Looking back on the highs and lows of the BCS; more mail

Tuesday December 31st, 2013

The oft-maligned BCS era will end when Florida State plays Auburn in the title game on Monday night.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The end of the year is a good time for reflection. A few of you are feeling particularly contemplative about the rapidly approaching end of the BCS.

As the BCS era draws to an end, is college football in a better place now than it was 16 years ago when the BCS was created? Feel free to define "better" as you wish.
-- Bruce Wagar, Olathe, Kan.

In order to answer this question properly, I want to be careful not to assume that everything good and bad about the state of college football entering 2014 is a byproduct of the BCS. I'm also mindful of not letting nostalgia dictate my judgment. For instance, when I see that Baylor and UCF returned a combined 15,000 unused tickets to the Fiesta Bowl, or observe the relative lack of media buildup to a bowl game between top-five teams (Michigan State and Stanford), it's easy to think back to the good 'ol days when every New Year's Day bowl felt like it mattered and there wasn't a second game in Pasadena five days later to overshadow the first. There was something fun and quaint about having to wait until the day after the bowls were played to find out which team the pollsters decided to crown No. 1. But I would hardly call that a "better" version of the sport.

While the BCS was far from perfect, it pitted the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 teams the past 10 seasons and 13 out of 16 overall. It helped turn college football into a truly national sport in which Big Ten fans tune into SEC games, SEC fans into Pac-12 games, and so on. This year's Championship Saturday was a perfect example: The SEC, Big Ten and ACC title games -- two of which didn't exist in 1998 -- held extreme importance to fans in all parts of the country. Sixteen years earlier, Ohio State or Michigan State would have gone to the Rose Bowl, and Auburn or Missouri would have gone to the Sugar Bowl, no matter the results. This is better than that.

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While there were a lot of clunkers over the years among the non-championship matchups -- particularly after the BCS expanded to five bowls in 2006 -- in the bigger picture, the system had far-reaching benefits. Playing in a BCS bowl became the sport's ultimate status symbol. When it's all over, 51 different schools will have appeared in BCS bowls over 16 seasons, and some, including Utah, Boise State, TCU, Louisville, Cincinnati and Northern Illinois, dramatically elevated their profiles by doing so. The Utes and the Horned Frogs likely wouldn't be in power conferences today if their respective undefeated seasons had ended in the Liberty or the Las Vegas bowls.

The flip side, of course, is that a few conferences virtually destroyed each other in pursuit of that exposure. College football is NOT better with 14-team conferences and ravaged rivalries. But that movement was sparked more by changes in the television landscape than the BCS. I also wouldn't say that the sport is better for having a $7 million-a-year head coach, Nick Saban, who has arguably benefited more from the BCS than any other individual. Ditto for the widening class disparity between the Power Five schools and everyone else.

Still, all those newfound billions wouldn't be pumped into the sport if it wasn't so popular, and I do believe the BCS played as big a factor as any in boosting interest these past 16 years. My final verdict: The sport is in a better place now, though it's far from problem-free.

Looking back on the BCS era, who was the best team to never reach a BCS game? Who was the worst team to play in one?
-- Danny C, Seattle

For this one, it's important to distinguish between "best" and "most talented." The 2010 Alabama squad that featured Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus, among many others, was talented enough to beat 97 percent of the teams that ever reached a BCS bowl. But that season's Crimson Tide went 9-3 and landed exactly where they deserved to (the Capital One Bowl).

As for the best, it's a tough call between 1998 Kansas State, which was 11-0 heading into the Big 12 title game, lost in overtime to Texas A&M and fell out of the BCS entirely (prompting a rule change the next year protecting a No. 3-ranked team), and 2004 Cal, which went 10-1 and appeared destined for the Rose Bowl until Texas controversially passed the Bears for the No. 4 spot in the BCS standings on the final weekend of the season. I'm going with the Bears, who featured Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and both J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. Cal's lone loss came on a goal-line stand on the road against eventual national champion USC. (I covered that game. Rodgers completed 23 consecutive passes at one point. Somehow, 23 NFL teams watched that tape and yet passed on him in the next draft.) Some may disagree, citing the fact that the Bears subsequently lost to 7-4 Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. But we'll never know how they would have played if granted a more favorable opportunity.

The worst was obviously 2010 Connecticut, an 8-4 Big East champ that lost 30-10 to Rich Rodriguez's last Michigan team, 30-16 to Temple, 27-24 to 4-8 Rutgers and 26-0 to 6-6 Louisville. In fact, the Huskies' appearance may have signaled the beginning of the end for the BCS.

Which traditional power's fan base should be the most disappointed that its team never played in a BCS tite game? Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, UCLA and Georgia come to mind for me. Given the SEC's dominance, I think Georgia is the most surprising.
-- Trey, Milwaukee

It's definitely Georgia, because the Bulldogs came so close three different times. In 2002, they went 12-1 and were SEC champions, a résumé that has been good enough to make the title game nearly every year of late. That season, however, Ohio State and Miami both went undefeated. In '07, Georgia went 10-2 and ranked No. 4 in the BCS heading into the final weekend, when both No. 1 (Missouri) and No. 2 (West Virginia) lost. But the Dawgs actually dropped a spot in the final standings. And of course last year, if Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley doesn't get his hand on Aaron Murray's last-second pass ... well, we'll never know.

I know it's tough for Georgia fans to first watch rival Florida, and now rival Auburn make repeat trips to the championship game while the Bulldogs -- despite a fantastic record under Mark Richt -- have never been.

