how one bowl would agree to give up its top-two team for the good of college football) never arose in the three-season history of the Coalition. In 1993 and 1994, the Gator and Hancock (later Sun) bowls would join in to expand the at-large pool. In its first two years, the Coalition produced not only a #1 vs. #2 game, but also at least two other games pitting top-ten teams. Both years featured an undefeated team getting left out of the championship game (Texas A&M in 1992, West Virginia in 1993). A&M was ranked #4 in 1992, behind not only Miami and Alabama but also one-loss Florida State, and there was very little controversy.

In 1993, another one-loss Florida State team was ranked ahead of undefeated Nebraska and West Virginia thanks to varying poll results (AP had FSU, Nebraska, WVU in that order; Coaches had Nebraska, WVU, FSU). The Mountaineers were the odd men out. Meanwhile, one-loss Notre Dame, who had dealt FSU its only loss of the year, was #4. If that wasn’t enough, earlier in the season, then-Louisville head coach Howard Schnellenberger, whose Cardinals could not gain entry into the Big-money Bowl Coalition games due to their independent status, spoke out against the arrangement and declared it un-American.

In 1994, when Nebraska and Penn State both finished undefeated to be named #1 and #2 in the cleverly-title Bowl Poll. With Penn State obligated to the Rose Bowl outside the Coalition, Nebraska played 10-1 Miami in the Orange Bowl. 6-5 Texas Tech (the SWC co-champion) and 6-4-1 Notre Dame were invited to Coalition games (the Cotton and Fiesta, respectively). The SWC had voted in 1993 to disband after rapidly declining quality of play. The Coalition, a clear work in progress, had failed to deliver a decisive national champion for two straight seasons. Clearly, something had to change.

Postseason Format #3
1995-1997 –
Bowl Alliance
Beginning in 1995, a condensed format attempted to streamline the bowl coalition under the new name of the Bowl Alliance. Now reduced to three bowls – the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange, the group removed its “Tier 2” games in the Gator and Sun. It also showed the Cotton Bowl the door now that its prom date, the SWC, was on its last legs. Despite The Penn State Problem that arose in 1994, the new Bowl Alliance still didn’t include the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten or the Pac-10. Under the new format, the championship game would rotate between the three bowls. The AP and Coaches’ polls would still be combined to determine rankings. In addition to the ACC, Big 8, Big East and SEC champions, the Alliance invited two at-large teams from the pool of conference runner-ups and Notre Dame. In 1995, one of those at-large spots was taken by final SWC champion Texas.

The 1995 season produced just two undefeated teams (thanks to a timely upset of then-#2 Ohio State by Michigan) and a resounding victory for Nebraska over Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, thus ensuring that for at least one year, the new system got it right. The success would be short lived.

In 1996, #1 Florida State and #2 Arizona State were unable to play thanks to the latter’s Rose Bowl commitments. Instead, the Seminoles played – and lost to – #3 Florida, whom they’d defeated during the regular season. Meanwhile the Sun Devils lost to #4 Ohio State in the Rose, thus lifting the Gators to their first national championship. Nebraska was ranked #3 going into the inaugural Big 12 title game, and their upset opened the door for Florida. The Rose Bowl upset (a dramatic 20-17 win) put the Buckeyes at #2 in both final polls, and receiving #1 votes in each. BYU, competing in the mid-major Western Athletic Conference, finished the season at #5 with a 13-1 ranking, but was passed over for an at-large spot in favor of 10-2 Nebraska and 10-2 Penn State.

One year later, Michigan and Nebraska, undefeated at #1 and #2 respectively, were unable to play each other under Bowl Alliance terms. After Michigan defeated #8 Washington State in the Rose Bowl and Nebraska defeated #3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, the AP Poll crowned the Wolverines and the Coaches’ Poll anointed the Cornhuskers. Despite six seasons of development, the Bowl Alliance produced a split championship – the very thing it was created to avoid. Clearly, something had to change.

In the six years of the BCS’ predecessors, they produced a consensus national champion twice. 

Next Time: History ( 1998-2004 )

* – Some reports have only the AP Poll being used in 1992.

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