Is the BCS a bunch of B.S.?



A big portion of the impetus to change the Division I college football structure came from a landmark 1984 case, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (Cotten, Wolohan, Wilde). Football was controlled up until then by the College Football Association (CFA), which negotiated TV contracts for all NCAA schools.

However, the United States Supreme Court ruled that by prohibiting schools from negotiating their own TV contracts, the NCAA was violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. That it was a restraint of trade to not allow schools to chose the TV contract which benefitted them the most. The decision gave schools the right to negotiate their own TV contracts.

With schools given that freedom, it was a virtual free-for-all as conferences, and in some cases individual schools, attempted to cut the best deals with TV networks. The University of Notre Dame was the first to do so when it broke from the CFA in 1990 and negotiated a deal with NBC to televise its six home games each season.

There was an eventual trickle-down effect to the bowl system. “In order to obtain better television deals, the colleges disbanded and reorganized traditional conference alignments” (Rader). That meant more schools were joining conferences where they could be part of a TV contract. While schools were free to set up their own TV contracts, most schools lacked the national clout of Notre Dame, so it benefitted them to join a conference, which had more pull in negotiating, for say, several schools in a close proximity like the SEC.

In 1991, Notre Dame and the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big East Conference, as well as the Southwest and Big-8 conferences, which would later merge into the Big-12, formed the precursor of the BCS, the Bowl Coalition. The five conferences and Notre Dame reached an agreement with the Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta, Gator and the Sun Bowl to lock-in the highest placing conference teams to those bowls.

But the system didn’t guarantee a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. That would only happen if the top-ranked two teams came from those five conferences or Notre Dame. Then, those teams would be slated in one of those three bowls. Each conference champion would still be tied to a specific bowl. For example, the SEC winner would still go to the Sugar Bowl.

“The goal of the Bowl Coalition was to be able to match the highest-rated teams available from the pool of participating teams while keeping regional and traditional ties in place” (Billingsley).

Meanwhile, proponents of a football playoff got their first good news in 1993 when an NCAA special committee convened to gather information about the feasibility of staging such a game. But that good news was tempered when the committee decided a year later, “that while merit exists for the concept of a playoff, the committee cannot recommend specific legislation.” That derailed the chances for a playoff, at least temporarily.

But momentum for a playoff picked up by 1995 when the CFA was disbanded and the Bowl Alliance was created. This made the likelihood of a national championship between the No. 1 and No.2 teams even greater because now the national championship would be decided in one of only three bowls, the Fiesta, Orange or Sugar. Those three bowls would rotate off every three years sharing the title game, but there was still one catch.

The Big-10 and Pac-10, whose conference champion’s traditionally meet in the Rose Bowl, hadn’t joined the Bowl Alliance because they didn’t want to break-up the traditional bowl structure of certain conferences qualifying for certain bowls. That meant if a Big-10 or Pac-10 team ended the year No. 1 or No. 2, they would still meet in the Rose Bowl -- leaving the Bowl Alliance without a true national championship game.

It was clear the Bowl Alliance needed the Big-10 and Pac-10 to come on board if it wanted any chance of a true national championship. The push came following the 1997 season when Big-10 member Michigan was forced to split the national championship with Nebraska because Michigan and Nebraska couldn’t meet in a bowl game. So, prior to the start of the ‘98 season, the Big-10 and Pac-10 joined the Bowl Alliance, but a playoff was still a dream...

The BCS was up next...