CHICAGO — Controversy and subjectivity reign in college football, a sport where human polls determine national championships.
It comes as no surprise that with 11 split titles in 50 years and annual tweaks to form a more perfect bowl system that more changes are coming. It’s just a matter of how, who and where.
This month, college administrators and presidents will decide the next step in picking a national champion. A four-team playoff with semifinals scheduled through the bowl system is likely with the title game staged at a neutral site. The method for selecting those teams is undetermined, and that’s where the leagues disagree. Big 12 and Southeastern officials prefer the top four teams appear in the playoffs, while Big Ten and Pac-12 administrators want a combination of conference champions and the top at-large/independent team or teams.
“No system is perfect,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said at the Big Ten’s spring meetings. “What we have is not perfect, what we will adopt is not perfect. But what is the right balance between champions who won it on the field, and teams that are highly regarded but haven’t won a conference championship and independents that should have a fair opportunity to play their way in as well? It’s a balance.”
Since the advent of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, there was a split national title in 2003 when the top-ranked team in human polls (USC) finished third in the BCS rankings, a hybrid of computer formulas, polls and other criteria. In 2004 (Auburn) and 2009 (Cincinnati), undefeated major-conference teams failed to crack the championship game. In 2011, two teams from the same conference qualified for the BCS title game, including one that didn’t win its division.
“If we’re going to go to a four-team playoff, which I anticipate we are, it needs to be, and the fans would expect us to provide, the best four teams in the country,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive told reporters this week at the SEC spring meetings. “And if people aren’t happy with the current system of how we rank them, then let’s go back and look at the system that creates one through four.
“I’m very open to looking at how we would do that, whether it’s a committee or a different set of data points. But I think you go back to the source of the issue rather than dealing with a byproduct of the issue and end up gerrymandering who’s going to be playing for the national championship.”
Based on the past 10 years of BCS standings, selecting a four-team playoff will invite controversy regardless of how it’s determined. In 2002, one-loss Iowa was ranked No. 3 by both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches poll. Two-loss USC ranked fifth in both polls, but the teams flipped spots in BCS poll, partly because of strength of schedule (USC was 1, Iowa was 49).
Strength of schedule was eliminated from the BCS rankings by 2004, but the controversy continued. Texas Coach Mack Brown lobbied for voters to jump the 10-1 Longhorns over 10-1 California for the final BCS bowl spot. From the second-to-last poll to the final poll, Texas gained 15 points in the coaches’ poll and 12 points in the AP poll and edged California for the Rose Bowl by .0013 points after trailing by .0129 entering the final poll. The problem? Texas was idle in the season’s final week while California won its finale by double digits.
In a four-best model the last 10 years, only three times would the spots belong only to conference champions, based on BCS rankings. Four times it would have included three champions and three times it would have included only two champions. Big Ten officials openly discussed — but not advocated — including all conference champions if ranked in the top six. From 2002 forward, 20 percent of the teams would have changed based on that system.
Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith openly discussed the dilemma of mixing highly rated conference champions with the nation’s top at-large squads. Ohio State would have qualified for a four-team playoff four times in the last 10 years, including once as a wild card in a best-four model.
“A conference championship is unbelievably valuable. You went through the gauntlet,” Smith said at the Big Ten spring meetings. “(But) I think you need to have space for those non-conference champions that have a great season and are highly ranked.”
A computer-based rankings system has flaws. In 2008, the computers ranked Texas Tech fourth and Alabama sixth, while human polls had Alabama fourth and Texas Tech seventh. Few people know the specific formula into the separate computer rankings, and the operators rarely disclose it. That’s something that both Delany addressed last month.
“If we’re going to use computers, that would mean people would be up front with what’s in those computers,” Delany said. “It would perhaps the pollsters that we have would have to refrain from ranking teams before they ever play. It would we would have to honestly discuss strength of schedule and how you measure it.
“If a computer guy is unwilling to explain to me and everybody else what’s in his program I don’t think it ought to be a part of the process.”
Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez and Delany said every step in the process should be transparent to take out the guesswork.
