COLUMN: Post-BCS Era calls for real change


Thinking of the late great Bill Walsh during his time at Stanford is kind of like thinking of Paul McCartney with Wings, or Tony Shalhoub with … Wings.
Walsh’s most memorable years weren’t spent with the Cardinal, whom he coached from 1977-78 and 1992-94, bookending his storied stint with the San Francisco 49ers. His Stanford résumé doesn’t jump off the page – .585 winning percentage, a couple of bowl wins – but Walsh did get his own short-lived line of video games (two) that were inducted into my pantheon of sports-video games and other stuff I wouldn’t talk about on the first date. Launched in 1992, Bill Walsh College Football was great not just because it started the EA Sports NCAA Football series, but because it was simple and honest. You played as one of the top 24 teams from ’92 or as one of the top 24 all-time greatest teams since 1978 – “Why can’t Doug Flutie throw the ball more than 40 yards?” – in a single-elimination tournament.
My only qualm about the game has snowballed over the years. Shouldn’t every team be allowed to play for a national title like in basketball and FCS football? (I know. It was the early-90s and sports video games were just taking off.)
I was excited and somewhat anxious two weeks ago when BCS executive director Bill Hancock announced that conference presidents, athletic directors and coaches had agreed to pursue a four-team playoff. Excited because it could bring clarity to major-college football’s process for crowning national championship; anxious because the new system could play out just like the one I used to enjoy on my Sega Genesis.
I proposed my idea for the right postseason format two years ago. It entailed taking away the BCS National Championship Game and pitting the winners of the other four major bowls in a tournament for all the marbles. That system now seems flawed for many of the same reasons that the current format is. It’s mostly based on rankings, which are entirely based on perception.
I like that college football heads are open to a four-team playoff. What I don’t like are some of the proposed changes I’ve been hearing and reading about. One of which calls for a complete scrapping of the bowls – too drastic. Another calls for reverting back to the old system, with the national champion(s) decided by polls – too passive. But the one that really bothers me is the idea of having the major-bowl winners with the highest rankings decide the national title in a playoff format.
The problem isn’t the bowls or the bowls after the bowls. It’s the power of the rankings. So much of major college football’s postseason is decided off the field. This is a rare chance to change that.
The current system lost any last shred of its credibility this year. Yes, the best team did win it all. But how Alabama got to the national championship game undercut the biggest argument that BCS proponents had. As it turns out, the regular season isn’t that important, at least not for Big Six-conference teams. They can lose a game, not win their conference or division and still play for the crystal football as long as their ranking, inflated as it may have been early in the season, doesn’t suffer too badly.
In a perfect world, everything would be decided on the field. This isn’t a perfect world. There is no perfect system, at least not when it involves a selection committee and, yes, rankings.
Computers and ballots ultimately denied Utah, then a member of the Mountain West Conference, of playing for a national title in 2005 and 2009, and TCU in 2011, and Boise State a bunch of times. The BCS has thrown the small-conference schools a bone by adding a fifth bowl in 2006. But it’s pretty clear that the ultimate prize is out of reach for them even if they go undefeated. There’s no guarantee that a four-team playoff would change that. That’s why the heads of major college football have to remember the “little people,” so to speak, when they’re deciding on a new postseason format.
It’s a safe bet the Pacific-12 and Big Ten conferences will not agree to do away with the Rose Bowl Game, so let’s assume some sort of bowl system will survive. It should include five major bowls (hello, Cotton); that gives the undefeated Boise States and TCUs the best chance to be included. It should involve flexible bowl tie-ins, which can be rotated annually, say, based on how conferences fared the previous postseason. Winning a major-conference title – on the field – should still count for something.
Teams that advance from the bowls, whether it’s to a plus-one game or a four-team tournament, should be based on rankings after the bowls, when the biggest chips have fallen. And the rankings should not be based on computers. For years, The Associated Press poll crowned a national champion, and everyone went along with it. Why not bring it back into the fold?
There is no perfect system, as stated earlier. But if it’s simple and honest, it should work.
Just make sure it includes everyone.