IOWA CITY — For years Bill Hancock justified the Bowl Championship Series as the perfect marriage between college football’s traditional past and its ultra-competitive present.
As the BCS’ executive director, Hancock defended the controversial system that subjectively matched the nation’s top two teams. When the college football universe finally answered the call for a four-team playoff, Hancock pivoted along with the leadership. He framed the discussion as the best fit for the sport’s future while maintaining its ties within the bowl structure.
But as the BCS enters its 16th and final season, its makeover — and the sport’s other changes — overshadows the season it’s designed to protect. Along with the four-team College Football Playoff, the Big Ten expands to 14 teams in 2014 and shifts from a competitively balanced divisional structure to a geographical split. The Big Ten implements a nine-game league schedule in 2016 and 2017, and Notre Dame begins its football semi-affiliation with the ACC in 2014. Future bowl contracts are announced almost daily, including new Big Ten ties with the Holiday, Pinstripe, Kraft Fight Hunger and Detroit bowls.
With everyone’s eyes on the future, the BCS’ final year could end in irrelevance. But that’s a concept both Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 counterpart Larry Scott vigorously dispute.
“I don’t think anything is lame duck about it,” Delany said. “I always find it in August, whether it’s the first year of a new BCS or bowl cycle or the year before the College Football Playoff, people are bursting with excitement and enthusiasm.
“College football is more popular than it’s ever been. People are more passionate. They have stronger disagreements. They love their teams. I’ve got a lot of problems, a lot of challenges, but getting people excited about the 2013 season is not one of them.”
“There’s so much on the line and the College Football Playoff will add a dimension that fans are excited about and our schools are excited about,” Scott said. “But there’s nothing about 2013 that’s got an asterisk, from my perspective.”
But the 2013 season has gotten lapped before its first kickoff. Hancock already was named the playoff’s executive director. His crew has developed a logo, picked the six-bowl semifinal structure, selected the first championship site and now is working on a selection committee and criteria. The playoff has a website with a countdown clock to when the playoff era begins. It stands at 500 days and change.
While the commissioners stand confident, Hancock has concerns this year’s champion might get lost in the 2014 hype.
“I think about that a lot,” Hancock said. “I don’t know how others think, but I’m of the mind that two teams are going to play in the BCS championship game this year. One’s going to win the national championship, and that team needs to be honored. So I understand that people want to talk about the playoff but all of us in this business — because of the student-athletes — we have to remember that we have another year of the BCS to go. We need to provide a quality experience for them, we need to give them the attention that they deserve, because they’re going to be the national champion.”
The BCS era began after the 1997 season when unbeatens Michigan (Big Ten) and Nebraska (then Big 12) earned split national titles. It was the second time in a four-year period the Big Ten lost its claim to an outright championship because of its exclusive tie with the Rose Bowl.
So in 1998, the BCS was formed to match the top two teams in a title game. The Rose Bowl became part of the rotation, and the sport was closer to crowning a truer champion.
The BCS didn’t alleviate controversy, however; it only heightened it. In 2003 when three one-loss major-conference champions (USC, Oklahoma, LSU) had equal arguments to a title shot, there was another split championship. The following year USC, Oklahoma and Auburn all were unbeaten. Iowa State’s upset win against Oklahoma State in 2011 ultimately led to the playoff when a second SEC team (Alabama) jumped the Cowboys for a BCS title shot and rematch against LSU.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Well, is the controversy good for college football because people are talking about the game? I don’t know,” Hancock said. “I see both sides of that coin. Was the Michigan-Nebraska controversy good for the game? I don’t know. Was it good that they both could claim to be national champions? I don’t know. But the BCS certainly brought order to the chaos that was postseason football back then.”
Hancock said one of the unintended positives of the BCS era includes adding importance to the regular season.
“It in many ways turned the game from basically a regional game into a national game, where people in the Big Ten area, in the southeastern part of the country, had to pay attention to Boise State and TCU. That’s bore out in the television ratings,” Hancock said.“The BCS, although it’s a lame duck now, it did a lot for college football. I am convinced that history will look back fondly on the BCS because it provided an opportunity for No. 1 and No. 2 to meet in a bowl game that never happened before. I’m a big believer in the BCS; we’ve had it for 16 years. It did a lot for the game.”