Publish date:

Would a four-team playoff really be less controversial than the BCS?

"All of the Big Ten athletic directors are comfortable exploring the possibility of a four-team playoff," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told TheAssociated Press on Tuesday. "Four is better than two."

Mind you, the Big Ten does not dictate BCS change, and the other conferences presumably have their own visions for future postseasons. The SEC and ACC first proposed a four-team playoff four years ago, after all. What's more: College presidents, not athletic directors, make the final call on all things BCS, and they tend to be more conservative. As long as the Rose Bowl still gets a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup, the move to on-campus games wouldn't significantly impact its business. But the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta, which often have trouble filling their stadiums as it is, might put up a bigger fight.

Still, the details of the Big Ten's reported plan are mouth-watering for the many fans thirsty to see the current BCS abolished. For one thing, it's a bona fide playoff. The Big Ten ADs aren't even bothering with the "plus-one" euphemism at this point. Four seeded teams means a bracket, home-field advantage and all the other elements most sports have long employed in determining a champion.

Big Ten fans in particular, put off by the SEC's recent stranglehold on the national championship, love the idea of Florida or LSU having to travel to potentially frigid Columbus or Madison in mid-December. After all, Big Ten teams have long played bowl games against SEC foes in that conference's backyard.

Longtime readers know I've been calling for the System Formerly Known as a Plus-One for several years now, because it would increase the likelihood of an undisputed national champion without decreasing the importance of the regular season. While my proposal called for existing bowls to host the semifinals, home sites would be cool, too. Fans of the winning teams would still get a bowl trip.

I do think the "cold weather" factor is being completely overblown, and the blog Team Speed Kills has the data to prove it. Home-field advantage is a far bigger factor than temperature at kickoff. Even then, of the 28 hypothetical semifinal matchups that would have taken place during the BCS era to date, a Big Ten team (specifically Ohio State) would have hosted just three. Three.

Still, it's fascinating to review the hypothetical matchups that would have taken place had this proposal existed from the start of the BCS' 14-year history. Plus-one detractors have long contended that expanding the field wouldn't eliminate controversy, but merely displace it. Instead of arguing over who should be No. 2, we'd argue who should be No. 4. They're probably right.

"I know a lot of people would love to see one more great football game, but I'm not sure this type of playoff will make it more fair," said Michigan AD Dave Brandon, an outspoken critic who recently called attempts at a college playoff "ridiculous." "At some point, you have to draw the line," Brandon said. "With four teams, there will be controversies about who those four teams should be because it's usually not clear."

But how frequently would a four-team field leave out a truly worthy title contender? Would there be years where four would be far messier than two? If so, is that a small price to pay for avoiding indisputable injustices like 13-0 Auburn not getting a shot at the championship in 2004?

In an effort to find out, let's revisit every year's title matchup and accompanying controversy and compare it with the likely reaction to a four-team field.

BCS: No. 1 LSU (13-0) vs. No. 2 Alabama (11-1).

Controversy: The Tide get a rematch with the Tigers despite failing to win their conference, at the expense of Big 12 champion No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1).

Playoff: No. 4 Stanford (11-1) at No. 1 LSU (13-0); No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1) at No. 2 Alabama (11-1).

Controversy: Despite beating the Cardinal and winning the Pac-12, No. 5 Oregon (11-2) is denied a shot because of a season-opening loss to No. 1 LSU.

Better off with: A playoff. Alabama is forced to play an elite team from another conference to earn its title. Also, voters likely would have elevated Oregon to No. 4 if title stakes were at play.

BCS: No. 1 Auburn (13-0) vs. No. 2 Oregon (12-0).

Controversy: No. 3 TCU (12-0) is left in the cold.

Playoff: No. 4 Stanford (11-1) at No. 1 Auburn (13-0); No. 3 TCU (12-0) at No. 2 Oregon (12-0).