BOWL SCHEDULE: Matchups, dates and coverage from every 2013-14 pairing

If Bill O'Brien elects to leave Penn State, what are the Nittany Lions prospects for their next head coach?
Gene Puskar/AP

Even once the sanctions are removed, is Penn State still a top-10 job when the bowl ban and scholarships are restored? It seems to me it has no real recruiting base and now plays in a division with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Would the Nittany Lions ever be able to attract a candidate that wouldn't look to bolt after finding success?
-- Jimmy, Pittsburgh

First of all, even with the NCAA now phasing out the Nittany Lions' scholarship reductions, it will still be several years before the program is truly restored. It is currently slated to return to a 25-scholarship signing class in 2015 and an 85-scholarship roster in '16. But after playing with 71 scholarship players this season and signing just 19 and 17 players, respectively, in the past two recruiting cycles, it will probably take longer than that before Penn State regains its desired quality and depth. All of which makes it hard to attract a top coach.

But let's go ahead and pretend all of that is out the window. The Nittany Lions still have plenty going for them: a strong tradition and brand, a huge alumni base, a 100,000-seat stadium and a diehard fan base. Penn State's recruiting footprint is not what it once was, but it's decent. Quite frankly, however, with the direction the demographics of the sport are trending, no Big Ten program besides Ohio State or Michigan is anywhere close to a top-10 job (and even Michigan's inclusion is debatable). If a coach's goal is to win the national title, there are a half-dozen jobs in the SEC alone where he would have a better shot than in Happy Valley, along with Florida State, Miami, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and three or four Pac-12 schools. And that's not a new development. The Nittany Lions have fielded one top-five team in the last 15 years.

That said, by no means is Penn State destined to become a permanent springboard job. Bill O'Brien walked into an incredibly difficult situation. He lasted two years longer than most could. He's also not Vince Lombardi. There are plenty of coaches who could find similar success and stick around, provided the school is willing to pony up the necessary support. But we may be talking two coaches from now.

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With the success of regional bowl attendance, are we apt to see more northern bowl games? The Pinstripe Bowl looked well attended in New York. Could this mean more cold-weather bowls in northern and Midwest cities to increase attendance for fans who don't feel like flying five hours to watch their 7-5 team play?
-- Greg Fox, New York

I'm hearing no clamoring for more northern bowl games. On the contrary, three of the four games joining the fold next year are in Miami, Boca Raton and the Bahamas. Meanwhile, I happen to be writing this Mailbag from Los Angeles on a day when it is 75 and sunny, and the entire city is swarming with Michigan State fans in shorts. They were out en masse when I visited the Griffith Observatory on Monday morning. This is what bowl trips are supposed to be -- not walking the streets of New York or Detroit in three layers of jackets.

Of course, not every bowl generates the same level of enthusiasm as the Rose Bowl, and there certainly weren't 50,000 Spartans fans at last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. But it does look like the new cycle of bowl partnerships beginning in 2014 will do a better job of either regionalizing matchups or, short of that, exposing fan bases to a variety of destinations. The Big Ten next year will add games in San Diego, San Francisco, New York and Nashville. It will pool several bowls rather than employ a straight-up selection order and mandate how frequently teams appear in each. The ACC, which now has multiple Northeast teams, will replace the Big 12 in the Pinstripe Bowl and will rejoin the Gator Bowl's rotation.

It will be interesting to see if overall bowl travel shifts in either direction under the new system. Doomsayers have predicted the old system's demise for years, and industry execs have long feared the impact of a playoff. But even with overpriced tickets and sky-high airfare, you're still seeing heavy turnouts from hungry fan bases like Missouri (sold out 13,500 Cotton Bowl tickets), Vanderbilt (sold nearly 13,000 BBVA Compass Bowl tickets) and Louisville (sold more than 11,000 Russell Athletic Bowl seats). On the flip side, fans of teams who view their destination as a letdown -- see Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska, among others -- aren't as willing to shell out the big bucks, and that could become even more pronounced when an increased number of teams have their sights set on the playoff.

Who do you think will fare better his first year at a new position, Chris Petersen at Washington or Bryan Harsin at Boise State? Petersen has experience on his side, but Harsin seems like he will bring some much-needed energy to Boise, which was lacking this season.
-- Dan Nelson, Boise

Ah, college football. For seven years, Petersen was the messiah in Boise. He leaves, and now he was lacking energy.

They'll both do very well over the long haul. Credit Boise State athletic director Mark Coyle for recognizing the ideal fit with Harsin, a former Broncos quarterback and Petersen assistant who can deliver continuity while also injecting new ideas from his stints at Texas and Arkansas State. Petersen is walking into a gold mine in Seattle. He's inheriting an extremely talented roster, including a young quarterback (sophomore-to-be Cyler Miles) he can build around. It's far too early to make predictions for next season, but Petersen has the tools in place to make a strong debut. Harsin may have more question marks.

MANDEL: The time had come for Chris Petersen to leave Boise State

Overtime in a meaningless bowl game? Really? Why does college football do that? I am not much of a fan of OT in any game, but the NEW MEXICO BOWL? Other than those associated with the two teams, who really cares who wins that game? What an amazing waste of time.
-- Doug Black, Cartersville, Ga.

It was a heated competition, but this email wins the Mailbag's Get Off My Lawn Award for 2013.

Consider this a mini-Mailbag. I wanted you guys to have another chance to chime in after the first few BCS bowls, and before the national championship, so I'll write a bonus edition on Friday of this week -- provided you send some questions.

Until then, have a Happy New Year, and a happy 100th anniversary of the Rose Bowl.

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