“In the past you talk about one and two, sitting there at three, how’s that decided?” Alvarez said. “You see it some evening on ESPN and boom, here they are. Well, how is it determined? I personally think there should be a committee and it should be transparent. So all the coaches and the public know the criteria. Where the most weight is put and why the decisions are made. Someone stand up just like the basketball committee and tell the public why. Tell coaches why. Some coaches know going in what the criteria are, what is going to be weighed, what’s your scheduling …?”
Commissioner meetings are scheduled for June 13 and June 20, with the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee set to meet June 26. Delany said college presidents will decide the future playoff system. Some presidents, like Florida’s Bernard Machen, openly advocate for the best four. Others, like Iowa President Sally Mason, defer comment.
“Obviously, the conversation about possible changes to the college football postseason is of great interest to Hawkeye fans,” Mason said in a statement. “I am in regular communication with our athletic director, Gary Barta, so that when the matter is brought before the presidents for discussion and decision I will have a broad sense of the possible impacts any changes may have. Until that time, however, any conversation about the subject would be premature.”
There is one source of agreement. Whatever postseason is enacted will invite conflict.
“I can assure that there’s going to be as much controversy as there has been in the past,” Nebraska Athletics Director Tom Osborne said. “The fifth-place team is not going to be happy. Maybe even the sixth or the seventh. And there will be going to be all kinds of arguments and justification as to why they should be in the top four.”
“We think there’s going to be more chaos than what people understand and probably just like the BCS, it gets tweaked over the first two or three years,” Smith said. “This thing is not going to be perfect, and that’s what everybody, all of you (reporters) needs to help our fans understand. There’s no perfect system, particularly when you’re dealing with four teams.”
PAST BCS STANDINGS WITH MODERN-DAY CONTROVERSIES
This 10-year list includes the top four teams (based on final BCS standings) plus the first team left out in a top-four model. It also includes the top four champions to qualify in a champions-only format:
Controversy: In a champions-only model, No. 10 Wisconsin would trump both No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Stanford. In a top-four model, Stanford would edge Oregon despite the Ducks winning the same league and blasting Stanford 53-30 in the process.
Controversy: Wisconsin outranked Stanford by both the AP and USA Today/Coaches poll but placed just slightly behind Stanford in the BCS standings.
Controversy: All five conference champions were unbeaten to end the regular-season. Florida, arguably, was the nation’s second-best team after losing to Alabama in the SEC title game.
Controversy: Champions-only model would knock out the No. 3 and No. 4 teams. Alabama and USC were tied for fourth in the final regular-season USA Today/Coaches poll.
Controversy: Despite a chaotic mess to determine the two best teams that year, picking the top four would have been semi-painless.
Controversy: It was a contentious year deciding two teams, and four might have been worse. In a champions-only model, Michigan and LSU would have fallen out (Michigan was lapped controversially before the final poll that season anyway). Two-loss LSU did not win the SEC West that year and the team that did (Arkansas) lost to Florida in the SEC title game.
Controversy: A champions-only model automatically knocks out Notre Dame and brings in the No. 7-ranked team. Ohio State (.8559) had a commanding rating over both Oregon (.7989) and Notre Dame (.7329) for the final slot, but anytime the Irish are involved there’s controversy. It was the perfect year for a two-team finale.
Controversy: The poster-child season for a four-team event after three major-conference champions finished unbeaten. The fourth slot would have been nearly as contentious. That season, Texas Coach Mack Brown lobbied voters for the school to get a BCS berth to the Rose Bowl, and it worked. The Longhorns leapfrogged California in the final poll despite not playing the final weekend and Cal winning by double digits. It would have been moot in a champions-only model with Utah earning the final nod.
Controversy: A champions-only model would make these rankings laughable after Oklahoma was clobbered in the Big 12 title game, yet still finished No. 1. The BCS truly became a negative buzzword that year with both LSU and USC ranked higher than Oklahoma in both human polls but still trailed in the final tally. A top-four model would have worked better than the original result.
Controversy: A champions-only model would have eliminated controversy except within the conferences themselves (Iowa and Ohio State were unbeaten in Big Ten play but did not meet). A top-four model would have introduced controversy between Iowa and USC. The Hawkeyes ranked No. 3 in both human polls (USC was No. 5) and had only one loss to USC’s two.
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