The BCS What If ... ?, Part II: The Years Before the Formula Made Sense

Part I, looking at what the BCS-to-playoff transition would have meant before the change in the formula, is here.

There's are really two eras in BCS history, and it's important to understand that when you start to look at the history of the series. The first era runs until 2003, when Southern Cal is the consensus No. 1 team among humans but gets locked out of the championship game but the dumber elements of the BCS formula. The uproar caused by that omission prompts the BCS to de-emphasize the computers and make the humans the decisive votes, with the chips acting as a tiebreaker if needed.

The only major tweak made since is subbing out the Harris Interactive poll for the AP poll after the news service sent a cease-and-desist letter to the BCS to make sure that survey couldn't be used in the standings.

So looking at how a four-team playoff with the BCS rankings would have looked before the 2004 season creates a lot more caveats and nuance than simply plugging-and-playing with the rankings since then. There were also, consequently, more controversies about how No. 2 was decided. Part of this exercise will show you how much better the post-2003 BCS worked than the original versions of the formula.

The rest of the lessons learned will run on Friday, but here's the remainder of our rough data.

2003

1 Oklahoma
2 LSU
3 Southern Cal
4 Michigan
5 Ohio State

Remember this? This was the original existential crisis in the BCS; after years of squabbling over who should be No. 2 -- a question that always became irrelevant because No. 1 won anyway -- we finally had the humans agreeing on a 1-2 matchup of Southern Cal-LSU, only to see the computers override all of that and put Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for no good reason. Southern Cal went to Rose Bowl and defeated Michigan.

This is one of the few times where the four-team playoff gives us a clear advantage over the BCS system. Southern Cal and LSU would indeed meet in the Sugar Bowl -- which, of course, would no longer be the de facto national championship game -- while Oklahoma and Michigan meet in the Fiesta Bowl. (Cue Rose Bowl gripes about having both of its teams "taken away" from it.) The SEC partisan in me still thinks that LSU wins the tournament -- that was a very good Bayou Bengals team -- but with a lot less controversy this way.

2002

1 Miami (Fla.)
2 Ohio State
3 Georgia
4 Southern Cal
5 Iowa

This is an interesting year to look at. First off, there was no real controversy about who should play for the national championship in 2002 -- Miami was still good at the time and was undefeated, and Ohio State also had no losses on the season. But Georgia and Southern Cal were both extremely good teams that would have been championship material in almost any other season, and they get a chance to play for it this year in our alternate universe. Maybe.

Iowa was actually the consensus No. 3 team in the human polls, with Southern Cal as the consensus No. 5. Then again, Southern Cal annihilated Iowa in the actual Rose Bowl, so you can go either way on this.

Miami was still a Big East team at the time, but we'll put them in the Orange Bowl against Southern Cal. Ohio State takes on Georgia in the Rose Bowl. Or Miami hosts Georgia in the Orange Bowl and Ohio State takes on Iowa in what becomes a de facto Big Ten Championship game -- Iowa's lone loss in the regular season was against Iowa State and the Hawkeyes and the Buckeyes missed each other in the regular season. Jim Delany's favorite Rose Bowl ever.

I'm not sure if Ohio State would have been able to MacGyver its way through two games, and there's no doubt that the championship game was entertaining enough as it was -- but this would have been fun to watch as well.

2001

1 Miami (Fla.)
2 Nebraska
3 Colorado
4 Oregon
5 Florida
6 Tennessee
13 LSU

This season was crazy in about 1,000 different ways, including in our humble conference. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the first set of rankings to come out, then promptly lost at Nebraska. Nebraska stayed at No. 1 for four weeks before losing at Colorado. In the shake-up that followed, Miami assumed the top spot for the rest of the season while Florida was voted the No. 2 team in the nation. The Gators promptly lost to Tennessee by two points at home, sending the Vols to the No. 2 place. All Tennessee had to do to play Miami for the national title was defeat underdog LSU in the SEC Championship Game -- which, of course, the Vols did not do. (In fact, they lost by 11 points.)

