The BCS era will come to its conclusion in a few weeks, and we will usher in the new Playoff Era. What the playoff will look like in the future is anybody's guess, but there will of course be consequences we haven't really thought about. The game will change because the game, like all things, change over time.
I have not been a fan of the BCS Era, but I have not come to bury the BCS. Let's look at how the game has changed due to the BCS' influence. We watch a different game than we did in 1997.
Split National Championships
Let's give some credit to the BCS, the primary purpose of the whole idea was to eliminate the split national championship. The 1997 season ended with two undefeated teams from the major conferences who went to separate bowls. Both Michigan and Nebraska won their bowl games and we had our split national championship.
So powerful is the allure of the Championship Game that the next time we had two undefeated teams from major conferences that both won their bowl games, there was no split title. USC won the Coaches' titles by rule, and then took an overwhelming number of the votes in the AP poll. There was to be no repeat of 2003, and Auburn was entirely shut out in 2004. There was some noise about a split title in 2011, but that era has passed. 2003 is the aberration, not the rule. The single championship game has won out.
The Little Guy
The big winners in the BCS era have unquestionably been the top teams of the smaller conferences. In 1984, an undefeated BYU squad went to its SIXTH consecutive Holiday Bowl. BYU won the national title, mainly because no one could figure out who else to give it to and the best-looking team, the Washington Huskies, failed to win their conference title. Despite the title, BYU was locked out of the major bowls and became the first national champion to play before New Year's in a bowl game. BYU was locked out of the big paydays and large exposure of the major bowls.
In the BCS era, small conference champions busted down the door. Boise State won two Fiesta Bowls. TCU won the Rose Bowl, and parlayed their success into membership in a major conference. Utah won the Fiesta Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. Northern Illinois earned an Orange Bowl invite. Not only did the little guy gain access to the big stage, they won more often than they lost. The idea of the WAC champion going to the Fiesta Bowl was unthinkable before the BCS. There's still a large divide between haves and have nots, but there is more access for the little guy than there was before the BCS.
Re-read that part about 1984 again. In this modern era, Washington would have gotten the national title, or at least access to the national title game (and in their defense, they lost the title on a tiebreaker as there was a tie at the top of the standings). Conference titles were the end-all, be-all in the pre-BCS era. That's why we called the national title "mythical". A great SMU team kicked an extra point to secure a tie instead of going for two and the win, in order to guarantee a SWC title and probably forgo a national title shot in 1982. A conference title was a prerequisite to the national title debate mainly because conference titles just mattered more in an era in which the game was so much more regional.
Before the BCS, the last national champion to fail to win their conference title was Michigan State in 1951. The BCS immediately flung open the door to non-conference champs. Just as the little guys got access, so did the second chancers. The BCS selected Nebraska is 2001, a team that failed to win its division, much less its conference. It followed up on this decision in 2003 with Oklahoma, who was still the #1 team in the poll despite losing the Big 12 title game. In 2011, a non-conference champion finally won the title, breaking a 60-year precedent. This was a radical break from the past, but one that has already been institutionalized. The playoff will include non-conference champions by public demand.
New Year's Day
January 1st used to be the very best day in sports. There was a glut of football, and it was a holiday nearly devoted the greatest game. But, in order to secure exclusive time slots, the BCS moved all of the major bowls to separate nights. This has single handedly destroyed one of the great traditions in sports.
Let's go back to 1997 again. There were 20 bowl games, and eight of them were played on New Year's Day. It was a great schedule: some appetizers to whet your appetite, and then a huge feast at the end. Now, there are 35 bowls this year. Now, more football is always better to me, so I'm not going to join the chorus of people decrying how many bowl games there now are. But do you know how many are now on January 1? Six. We've actually lost two bowl games. The expansion of bowl games has led to a contraction of the College Football Holiday, so much so that the NHL has moved an annual game on to the day in order to give us something else to watch. College football is run by people so dumb, they were outsmarted by the National Hockey League.
It's a topic that's been beaten to death and I'm not sure it's even over, but the conferences look entirely different than they did in 1991, the year before the first Bowl alliance, the predecessor to the BCS. There is a huge incentive to be in a powerful conference, but it's truly amazing to look at how different the landscape looked before the BCS Era. I don't think we realize just how massively the landscape has shifted in the past 20 years:
The Big 8 and SWC existed as separate, major conferences. Colorado and Nebraska hadn't left their Big 8 brethren, and in fact finished 1-2 in the conference. Forget A&M, Arkansas hadn't left for the SEC yet, TCU hadn't begun and ended its exile, and Houston, Rice, and SMU were all in a major conference.
The ACC had 8 teams, and no Florida State.
The Big East existed, and had 8 teams. The AAC, the conference which rose from the Big East's ashes, has only two teams from the 1991 incarnation of the Big East, Temple and Rutgers. Rutgers is leaving for the Big Ten next year and Temple spent time in exile. The AAC has pretty much lost its status as a major conference.
The Big Ten actually had 10 teams. Penn State was still an independent.
Speaking of independents, there were 19 of them in 1991. NINETEEN. Five of them ended the season ranked in the top 25, and three (#9 ECU, #4 FSU, #3 Penn St) were in the final top ten. There are only seven independents left.
The SEC had 10 teams and hadn't changed its membership since 1966, when Tulane left. The SEC had never expanded in its history.
The WAC was the most powerful "mind-major", even though that term didn't really exist. It had nine teams and two ranked teams in the final 1991 AP poll. Today, the WAC does not exist, and its splinter conference, the Mountain West, has 12 teams.
The MAC had nine teams. It now has 13. The Sun Belt and Conference-USA didn't even exist yet.
The expansion of conferences have meant less cross-regional out of conference games. Teams just don't have the space on their schedule, and they need that seventh home game to pull a profit, or so they tell us. But it's not even odd matchups like Colorado-Michigan which have gone the way of the dodo. And try telling someone from 1991 that we don't play Oklahoma-Nebraska anymore. Or Texas-Texas A&M.
Just sit back and think about all of those shifts. If there's been one constant, it's been change. No one could have predicted these past twenty years, and no one can predict the next twenty. The BCS Era is over, and in a way, none of us never really got to know it.
Here's to twenty more years of unexpected consequences.