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So What if it Was 1997, Not 2011?

On Monday, Boise State’s Chris Petersen told local reporters that “everyone was tired of the B.C.S. system.” Petersen is wrong: not everyone is tired of the B.C.S. system. Why, Frank Beamer likes it just fine, thank you. As does Michigan and Brady Hoke. Alabama adores the B.C.S., as you’d think, and so does the SEC as a whole. The entire B.C.S. conference landscape has little issue with the B.C.S. in its current formation, and this year’s B.C.S. slate has done little to diminish those feelings of content. It’s the little guys, the Boise States of the world, who aren’t exactly tickled pink. But what if the B.C.S. didn’t exist? What if we were back in the old bowl system, the pre-B.C.S. days? Would that make everyone happy?

Forget 35 bowl games. There were 20 bowl games in 1997, the final season prior to the formation of the B.C.S., meaning 17 bowl-eligible teams stayed home in December and January. How would the 2011 postseason play out according to the 1997 system? Here’s the hypothetical, with the 1997 tie-ins listed alongside the bowl and the 1997 — or early 1998 — matchup listed in parentheses following the 2011 pairing.

Rose Bowl: Big Ten No. 1 vs. Pac-10 No. 1
Wisconsin vs. Oregon (Michigan vs. Washington State)

Orange Bowl: Big 12 No. 1 vs. SEC No. 1 (At-Large)
Oklahoma State vs. L.S.U. (Nebraska vs. Tennessee)

Sugar: A.C.C. No. 1 (At-Large) vs. Big Ten No. 2 (At-Large)
Clemson vs. Alabama (Florida State vs. Ohio State)

Cotton Bowl: Pac-12 No. 2 vs. Big 12 No. 3
Stanford vs. Oklahoma (U.C.L.A. vs. Texas A&M)

Citrus Bowl: SEC No. 2 vs. Big Ten No. 3
Arkansas vs. Michigan State (Florida vs. Penn State)

Gator Bowl: A.C.C. No. 2 vs. Big East No. 2
Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati (North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech)

Fiesta Bowl: Big 12 No. 2 vs. Big East No. 1
Kansas State vs. West Virginia (Kansas State vs. Syracuse)

Outback Bowl: SEC No. 3 vs. Big Ten No. 4
Georgia vs. Michigan (Georgia vs. Wisconsin)

Peach Bowl: SEC No. 4 vs. A.C.C. No. 3
South Carolina vs. Florida State (Auburn vs. Clemson)

Independence Bowl: SEC No. 5 vs. At-Large
Auburn vs. Notre Dame (L.S.U. vs. Notre Dame)

Sun Bowl: Pac-12 No. 3 vs. Big Ten No. 6
Washington vs. Penn State (Arizona State vs. Iowa)

Alamo Bowl: Big Ten No. 5 vs. Big 12 No. 4
Nebraska vs. Baylor (Purdue vs. Oklahoma State)

Holiday Bowl: WAC No. 1 vs. Big 12 No. 5
Louisiana Tech vs. Missouri (Colorado State vs. Missouri)

Aloha Bowl: Pac-12 No. 4 vs. Big Ten No. 7 (At-Large)
California vs. Ohio State (Washington vs. Michigan State)

Liberty Bowl: C-USA No. 1 vs. Big East No. 3 (At-Large)
Southern Miss vs. Texas (Southern Miss vs. Pittsburgh)

Las Vegas Bowl: Pac-12 No. 5 vs. WAC No. 2 (At-Large)
Utah vs. T.C.U. (Oregon vs. Air Force)

Carquest Bowl: A.C.C. No. 4 vs. Big East No. 4 (At-Large)
Virginia vs. Iowa (Georgia Tech vs. West Virginia)

Humanitarian Bowl: C-USA No. 2 vs. Big West No. 1
Houston vs. Boise State (Cincinnati vs. Utah State)

Motor City Bowl: SEC No. 6 (At-Large) vs. MAC No. 1
Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois (Mississippi vs. Marshall)

Insight: Pac-12 No. 6 (At-Large) vs. WAC No. 3 (At-Large)
Georgia Tech vs. B.Y.U. (Arizona vs. New Mexico)

A few bowls retain the same flavor. The Rose Bowl still pits Oregon and Wisconsin, the winners of the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, and has little bearing on the national title race. The Holiday Bowl still features the WAC champs, Louisiana Tech, against the five-ranked team from the Big 12. As in 1997, the Independence Bowl still features Notre Dame against the fifth-ranked team from the SEC.

