BCS: And Then There Were Three

Two weeks ago, I noted that there were still six undefeated teams in college football, with the possibility of four finishing the season that way. We’re now down to three teams with a shot at going undefeated.

Georgia lost to Florida last week.

This week, #5 Miami took care of #3 Virginia Tech as they always seem to do, going to Blacksburg and beating them 27-7. #5 UCLA didn’t wait for their end-of-season matchup with USC to lose, getting blown out by unranked Arizona 52-14.

We won’t know officially until tomorrow afternoon, but Southern Cal, Texas, and Alabama will be ranked 1-2-3 in the BCS standings. The first two teams are almost sure to finish the regular season undefeated. Alabama still has to beat LSU and Auburn on the road in consecutive weeks and then take on Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

It is quite likely, though, that even if Alabama runs that impressive gauntlet, they will be shut out of the national title game, just as 12-0 Auburn was last year. That would be a shame.

Now, even as an Alabama alumnus and fan, I think it’s pretty clear USC and Texas are the better teams. Alabama’s defense is as good as any in college football but its offense has been just good enough to get by, especially after losing playmaker Tyrone Prothro late in the Florida game. The loss of center J.B. Closner in yesterday’s win over Mississippi State won’t help. Meanwhile, USC and Texas have been impressive on both sides of the ball, blowing out weak opponents.

If only two teams can play for the championship, they have earned that right. But there’s just no reason that a major conference team that finishes undefeated shouldn’t at least have a chance to fight it out on the field. Even a two-stage playoff involving the top four teams would virtually eliminate that possibility. This so-called “Plus One” option is gaining a lot of support. This piece in College Football News, written before this weekend’s games clarified the picture somewhat, takes a look at it:

BCS Plus One The easiest solution

Everyone wants a college football playoff, but it’s not going to happen for a long, long time. Why? The college presidents don’t want on, and despite what they might say outwardly, neither do the coaches. However, no one is happy with the current BCS system. It’s confusing, unsatisfying, and wastes lots and lots of time with all the speculation and worries about the outcome.

The easiest solution is the Plus One format taking the top four teams according to the BCS with No. 1 playing No. 4, No. 2 playing No. 3, and then the two winners playing one extra game for the national title. It’s only one extra game that would occur over winter break; how could anyone possibly have a problem with it? Yeah, there will always be teams ticked off at being on the outside looking in, but even in the old poll and bowl format it was next to impossible to win the national title ranked lower than fourth.

So, if everyone goes undefeated from here, #1 USC would play a one-loss team who finished the season ranked #4 in the BCS while #2 Texas and #3 Alabama would square off. The winners of those games, likely USC and Texas, would meet for the national title. Now, that’s likely going to happen regardless. But having even that one additional week of games would make the result more satisfying.

As the CFW piece shows, it would have eliminated virtually all the controversial finishes the last several seasons.

2004 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)

1. USC vs. 4. Texas
2. Oklahoma vs. 3. Auburn
What likely would’ve happened: USC over Texas, Auburn over
National championship: USC over Auburn
No. 5 team that would’ve whined: California

Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No.
6 Utah, No. 9 Boise State

Auburn won the SEC title, went unbeaten, and never really had a chance
to play for the national title thanks to USC and Oklahoma starting off
the season on top of the polls and never moving. The Sooners, if they
played like they played in the Orange Bowl, would’ve likely lost to the
rock-solid Tigers. Cal got outlobbied by Mack Brown and Texas for the
Rose Bowl, but ended up getting blasted by Texas Tech in the Holiday
Bowl ending all debates. Utah finished unbeaten and was the most
statistically dominant team all season long. Boise State was also
unbeaten, but didn’t play anyone of note.

2003 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)
1. Oklahoma vs. 4. Michigan

2. LSU vs. No. 3 USC
What likely would’ve happened: Oklahoma over Michigan, USC over
National championship: USC over Oklahoma
No. 5 team that would’ve whined: Ohio State
Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No.
11 Miami University

The first of the really big BCS meltdowns would’ve been solved. LSU’s
great defense would’ve gone against Matt Leinart and a USC team starting
to come of age with only a field goal fiasco against Cal ruining a
perfect season. The Trojans, if they played LSU anywhere else but in the
Sugar Bowl, would’ve had too much offense. The Sooners would likely have
rebounded from the loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game to beat
Michigan, but they wouldn’t have been able to stay with USC.

2002 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)
1. Miami vs. 4. USC
2. Ohio State vs. 3. Georgia

What likely would’ve happened: USC over Miami, Ohio State over
National championship: USC over Ohio State
No. 5 team that would’ve whined: Iowa
Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No

Of all the final four matchups, this would’ve been the most exciting; it
could’ve gone any way with all four of the teams with an honest shot at
winning the national title. Georgia was a juggernaut by the end of the
season allowing a mere 23 points over the final three games, including
the Sugar Bowl win over Florida State, and likely would’ve kept the Ohio
State offense in check in a fantastic battle. With time to prepare, Pete
Carroll and Norm Chow proved over the last three years that they can
prepare a team better than anyone. Miami would’ve still had a healthy
Willis McGahee, but USC’s offense was destroying defenses over the back
half of the season averaging 41.5 points per game over the final eight
wins led by Heisman winner Carson Palmer. Iowa would’ve had a beef that
it didn’t get in the dance, but as the Orange Bowl blowout loss to USC
proved, the BCS got the final four right.