At which point the voters and the computers were asked to make sense of the chaos. The voters looked at an Oregon team that won the Pac-10 and had as its only loss a one-touchdown defeat against ranked Stanford and put the Ducks at No. 2, followed by the Big 12 champions in Colorado and then the Cornhuskers (who, after all, had not won their division) at No. 4. The computers saw things differently.

The chips went for the Huskers by a landslide and were more important relative to the humans than they are today. Then there were the other bizarre things that had been wedged into the BCS formula over the years in some search for "objectivity" and to fix problems that had cropped up in other years. Strength of schedule was factored in, as were "quality wins" (don't ask) and losses -- which counted as a point each because that's scientific and everything. That convoluted formula spit out Nebraska -- which humans had picked as the consensus worst team in the lot -- as the No. 2 team.

So we get Miami vs. Oregon in the Orange Bowl in the first semifinal and a regular-season, same-division rematch between Nebraska and Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. I'm sure we would have heard as much outrage about this from the folks who were against the rematch this past season; aren't you? I really don't think it matters; I don't think anyone was going to defeat that Miami team, even taking into account the fact that they were coached by Larry Coker.

But this is another case where the four-team playoff would have done a better job of dealing with the muddle in the middle. At least Miami and the other three teams could have fought it out in the playoffs to decide who would get to play for No. 1. The Hurricanes win things a bit more cleanly this way.

2000

1 Oklahoma
2 Florida State
3 Miami (Fla.)
4 Washington
5 Virginia Tech
7 Florida

Those quality wins had been built into the BCS formula after the PR disaster that hit the season, when the Hurricanes -- the humans' choice for No. 2 and the winner in a head-to-head game against the Seminoles -- somehow got locked out of the national title game in favor of Florida State. That was the only real source of controversy.

Again, a clear win. Oklahoma plays Washington in the Fiesta Bowl and Florida State plays Miami (regular-season rematch) in the Orange Bowl. Not that there was much controversy after the season; Oklahoma defeated Florida State in a 13-2 slugfest to become the consensus champion. But, again, everything turns out a bit neater. At this point, my memory starts to get a little rusty as to how good all these teams were, so I'll let you decide what would have happened from here on back.

1999

1 Florida State
2 Virginia Tech
3 Nebraska
4 Alabama
5 Tennessee
7 Wisconsin
12 Marshall

There was very little real controversy in 1999; Florida State and Virginia Tech were the only undefeated AQ teams in the nation. However, this is one instance where if the old formula were still in use and the playoff were to take the top four teams, there might be some controversy. Human voters had Wisconsin at No. 4, but the computers hated the Badgers. That probably would not be quite as important with the current formula, and Wisconsin might have gotten in in any case. We also have a conflict of the bowls here; at the time, the Orange Bowl was the home bowl for the ACC (Florida State) and the Big East (Virginia Tech).

In any case, Florida State probably gets the Orange Bowl for its game with either Alabama or Wisconsin. Virginia Tech and Nebraska play in one of the other games (Fiesta to use Nebraska's place, Sugar to take Alabama's place or Rose to take Wisconsin's place). However, undefeated Marshall is locked out of the discussion entirely and ends up with the MAC's spot in the Motor City Bowl.

1998

1 Tennessee
2 Florida State
3 Kansas State
4 Ohio State
5 UCLA
10 Tulane

Again, Tennessee and Florida State were pretty clearly the consensus Top 2 teams this year, and Kansas State and Ohio State made up the next two on most people's list. So we get Tennessee vs. Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and Florida State vs. Kansas State in the Orange Bowl. Undefeated Tulane was relegated to the Liberty Bowl -- which might have prompted Tommy Bowden to pack up and go to Clemson. For which I am grateful, because Bowden hired Dabo Swinney, who became head coach and has gone 1-3 so far against the Gamecocks.

Friday: What did we learn?

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