And there aren’t many snoozers; there is no Little Caesars Bowl, for example. The worst game, going by name recognition, pits Arkansas State and Northern Illinois in the Motor City Bowl. Not a great game in terms of pure talent, but you can’t argue against either team being included in the mix: Arkansas State, winners of the Sun Belt, and Northern Illinois, winners of the MAC, have earned every right to reach bowl play.

It’s funny to note how many teams were left out in the cold prior to the recent proliferation of bowl games. In 1997, the 20-bowl slate left 17 bowl-eligible teams out of postseason play. Thanks to the growth of the F.B.S., there would be 33 bowl-eligible teams left out of postseason play.

Of course, a significant portion of today’s F.B.S. gets to bowl eligibility by taking care of cupcakes in September; in 1997, the 11-game slate meant that a team needed to finish at least .500 in conference play to reach six wins. In 1997, 35 of the 40 bowl teams won more than six games.

So no Florida in this format, or Texas A&M, N.C. State, Northwestern, U.C.L.A. or Mississippi State, among others. And the little guys? Good luck. There are only six non-B.C.S. conference teams in this hypothetical, if we include B.Y.U. and Notre Dame as part of the B.C.S. conference landscape.

But that’s not the issue: in terms of non-B.C.S. bowl play, 2011 is far kinder to the non-B.C.S. conferences than was 1997. But would the old bowl system do a better job deciding the 2011 national champion? Take a look at the two key bowls with national title implications:

Oklahoma State meets L.S.U. in the Orange Bowl; Alabama meets Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama would have the opportunity to pull a Nebraska — winning its bowl game by a huge margin — while Oklahoma State upsets the Tigers. Would Alabama get the top spot in the polls?

Or would L.S.U.’s regular season win over the Tide keep them in the top spot? Or would Oklahoma State’s 12-1 finish, complete with an Orange Bowl, make them the pick for national champs? In short: the whole argument may be as heated as it is with the current B.C.S. system.

But at least Oklahoma State would have a chance. Imagine a scenario where the Cowboys beat L.S.U. by, say, 24 points. Alabama beats Clemson, but only by a field goal — a game most think the Tide should win by at least two scores. Wouldn’t Oklahoma State have to be the pick for No. 1?

And do you miss the pre-B.C.S. system? Few bowls more meaningful than another, though the prime time, January games certainly stood out. No dead weight; at least seven wins, more often than not, and fewer shortcuts — playing a weakling in September — to bowl play.

More than anything, the old bowl system may have placed a heavier emphasis on the regular season. Under the 1997 system, it would have been difficult for this year’s Alabama to win the national championship: not even the winner of its own division, the Tide would be the third wheel in a two-team game of musical chairs.

The national champ would be the winner of L.S.U. and Oklahoma State. Again, does any part of you miss postseason play before the advent of the B.C.S. in 1998?

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  1. SixWinSeason says:

    I don’t think many are arguing that the bowl system is better, but that the BCS is the lesser alternative to a playoff. People who hate on the BCS mostly want a playoff, where Northern Illinois gets a chance to upset LSU in the first round.

  2. schedule nit says:

    On behalf of sadists everywhere, I say YES! Let’s give Northern Illinois that chance!

  3. Hokieshibe says:

    I don’t love the bowls, but I don’t want an 8-team playoff either… I think if you ever go more then 4, then upsets lose their significance

  4. DMK says:

    In a 16-team playoff we should already know enough about the 4-seeds to exclude them from consideration. And remember, weird things will happen in such a system: Last year Bama was 16 and Auburn 1 going into the playoffs. Tough draw for the Tigers. And a rematch. Draw from hell, really. The sort of thing that would have everyone up in arms about returning to the BCS.

