The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is the best thing that has happened to postseason college football since the invention of the bowl games themselves.
I know there are football fans and sports writers who criticize any arrangement short of some hypothetical playoff. Unfortunately, we must try to craft a system that reflects the restraints of the real world rather than the ideal world.
First, a system of play must recognize that the athletes who play football are also students. For the vast majority of them, their success in the classroom will have far more to do with their success as adult citizens than their performance on the football field. As presidents and chancellors, this reality must be our highest priority.
Second, not every school in Division I is equal in any field of endeavor, including football. Each university has a particular set of strengths on which it builds its reputation and on which it attracts students and faculty.
These strengths were created by conscious investments, hiring of great leaders, natural advantages, significant philanthropic donations, dumb luck, or a combination of these factors. Only in athletics is it argued that the benefits of these investments should be equitably shared with other institutions.
All students, like student athletes, can make individual choices among the strengths of the various institutions in which they could enroll, and these choices may enhance or diminish their future opportunities. This is a reality that cannot be ignored nor is it one that can be easily changed.
Third, any system designed to determine a national champion in intercollegiate football can only come about through the agreement of those universities that consistently field highly ranked teams. A system that did not involve schools from the six automatic qualifying conferences and Notre Dame could not claim to be one that is likely to produce a national champion on a consistent basis. That is not true of the other conferences.
To secure the agreement of these essential conferences, the system must provide revenue in excess of the opportunities they could obtain on their own, must be consistent with their academic values, must take into account the effect on the fans who provide their schools with support, must protect the bowl system for broad access by many institutions, must preserve the excitement and relevance of the regular season, and must honor the long-standing relationships they have had with the bowls and the communities those bowls support.
The BCS satisfies these requirements. We have yet to see an alternative arrangement that does the same.
Some individuals have argued that the BCS agreement is in restraint of trade and thus violates antitrust laws. I am not an antitrust expert. However, if the current agreement is unlawful, then any agreement runs a risk of being unlawful. The only safe option would be to return to the traditional bowl system.
We appreciate the ideal that a national champion should be crowned on the basis of performance on the field. But even a playoff would offer no guarantee that the two best teams would play for the national championship. There would remain arguments about which teams were selected for the playoffs and how they were seeded. The BCS turns the regular season into the “playoff” and produces an opportunity for a game between the two highest-ranked teams.
So far, this is the best arrangement we have found that provides significant access and revenue to all of Division 1 football and preserves the traditional bowls, respects the academic calendar, and celebrates the success and commitments of student athletes throughout the country.
At the beginning of the season, every bowl subdivision team starts out with an equal chance to become national champion. To be sure some schools are thought to have an advantage because of the schedules they play, their history of success, the size of their budgets and the support they receive from fans and donors.
For example, if one were to start at the beginning of time, you would not predict that the University of Nebraska would have enjoyed the success we have. We come from one of the smallest population states in the country and must recruit athletes nationwide.
We don’t have mountains or seashores or large cities or a moderate climate capable of attracting student athletes. And we labored long in the obscurity of losing seasons. But we sustained a loyal fan base, and we hired and retained gifted coaches who were skilled at recruiting student athletes and getting them to play at the height of their abilities.