Controversy: Stanford gets in at 11-1 over three Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State) with the same record.

Better off with: A playoff. The fuss over No. 4 would be heated, but much more importantly, the undefeated Horned Frogs -- who went on to beat No. 5 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl -- get a shot at the prize.

BCS: No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs. No. 2 Texas (13-0).

Controversy: It's relatively mild, though three other teams (No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 TCU and No. 6 Boise State) finish undefeated.

Playoff: No. 4 TCU (12-0) at No. 1 Alabama (13-0); No. 3 Cincinnati (12-0) at No. 2 Texas (13-0).

Controversy: Why TCU but not 13-0 Boise (which wound up beating the Frogs in the Fiesta Bowl)? And what of Tim Tebow and No. 5 Florida (12-1), which wound up clobbering the overmatched Bearcats in the Sugar Bowl?

Better off with: The BCS. Alabama and Texas were clearly the two best teams. Nos. 3-6 were more muddled.

BCS: No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. No. 2 Florida (12-1).

Controversy: No. 3 Texas (11-1) beat Oklahoma head-to-head.

Playoff: No. 4 Alabama (12-1) at No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1); No. 3 Texas (11-1) at No. 2 Florida (12-1).

Controversy: SEC runner-up Alabama gets in over Pac-12 champ USC (11-1), while undefeated Utah (12-0) -- which would go on to stomp 'Bama in the Sugar Bowl -- still doesn't get a shot.

Better off with: Neither. A semifinal solves the maddening OU-Texas tiebreaker, but it's possible USC or Utah would have beaten any of the other four.

BCS: No. 1 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 2 LSU (11-2).

Controversy: The Tigers emerged from a scourge of eight two-loss teams.

Playoff: No. 4 Oklahoma (11-2) at No. 1 Ohio State (11-1); No. 3 Virginia Tech (11-2) at No. 2 LSU (11-2).

Controversy: Georgia (10-2), which fell from fourth to fifth without playing, and No. 7 USC (10-2), have a beef.

Better off with: A playoff. No team stood out as particularly deserving that year, so there'd be little sympathy for any squad that got left out.

BCS: No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) vs. No. 2 Florida (12-1).

Controversy: Florida surged ahead of idle Michigan (11-1) on the final weekend.

Playoff: No. 4 LSU (10-2) at No. 1 Ohio State (12-0); No. 3 Michigan (11-1) at No. 2 Florida (12-1).

Controversy: None. No. 5 USC's (10-2) argument is rendered moot by losing to 7-5 UCLA the final weekend. No. 8 Boise State (12-0) is not yet a factor.

Better off with: A playoff. This one works out pretty much perfectly.

BCS: No. 1 USC (12-0) vs. No. 2 Texas (12-0).

Controversy: None.

SI Recommends

Playoff: No. 4 Ohio State (9-2) at No. 1 USC (12-0); No. 3 Penn State (11-1) at No. 2 Texas (12-0).

Controversy: No. 5 Oregon (10-1) would be awfully curious why two-loss Ohio State was going in its place.

Better off with: The BCS. It's the rare case where two, and only two, was the right number.

BCS: No. 1 USC (12-0) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0).

Controversy: No. 3 Auburn also went 12-0 ... in the SEC!

Playoff: No. 4 Texas (10-1) at No. 1 USC (12-0); No. 3 Auburn (12-0) at No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0).

Controversy: The fight for No. 4 between Texas and 10-1 Cal was contentious then; it would be tenfold now. And what of Urban Meyer-led No. 6 Utah (11-0)?

Better off with: A playoff, though it still wouldn't be pretty. At least an undefeated major-conference champion would not be left out.

NOTE: The BCS formula changed considerably prior to the 2004 season, and many of the controversies listed below stemmed from the earlier version's heavy emphasis on computer ratings.

BCS: No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. No. 2 LSU (12-1).