  5. Dave says:

    Agree with SixWinSeason; the BCS, with all its faults was a (marginal) improvement over the old bowl system, but a playoff is what most fans want.

    Agree with DMK that 16 teams, however, is too many; you’re going to get a lot of 2- and 3- loss teams in there that simply don’t deserve a shot.

    I think 4 is too few – you have the possibility in such a system of leaving out undefeated conference champs.

    8 is probably right – either the 6 x BCS conference champs and the next 2 highest ranked teams (to take care of independents, Boise-type teams and powerful runners-up like ‘Bama this year), or (my preference) consolidate the FBS to 8 total conferences, with a conference title being the entry ticket to the big December dance. Non-conference champs can still play in minor bowls.

    A pipe-dream for now, obviously, but can we at least raise the bowl eligibility threshold to 7 wins? A .500 team really doesn’t deserve to be in post-season play…

  6. DMK says:

    The thing that bothers me about playoff talk is how people fail to acknowledge the vast difference between season-play mentality and tournament mentality.

    They are totally different things.

    We’re used to it, of course, in MLB, NFL, NCAAB and have just learned to be historically harsh on the elite teams that have failed in a tournament environment. UNLV, Patriots … sorry.

    What more did we need to know about the 2001 Mariners after watching them dominate over 162 games? Well, they’re a footnote now.

    Again (apologies) soccer has it correct: you can win the Premiership title by demonstrating your superiority over the course of a regular season (no playoffs but still based on metrics), while at the same time you compete in the FA Cup to demonstrate your playoff prowess. And their playoff includes all the “FCS” and “DIII” teams too!

    A plus-one or some such thing really just exposes a glitch in the American psyche whereby we all want a second chance we’ve scarcely earned and are addicted to dubiously certified black-and-white results about complicated systems.

    Teams played other teams. Eyes were on them. Stories were told. Opinions were formed. We had fun with extra play at the end. Several parties claimed victory. That’s college football!

  7. SixWinSeason says:

    DMK, you know what else is awesome about the premier league? They kick out the worst teams at the end of the year. Can you imagine if Kansas and Minnesota got the boot and Boise and TCU came in?

  8. DMK says:


    I’d be all for it. I hate people going on and on about earning and working and proving without accounting for the fact that where there are top winners, there are also abject losers. *That’s* meritocracy!

    If you come in last, go down a league an prove that you can beat the small frys before giving the big time another shot.

    If we’re going to insist that we find a way to test Boise’s ceiling, then we also have to test their basement.

  9. M Meyer says:

    That’s interesting. It sure would be nice to eliminate some of the dead weight from the bowls. The hypothetical slate is more watchable than what we’re getting with the BCS. I don’t see why we couldn’t have a four-team tournament and retain the rest of the exhibition (bowl) games as is. It leads to a couple more watchable games and the national championship will be even more popular.

    Also the Big-Ten really needs to stop playing 4 bowls scheduled in the same time slot.

  10. DaU!!!!! says:

    Can you imagine if American football was similar to the Promotion/Relegation system in non American football (soccer). High school teams would have a chance to play in the nfl. So many injuries.

  11. Dave says:

    “Also the Big-Ten really needs to stop playing 4 bowls scheduled in the same time slot.”

    Especially when they lose them all like they did last year. Mark May wouldn’t shut up all day about how they need to add a “Losers” division…

  12. 4.0 Point Stance says:

    Paul, you’ve got your years and bowl tie-in all wrong. In 1997 there was the Bowl Alliance, a precursor to the BCS which ensured a #1 v. #2 matchup, Nebraska v. Tennessee. So under the ’97 rules applied to this year, LSU would’ve played Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

    Under the old old bowl season, pre 1995, LSU would’ve been in the Sugar Bowl, which was ensured of getting the SEC champ. They wouldn’t have played Okie State, who as Big XII champ was tied to the Fiesta Bowl (Cotton Bowl under the SWC). For the Sugar, maybe Stanford; maybe V Tech.

    It wouldn’t have been Clemson though. The Sugar Bowl has never (to my knowledge) had have an official ACC tie, in even though ACC teams – FSU, specifically – were often invited.