2001 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)
1. Miami vs. 4. Oregon
2. Nebraska vs. 3. Colorado
What likely would’ve happened: Miami over Oregon, Colorado over

National championship: Miami over Colorado
No. 5 team that would’ve whined: Florida
Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No.
6 Tennessee

No one was going to beat the 2001 Hurricanes. Colorado steamrolled over
Nebraska in the last game of the regular season, and then shocked Texas
in the Big 12 title game. Even though Chris Brown and the Buffs were
hot, they proved no match for Joey Harrington’s Oregon Ducks in the
Fiesta Bowl. Eric Crouch and Nebraska likely would’ve lost a second time
to CU, and then Miami would won in a walk in the Rose Bowl, just like it
did against the Huskers. Florida and Tennessee each had chances to be in
the Rose Bowl hunt, but the Vols stunned the Gators, and then LSU pulled
off one of the season’s biggest shockers with a win over Tennessee in
the SEC title game.

2000 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)
1. Oklahoma vs. 4. Washington
2. Florida State vs. 3. Miami
What likely would’ve happened: Oklahoma over Washington, Miami
over Florida State
National championship: Oklahoma over Miami

No. 5 team that would’ve whined: Virginia Tech
Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No.
6 Oregon State

Florida State found its place in the national title game by bombing away
on everyone averaging 42 points per game before getting shut down by
Oklahoma. Oh yeah, and the defense was also fantastic allowing only nine
points per game if you take away one bad week … the Miami game. The
Canes lost to Washington the in the second game of the year before going
on a tear winning the final ten games of the season including a 27-24
thriller over Florida State. Even so, Oklahoma was special. It had gone
through some battles, but the defense was a rock finishing up by holding
Florida State to two points. Michael Vick’s Virginia Tech team would’ve
had a big beef going 10-1, with only a loss to at Miami, before beating
Clemson in the Gator Bowl. Oregon State finished the season win one
loss, to Washington, and dominated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

1999 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)

1. Florida State vs. 4. Alabama
2. Virginia Tech vs. 3. Nebraska
What likely would’ve happened: Florida State over Alabama,
Nebraska over Virginia Tech
National championship: Florida State over Nebraska
No. 5 team that would’ve whined: Tennessee

Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No.
8 Michigan

Outside of one big day from Major Applewhite and Texas, Nebraska was a
shoo-in to play for the national title. Of course, Michael Vick and
Virginia Tech were special, but the Huskers had the defense to have kept
the Hokie star in check. Florida State had too many weapons and Peter
Warrick was too good. Alabama would’ve made the top four, but Shaun
Alexander and the Tide lost to Tennessee 21-7. Bama also ended up losing
to Michigan in a classic Orange Bowl. 

1998 Final BCS Rankings
(going into the bowls)
1. Tennessee vs. 4. Ohio State

2. Florida State vs. 3. Kansas State
What likely would’ve happened: Ohio State over Tennessee, Kansas
State over Florida State
National championship: Ohio State over Kansas State
No. 5 team that would’ve whined: UCLA
Teams that would’ve had a legitimate beef for being left out: No.
9 Wisconsin

Tennessee was a gutty, clutch national champion, but everyone has
forgotten just how good the 1998 Ohio State team was. It crushed
everyone on its schedule by double-digit points except for one slip up
against Nick Saban’s Michigan State team in a 28-24 loss. Florida State,
at the end of the year, was quarterbacked by Marcus Outzen and was
running on fumes, and a great defense, while Kansas State might have
been the wild-card if it didn’t meltdown like it did against Purdue and
Texas A&M. UCLA was in the national title hunt until the last weekend
when it lost to Edgerrin James and Miami, but Wisconsin beat the Bruins
in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers and Buckeyes didn’t play.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. “Miami took care of Virginia Tech as they always seem to do”? VT has won 7 of the last 11 in the series (1995-1999 5 straight, then 2003 and 2004; in ’03 we did essentially the same thing to them as they did to us this year). We got our butts kicked yesterday, but don’t let that obscure the true history of this rivalry.

    The “plus-one” format is looking pretty good.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Josh: A fair point. I really should have written “Virginia Tech lost a late season game after a strong start, as they always do.”

  3. This just recurses the problem down another level. Now you get an argument over which of the one loss teams deserves to fill the #4 slot. So far this year it seems pretty clear it’s Miami (God it was painful to type that), but if they lose the ACC championship game, who becomes the new #4? Georgia? LSU? UCLA? Penn State? Virginia Tech?

  4. James Joyner says:

    SD: Sure. With any playoff system, you’ll still have that issue. The team that misses the cut for the 65-team NCAA basketball tournament and winds up seeded #1 for the NIT has the same gripe. But it matters less the further down the food chain you go. I’d prefer an 8- or 16-team tournament. But 4 is much, much better than 2.

  5. ultraw says:

    What’s so awful about not having a definitive national champion? I kind of like the ambiguity myself. Gives more value to the league championships. Gives something for people to argue about for generations.