Controversy: No. 3 USC (11-1) finished No. 1 in both the AP and Coaches' polls, leading to a split national championship when the Trojans beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Playoff: No. 4 Michigan (10-2) at No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1); No. 3 USC (11-1) at No. 2 LSU (12-1).

Controversy: None.

Better off with: A playoff. Wasn't that easy?

BCS: No. 1 Miami (12-0) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (13-0).

Controversy: None.

Playoff: No. 4 USC (10-2) at No. 1 Miami (12-0); No. 3 Georgia (12-1) at No. 2 Ohio State (13-0).

Controversy: No. 5 Iowa (11-1) finished No. 3 in both major polls. No. 6 Washington State (10-2) beat USC head-to-head and won the Pac-10's automatic berth.

Better off with: The BCS. Cut straight to the double-overtime classic.

BCS: No. 1 Miami (11-0) vs. No. 2 Nebraska (11-1).

Controversy: No. 3 Colorado (10-2) crushed Nebraska 62-36 and won the Big 12 championship. No. 4 Oregon (10-1) was No. 2 in both polls.

Playoff: No. 4 Oregon (10-1) at No. 1 Miami (11-0); No. 3 Colorado (10-2) at No. 2 Nebraska (11-1).

Controversy: None.

Better off with: A playoff. Joey Harrington will be 35 by the time his team is finally vindicated.

BCS: No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0) vs. No. 2 Florida State (11-1).

Controversy: No. 3 Miami (11-1) beat FSU. No. 4 Washington (10-1) beat Miami.

Playoff: No. 4 Washington (10-1) at No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0); No. 3 Miami (11-1) at No. 2 Florida State (11-1).

Controversy: None.

Better off with: A playoff. Right now, my younger readers are saying to themselves: This really happened?

BCS: No. 1 Florida State (11-0) vs. No. 2 Virginia Tech (11-0).

Controversy: None, though fans of No. 3 Nebraska (11-1) still swear the Huskers were the best team that year.

Playoff: No. 4 Alabama (10-2) at No. 1 Florida State (11-0); No. 3 Nebraska (11-1) at No. 2 Virginia Tech (11-0).

Controversy: Somehow an Alabama team that lost to Louisiana Tech makes the cut. Isn't that the 1999 version of Oklahoma State losing to Iowa State?

Better off with: A playoff. Michael Vick's Hokies played just one team that finished the year in the Top 25. It would have been nice to see them face another test.

BCS: No. 1 Tennessee (12-0) vs. No. 2 Florida State (11-1).

Controversy: A rash of 11th-hour upsets left the 'Noles atop a cluster of four similarly accomplished one-loss teams.

Playoff: No. 4 Ohio State (10-1) at No. 1 Tennessee (12-0); No. 3 Kansas State (11-1) at No. 2 Florida State (11-1).

Controversy: Heading into Championship Saturday, undefeated UCLA is No. 2, undefeated K-State No. 3. After the Bruins lose at 8-3 Miami and 11-2 Texas A&M upsets the Wildcats, suddenly they're reversed -- and UCLA is out.

Better off with: A playoff. FSU's ascension was random (it got in by not playing), and many felt Ohio State was equally as deserving. UCLA will be ticked, but K-State doesn't get penalized for playing an extra game.

So when we total it up, a four-team playoff would have been more effective than the stand-alone title game 10 times in 14 years. That's certainly progress. But it's also true that the controversy won't fade. While there have been just three seasons (1999, 2002, 2005) in which the BCS title-game matchup was deemed universally satisfying, there were only four in which the four-team field was controversy free.

Yet with the lone exception of a clunky 2008 season, the debates we would be having over Nos. 3 and 4 would be easier to digest than some of the gross injustices that have plagued the 1 vs. 2 game.

And oh, by the way, we would have seen TCU at Oregon (2010), Michigan at Florida (2006), Auburn at Oklahoma (2004) and Oregon at Miami (2001).

Is that something you might be interested in?