  13. Hokieshibe says:

    Here’s the problem with an 8-team playoff with autobids: you win your conference, you’re in. No matter what. You could be an unranked big east team or a vt team that lost to jmu. Doesnt matter. I think that diminishes the value of those upsets. Just winning your conference is all that matters. Ooc is totally irrelevant

  14. Lee says:

    I say if you don’t like the top 4 in a plus one then take the top 6…top 2 seeds get a bye.

    Conference champ argument is garbage because you WILL HAVE teams that are 9-3 or 7-5 that win their conference. There is no way that they should be competing for a national title. The simpliest formula is to take the TOP 6 regardless of conference affiliation or champions.

    This year is a good example.

    Ok ST
    Boise STate
    Stanford or Clemson or Wisky

    They are all clearly better and more deserving than a West Virginia team that won a pathetic conference.

    It makes zero sense to reward a team for winning a weak conference title. That is silly logic.

    Just take the best teams…period.

  15. michael says:

    Marvel at the beauty of this, really look at it:

    1. LSU* 13-0
    16. (Louisiana Tech* 8-4 vs West Virginia* 9-3)

    8. Kansas State 10-2
    9 South Carolina 10-2

    5. Stanford 11-1
    12. Virginia Tech 11-2

    13. (Clemson* 10-3 vs Houston 12-1)
    4. Oregon* 11-2

    3. Alabama 11-1
    14 (Northern Illinois* 10-3 vs TCU* 10-2)

    6. Arkansas 10-2
    11. Michigan 10-2

    7. Wisconsin 11-2
    10. Boise State 11-1

    15. (Arkansas State* 10-2 vs Southern Miss* 11-2)
    2. Oklahoma St* 11-1

  16. Zach says:

    The problem with a playoff as it would be set up is the same problem that you have with the Ncaa basketball tournement, though most people don’t see it. If you are not the best team in your conference your cannot be the best team in the nation. A playoff would work but only taking the 8 best conference champions in a format where every team in a conference plays every other team. The only way. Otherwise your left with a glorified post season tournament which randomy determins a champion.

  17. Michael says:


    The issue I take with this position is that it negates, disavows, or ignores the results of quite literally every other level of NCAA football, and of every other sport of pretty much any kind. From FIFA association football to NCAA water polo or Div-III football, the ubiquity of playoffs are manifest.

    The real issue here is lack of fair play and the double-standard applied to the system. If you want to say, as many do, “the season is a playoff,” than you need to accept the results. This has not been done in the examples of Houston, Boise State, TCU, Utah, Hawai’i, Ball State, and a litany of other examples going back to Marshal and Tulane. The season cannot be a playoff until it is really and formally treated as such.

  18. Zach says:

    I am not against playoffs. I am against the way playoffs have been constituted in every sport in every division. A team that places 2nd in a conference can’t be the best team in the nation. If it can then there is a problem with how the team selects its conference champion an or how the sport selects a champion.
    The types of playoffs we have now are not determaining a champion. People just think it does. Which is what the problem is. If you ask the average CF fan who they would put in an 8 team playoff Alabama would be include. I ask you how can Alabama be declared the national champion if Alabama is not the best team in their conference. That is what my problem with playoffs are and that is why I am against the institution of it. We will be no closer to a champion because of how everyone would set it up.

  19. DMK says:

    Tournaments are merely tournaments.

    Many European soccer teams have utterly dominated a season that consists of round-robin home-and-away play (3pts win, 1pts tie, 0pts loss)


    these teams have failed to win their domestic cup tournament that same season.

    These teams passed all eye tests, proved it week in and week out, and lost in a tournament.

    So there’s no illogic in teams winning/losing a tournament who had in that very same season won/lost a non-tournament title.

  20. Zach says:

    DMK tournements are tournements but that is the exact reason if you are using it to determine a champion only teams that have won there conference should be included. Otherwise you are not name a national champion but a champion of a tournament. That is all I’m saying. The NCAA basketball Tournement, where a team can be 8th in a conference and make it in, is no better a determanor of a champion than what we have with the BCS. The second best team in a conference cannot be the best team in the nation.

