How to Fix Bowl Season and BCS

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On Dec. 17 in Real Clear Sports I made an appeal for college presidents and trustees to get control of their football programs, which have clearly gotten out of alignment with the proper missions of institutions of higher education. The profound urgency of this problem was sadly demonstrated just two days later in a Business Week article about the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference, whose goal is to make college football more profitable that professional football.  

Larry Scott was quoted as saying, “Imagine the kind of value we could unleash if there were only one seller – all six power conferences negotiating one deal” seems at odds with the BCS proponents’ claims that it does not resemble a cartel. The purpose of this essay is to suggest some additional reforms pertaining to the bowl system in addition to the more fundamental proposals outlined last month.

Recent football seasons have brought about an explosion of bowl games. This year over 57 percent of all Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams are participating in these postseason games. This year’s crop of bowls produced a number of new lows for the sport including UCLA, the loser in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which ended its “bowl season” with a record of 6-8 after losing to Illinois, which two days prior to the game had four coaches threatening to boycott the game.  

In addition, there was the inspiring Beef O’Brady's Bowl between (according to the Sagarin Predictor rankings) No. 91 Marshall versus No. 96 Florida International in front of only 20,072 people. The complete debasement of the concept of being invited to a bowl game makes the sports press pronouncements about this or that school’s bowl invitation history about as meaningful (and laughable) as comparing home run statistics if the steroid era had been accompanied by bringing the fences in 100 feet.  

Going to a bowl game used to mean something (and still does for what is now known as the BCS bowls) when one remembers that in the years 1950-80, six teams that were named national champions by either the AP or the coaches’ poll did not even get bowl invitations in their championship years.

Then there is the controversy about the national championship game itself. Here the many detractors make contradictory arguments. On one hand although it is usually pretty clear who the top team that should be playing for the national title is, there's often significant controversy as to one of a handful of powerful teams that should be the challenger. Think Oklahoma State this year or TCU last year or Texas in 2008 as examples. Here the argument is about who earned the right to play in the championship game.  

At the other end of the spectrum are those who wish to emulate the commercial success and excitement of March Madness and have a playoff as is the case in Division I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision). This view usually argues for a playoff of eight to 16 teams that would clearly have some teams with multiple losses or a very weak claim to eligibility for the title game.

This year’s BCS championship game is particularly irksome. At a time when college conferences are being ripped apart in order to have college championship games, one of the two teams in this year’s title game not only did not win its conference, it was the runnerup in its division and lost at home to the team that it will play in a rematch.  

Now for a set of proposals to restore some sanity in the bowl and championship pictures. First, bowl games should feature teams that actually excelled during the regular season. The selectivity, honor and luster should be restored. The number of bowl games should be reduced back to the level that prevailed until the 1990s. In order to be sanctioned as a bowl game, all or most of the following criteria should be satisfied:

Each team should have to have a record of no worse than .500 after the bowl game.

Each game should involve at least one team ranked in the Top 25.

Each participating team should be required to sell at retail (not to a sponsor) 10,000 tickets (this requirement could be modified for the relative handful of universities in Division I-A that have smaller student bodies and also therefore fewer alumni).

Since there is a requirement in Division I-A for teams to have stadiums of at least 30,000 seats, to be sanctioned a bowl should be required to have a minimum of 30,000 paid attendance at the games.

Since it is college football, no team should be eligible for postseason play if its graduation rate is not above the overall average (currently 68.1 percent). The validity and quality of the graduation rates should be monitored and over time the minimum requirement should be raised to something more like 80 percent.

As for the championship game. There are often more than two teams that have a legitimate claim based on their performance over the season to be considered eligible to be national champion. There are often three but rarely more than four. A playoff that includes teams with multiple losses who must play through final exam periods while exposing players to that many more opportunities for serious injury does not seem consistent with the mission of college athletics. College bowls played during the break after exams and after giving banged-up players some time to heal makes sense.  

Then again, the color and tradition of the bowl games played on or around New Year’s Day is very much a part of what has made college football great. A modified playoff system that makes use of the existing bowl structure not only preserves this tradition, but has a better chance of getting the necessary buy-in to make it a reality. 

I propose that on a rotating basis two of the four major bowl games (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, Orange) be used as semifinal games with one of the four bowls played a week later as the championship game. The teams eligible for the playoff would be the four highest rated of the conference champions from the six major conferences plus the highest rated teams from the remaining conferences and independents provided that they rank in the top 25 (otherwise highly ranked teams that were not conference champions would be considered if the other champions do not qualify - call this the modified conference champion system). In order to take subjectivity and popularity contest aspects out of the determination I would propose that computer ratings that take into account home field advantage and quality wins (capped to prevent running up the score) be used to rank the teams.

What would this system look this year? Using the Sagarin Predictor rating system the playoff games would be LSU vs. Oregon and Oklahoma State vs. Wisconsin. If the modified conference champion system outlined above were combined with graduation rates above the midpoint this year’s playoffs would be LSU vs. Notre Dame and TCU vs. Alabama. If you just took the four most powerful teams with graduation rates above the midpoint you would have LSU vs. Boise State and Alabama vs. Stanford.

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