Bowl Championship Series Doesn’t Need A ‘Plus-One’ Format

I began writing this column with every intention of supporting a playoff system for college football. Perhaps it was because I really didn’t think two-loss Louisiana State University was the best team in the nation. Or maybe it was because I felt bad for all of those University of Southern California fans, who clearly were not satisfied with just a whopping on Illinois. Having a playoff just feels fair; it’s too sad to turn teams away.

But honestly, a playoff system just wouldn’t work.

John Swofford, the outgoing chair of the Bowl Championship Series, discussed this week the possibility of moving to a pseudo-playoff format, dubbed “plus-one.” Under this system, the top four teams in the BCS standings would play in two of the bowls, with the winners playing a week later in the national championship game. While this doubles the amount of potential champions going into the bowls to four, would this actually solve anything? Is arguing over the top four teams in the country any different than arguing over the top two?

Had this format been in place this year, joining Ohio State and LSU would be Virginia Tech and Oklahoma (how nice, four different conference champions). But do they all belong? USC won the Pac-10. Georgia came up just short of the SEC Championship game because of their loss earlier at Tennessee. Both teams were dominant late in the season, and no one would have been surprised if their names ended up in the top four.

Georgia President Michael F. Adams suggested this week to extend this to eight teams. No matter where you draw the line though, the argument over where a team belongs will always dominate the conversations and brood controversy over the results. Every year can’t end like the 2005–06 season, when Texas and USC were the only undefeated teams who remained, giving us the most memorable championship of the BCS era.

The greatest aspect of the current bowl system is that every game matters. And I mean every, seemingly innocent game. USC didn’t play for the championship game last Monday night because on Oct. 6, over three months ago, it lost to a Stanford team it shouldn’t have. Georgia couldn’t prove its worth in the SEC Championship game, and potentially the BCS Championship Game, because of a silly early-season loss to South Carolina on Sept. 8, a full four months ago.

In no other sport are the stakes so high so early, and having a playoff would just ruin that. Can you imagine a Heisman trophy candidate sitting the last game of the season to prevent injury, knowing his team is in the “playoffs”? If you think the frustration over NFL teams sitting players in the final weeks is bad, this would only be worse.

Those who sympathize with this point suggest maintaining the current bowl system (so don’t seed teams 1–4) and adding on one more game. Simply re-rank the teams after the current five-bowl structure (pulling in the Capital One or Cotton Bowls), and pit the new No. 1 and No. 2 against each other in the National Championship Game. But would this actually lessen the debates? Take this bowl season, for example. LSU would clearly be the top seed, but who’s No. 2?

Is it USC, who dominated Illinois in the Rose Bowl? Or Georgia, who destroyed the previously undefeated Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl? Or West Virginia, who probably today would be tops in the country had it not been for Pat White’s injured thumb against Pittsburgh? Or Kansas, the one-loss surprise who validated itself against Virginia Tech? You get my point.

The BCS has also adapted well since its introduction, evolving to problems that come up as unforeseen scenarios emerge. It now provides an automatic berth to winners of one of the “mid-major” conferences, should the team finish in the top 12 in the BCS standings. Teams ranked third (and possibly fourth) in the BCS standings also automatically gain entrance into a BCS Bowl (after No. 3 Kansas State was subjected to the Alamo Bowl in 1998).

These changes have also been coupled with changes to how the actual scoring is done to rank the teams, often for the better. Nearly every year, the scoring — which takes into account both human polling and computer rankings — changes. But with change comes progress, and as a fan, the hour I waste figuring out what’s what after the first set of rankings comes out is well worth the trouble.

Any type of large-scale change isn’t going to happen easily, and it certainly won’t happen soon. Beyond convincing the Big 10 and Pac-10 to stray away from their precious Rose Bowl, the BCS still has a contract with FOX through 2010.

So as the debates continue for the years to come, the least we can do is say, Congratulations, LSU, the BCS has declared you the best team in the country. That’s one thing, I hope, we can all agree on.