  21. DMK says:

    That’s poor scholasticism. Very poor.

    I think that the best judgements about the best things are made by a group of (wo)men who are experts.

    Painting, wine, novels, sonatas, football teams.

    Same stuff.

    If you win a tournament, you win a tournament. That’s it. Yawn.

    FSU 1989 vintage troubles the palate at first, but finishes with more balance — nay!, sublimity — than fewer ever have. A disappointment turned delight.

    That’s college football.

  22. Clem says:

    Yes, the BCS generally lets us avoid situations like 1997. Well, whoop-de-do — a 10-year-old child could have done that!

    I just wish the BCS would drop the charade that its game is a “national championship” game. Some years it is, some years it just ain’t.

  23. asimperson says:

    The one thing that the BCS is better than is the old system. The proliferation of minor bowls has nothing to do with the BCS and more to do with mid-size cities’ chambers of commerce making money off TV deals and ticket guarantees.

    The old-old system ensured that undefeated Georgia Tech couldn’t play undefeated Colorado in 1990. Enough said.

  24. [...] And Pre-Snap Read gives you a look at this year’s bowl games under 1997 rules. [...]

  25. [...] Daily Bullets If the system is progressing, you shouldn’t be able to look at the way we did things in 1997 and say “hmmm, that actually sounds pretty good.” h/t @jakehatchKSL (Pre-Snap Read) [...]

  26. Jeff says:


    No kidding! Like that year “The Moonlight Sonata” went undefeated in conference play but lost a fluke game to “Arpeggione Sonata” in the quarter finals.

  27. DMK says:

    You never know when your team’s gonna show up at the table corked.

  28. Dave says:


    Hi Paul – I realize not exactly relevant to this thread, but was hoping you might do another write-up on Army Navy like you did last year…

  29. Burnt Orange says:

    I move that we ban all references to soccer.

  30. Daniel B says:

    The old way was worse, but this year isn’t much better. The non-BCS teams are included but mostly play each other and we don’t get to see Boise State or TCU (only Houston – and even then it’s a stretch) take on good AQ teams, nor do BYU, Tulsa, etc get to take on some above-average AQ schools to see what happens.

    What really put Alabama over Oklahoma State? Preseason polls. OSU had too much ground to make up and wasn’t given any wiggle room – when you start #2 it’s much easier to recover from a loss. Look at 2004 – the only time the SEC ever wasn’t awarded the Title Game slot in a controversy – it was because Auburn started behind Oklahoma and USC.

  31. Daniel B says:

    Zach says: “Michael,
    I am not against playoffs. I am against the way playoffs have been constituted in every sport in every division. A team that places 2nd in a conference can’t be the best team in the nation. If it can then there is a problem with how the team selects its conference champion an or how the sport selects a champion.”

    There’s an error in Zach’s logic though.

    Conference champions ONLY COUNT CONFERENCE GAMES. This isn’t a “problem with how conferences select their champions”, it’s how college conferences were designed to work. And it isn’t always the best team in the conference, because ooc games aren’t included and because tiebreakers can be screwy (like OU over TX in 2008).

  32. Daniel B says:

    DMK says: “A plus-one or some such thing really just exposes a glitch in the American psyche whereby we all want a second chance we’ve scarcely earned”

    There’s a problem with his statement – the current playoffless system often doesn’t give a team A FIRST CHANCE!

    What about in years like 2003 where nobody was undefeated?

    Or years like 2004 when more than 2 teams were undefeated?

    Or years like 2006 and 2008 where an undefeated team wasn’t given a shot while one-loss teams played for the title?

  33. chg says:

    You gagged on the Sugar Bowl. It has always been the home of the SEC champion, and they would have chosen one from the Arkansas/South Carolina/Georgia triumvirate this year if allowed. Just like future MAC stars across Big Ten country grow up plain in imaginary Rose Bowls, future SEC, ACC, and Big Ten stars across the south grow up dreaming of the Sugar.

    The ACC had no promised big boy home in 1997, which is probably for the best.

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