Deciphering the Bowl Championship Series

Josh Doan
December 21, 2010

This time of year, one cannot go five minutes on American sports television without someone bashing the NCAA’s Bowl Championship Series. The BCS is the current system that college football utilizes to crown an outright national champion. The BCS has been widely criticized since its inception for various reasons. However, from most Canadians’ point of view, the BCS is as confusing as the Maple Leafs Phil Kessel trade. For those confused readers, here is a history lesson on the NCAA bowl system:

The Past

The bowl system was not conceived as a system itself but rather a single game. The original Rose Bowl (then entitled the: “Tournament East-West Game”) was an event that coincided with Pasadena, California’s Parade of Roses. The game became an annual tradition in 1916 and became a great marketing tool for the city of Pasadena. Other bowls would sprout up and grow to a current number of 35 bowls.

Bowls would not determine the national champion but rather two polls would do the job: the Associated Press (AP) Poll and the Coaches’ Poll. This led to an issue in 1990 when Georgia Tech and Colorado each won a different poll leading to a split national champion. When the issue repeated in 1991 (Miami and Washington), college football was heavily criticized for not having a national champion. This led to the creation of the Bowl Coalition for the 1992 season. The Bowl Coalition took five of the top conferences at the time and independent school Notre Dame and created their own poll: the “Bowl Poll” which was a combination of the AP and Coaches’ Poll. The “Bowl Poll” ranked the teams and placed them into the major bowls. The American Football Coaches Association agreed to rank the winner of the coalition championship game as number one in their final poll. This made the coalition’s championship game relevant as it guaranteed the winner of at least a share of the national championship.

Unfortunately, the Coalition was full of issues and only lasted three years. Although many major conferences were included, the Big Ten and Pac-10 were not a part of the coalition (due to contractual obligations with the Rose Bowl). The Coalition also completely ignored “mid-major” teams (try and deal with that Boise State) no matter where they were ranked which excluded over half of the teams in the division. The Bowl Coalition became the Bowl Alliance and then in 1998 became the Bowl Championship Series.

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The Present

This article is not intended to criticize or praise the current BCS system; it is just information so that legitimate arguments can be made for or against it. The BCS is a very, very complex system. It is a synthesis of human opinion and computer stats which can lead you to see where the arguments stem from. There are two forms of this system: 1998-2003 and the current system. The system changed to rely more on the human polls than computer statistics for the 2004 season. This is due to USC being voted number one in the AP Poll and not included in the BCS championship game. Take a deep breath reader; it’s time to evaluate the current BCS system.

First of all, let’s evaluate the most important game: the National Championship game. This will always feature the top two teams in the BCS Poll. The BCS Poll is calculated by the following:

Coaches’ Poll (1/3 weighted): Percentage point of total poll. Example: If all the maximum point total a team can get adds up to 1000 and a team has 100 (10 percent of the total points), they would get .100 as their Coaches’ Poll Score for the BCS.

Harris Interactive College Football Poll (1/3 weighted): Same System as the Coaches’ Poll

Computer Scores (1/3 weighted): Six computer programs scores that produce independent rankings. These polls feature stats like strength of schedule and quality wins but all do them with different weighting. The teams highest and lowest scores are thrown out (think Olympic judging). Then the remaining four are combined and then given a percentage score along the lines of the other two polls. Looking at this year’s championship game there were three undefeated teams that had a chance at the National Championship: Auburn, Oregon, and TCU.


1st in the Harris Poll (.9856) 2nd in the Coaches’ Poll (.9742) and was 1st in all of the computer polls (1.000)

BCS Score: .9886 (1st)


2nd in the Harris Poll (.9730), 1st in the Coaches’ Poll (.9831), and 2nd in all of the computer polls (.960)

BCS Score: .9720 (2nd)

3rd in the Harris Poll (.9168) 3rd in the Coaches’ Poll (.9139), and averaged 3rd in all of the computer polls (.900)

BCS Score: .9102

In this instance, many agree that the system worked this year. The best two teams are playing for the national championship. Now we have to deal with the other eight teams and the four remaining bowl games.

Unfortunately, this is not a simple question of seeding the rest of the teams. This is where the old bowl system creeps up as the six champions from the “BCS Conferences” (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC) are guaranteed a spot in a BCS Bowl regardless of their BCS Ranking. A painful example of this is 8-4 Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl without being in the Top 25 in the BCS, Harris, or Coaches’ Poll rankings. Here is how the formula works in general and how it was applied this year:


-Top 2 Teams in the BCS Rankings

-6 Automatic Qualifiers (Conference Champions)

-1 Automatic Qualifier (If the highest ranked Non-BCS Conference Champion is in the top 12 in the BCS Rankings)

-Remaining spots go to at-large teams with a number of specific stipulations

This Year:

National Championship Game (Always the 1-2 Game)

#1 Auburn (SEC Champions) vs. #2 Oregon (Pac-10 Champions)

Fiesta Bowl (Must Have Big 12 Champion**)

#7 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion) vs. Connecticut (Big East Champions)

Orange Bowl (Must Have ACC Champion**)

#13 Virginia Tech (ACC Champion) vs. # 4 Stanford (At-Large)

Rose Bowl (Must have Big Ten Champion and Pac-10 Champion**)

#5 Wisconsin (Big Ten Champion) vs. #3 TCU (MWC Champion*)

Sugar Bowl (Must have SEC Champion**)

#8 Arkansas (At-Large) vs. #6 Ohio State (At-Large)

* TCU was the highest ranked non-BCS Conference Champion, therefore received an automatic bid

**These teams are exempt from the rule if they qualify for the BCS championship game

In this example the eight highest ranked teams made BCS bowl games. The at-large bids went to the highest teams available while two top 10 BCS teams lost out to automatic qualifiers (Michigan State, Boise State) The 30 other Non-BCS bowl games use the leftover teams that are bowl eligible (must have six wins). Overall, the system allows roughly sixty percent of the 117 top level college football teams to have one postseason game against a winning football team.

The Future

The future of the BCS is about as stable as Tom Fenton’s NHL career. There is constant pressure from the non-BCS conferences to be given an automatic qualifier. Notre Dame, under the current rules is guaranteed a BCS game if it finished in the top eight in the BCS Poll. This rule has been under fire and seen as completely unfair by some critics. As well, the decline in the quality of football in the Big East conference (again, 8-4 Connecticut in the BCS) has made other conferences question their automatic qualifier status. Many major opponents of the BCS are convinced that a playoff system is needed to have a legitimate champion. The BCS will need to address these issues and adapt to sustain itself in the future.

The real obstacle in all of this is that college football is trying to crown an outright national champion out of 117 teams in 14 weeks. It takes the NFL 21 weeks to crown a champion for 32 teams. Unless the number of schools playing in the top level of Division 1 NCAA football takes a sharp decline, there will never be a perfect system to crown a national champion.

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The Author:

Josh Doan