The Chaos and Consequences of the BCS, 20 Years After Its Inaugural Season

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When the kick sailed wide left, it felt like an earthquake.

The press box in Neyland Stadium shook on the night of Sept. 19, 1998 as Tennessee fans released five years of pent-up frustration and welcomed in unbridled joy. The Volunteers—winless against Florida since 1992, including the entirety of the Peyton Manning era—had beaten the hated Gators 20–17 in an overtime thriller that ended on Collins Cooper’s missed kick. A season earlier, Tennessee had broken Florida’s four-year stranglehold on the SEC title. Now the Vols had broken the Gators’ stranglehold on the rivalry. The moment felt like a literal seismic event, but it might have been an even bigger figurative one. It was the first major domino to fall in a season that ushered in a new way of determining college football’s national champion.

The Bowl Championship Series seems like a product of the Stone Age now, but it felt revolutionary when it debuted 20 years ago. All week, SI will look back at a system that drew a bright line between college football’s castes, trusted computer algorithms to rank teams and eventually ticked off enough people to bring about the creation of the College Football Playoff. The BCS was the bridge between the poll era and the CFP, and it had a profound effect on the game and the power structure of major college athletics. To understand why a consortium of bowl games and conferences caused so much drama and so much change in a 16-season period, it helps to look back at the landscape 10 years prior to its formation before examining how the BCS reshaped the national landscape.

Thirty years ago, the idea of annually matching the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in a bowl felt like a dream. The stars had to align to produce such a matchup. Bowl conference tie-ins were sacrosanct. If an independent could ascend to the top of the polls, maybe there was a chance. That’s how Miami wound up facing Big Eight champ Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl after the 1987 season. Because Miami and Penn State were both independents, they had been able to play a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the Fiesta Bowl following the ’86 season. Prior to that, the last true national title game had taken place when independent Penn State beat SEC champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl following the ’82 season.

After crowning split national champs following the 1990 and ’91 seasons, college football’s power brokers began trying to create a group of conferences and bowls that would make it easier to match No. 1 and No. 2 more often at season’s end. The result was the Bowl Coalition, which matched SEC champ Alabama and Big East champ Miami in the Sugar Bowl at the end of its first season but dissolved and reformed as the Bowl Alliance prior to the 1996 season. The Coalition and the Alliance suffered from the same fatal flaw: Neither could get the Rose Bowl on board. That meant the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs remained off limits. But by the time the 1996 season kicked off, the Big Ten and Pac-10 had already agreed to something called the Super Alliance. After the 1998 season, some combination of two teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC would play for the national title. “It was important to us to have a national championship within the context of the traditional bowl system,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told the Chicago Sun-Times in July 1996. “We thought this was an important thing, to make the bowl system healthier, because we don’t want an NFL-style playoff. But we understood America’s appetite for a 1–2 game.”

I know what you’re thinking. Delany hasn’t changed much. (You’re correct.) I know what else you’re thinking. Super Alliance was a much cooler name than Bowl Championship Series. (You’re also correct.) But alas, the powers that be stuck with BCS. They also approved a ranking formula that guaranteed robust debate. The Associated Press media poll would be combined with the coaches’ poll and a set of three computer rankings to determine which teams would play in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.

Not everyone was impressed. “I think it’s so good they ought to take it to basketball, baseball, tennis, golf—make ’em all go through it,” Florida coach Steve Spurrier sarcastically cracked to the Orlando Sentinel. “I’ve just never understood why we’re the only sport in the world without a playoff system. Can’t figure that out. … Why we don’t get 16 teams and start playing at the end of the season just amazes me, but we keep doing it the old way.

“This is just a fancy way of doing it the old way.”

Spurrier’s Gators wound up losing two games in 1998—to each of the teams that played for the first fancy-way national title. But Tennessee and Florida State didn’t look like the Fiesta Bowl matchup when the first BCS rankings were revealed on Oct. 26. Undefeated UCLA and undefeated Ohio State debuted at No. 1 and No. 2. The Buckeyes fell two weeks later when they lost to Nick Saban’s Michigan State team. Tennessee ascended to No. 1 and held on to the top spot thanks to a miracle win against then-undefeated Arkansas on Nov. 14. The Vols seemed to be on a collision course with either UCLA or Kansas State, but the events of Dec. 5 provided a preview for the kind of late-season theatrics the BCS would produce. First, UCLA lost 49–45 at Miami after allowing 299 rushing yards to Edgerrin James. Later that day, Texas A&M shocked Kansas State in the Big 12 title game—the second time in three seasons that the Big 12 had a team knocked out of the Alliance/BCS title game by a conference championship upset. The door was open for Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, but with starting quarterback Chris Weinke sidelined by a neck injury, they couldn’t overcome linebacker Al Wilson and the Vols in the Fiesta Bowl.

The first season of the BCS had delivered exactly what it promised—a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup and a national title that didn’t need to be split. The next few years delivered mostly satisfactory results. (Nebraska getting into the title game over Oregon in 2001 was largely ignored because whoever played Miami was going to get pasted.) The bulk of the complaints came from members of the “non-BCS” conferences, who hated being considered second-class citizens. Then things got wonky.

In 2003, Kansas State crushed previously undefeated Oklahoma 35–7 in the Big 12 title game. USC, which had lost to Cal earlier in the season but was playing like the nation’s best team, ascended to No. 1 in both human polls. SEC champ LSU was No. 2. But Oklahoma’s advantage in the BCS formula’s computer polls—of which there were then eight—was so enormous that it still wound up the No. 1 team in the BCS rankings despite the Sooners ranking No. 3 in both human polls. After LSU beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and USC beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, LSU claimed the BCS title. But Associated Press poll voters selected USC as the national champ. The system that had been created to avoid split national champs had generated a split national champ.

The end of the 2003 season forced a change in the ranking formula that kept the computers as one-third of the mix but reduced the number of computer rankings to six and called for the formula to toss a team’s highest and lowest computer ranks. Meanwhile, the assault on the BCS continued from the leagues outside the chosen six. Threats of legal action and calls for congressional intervention scared the BCS conferences enough to throw the other five leagues a crumb; beginning with the 2004 season, if a team from a non-BCS league could finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings, it would earn an automatic berth into a BCS bowl. If BCS supporters thought this would satisfy everyone, they were wrong. The events of the 2004 season would ultimately bring about the demise of the BCS.

USC did make the title game following the 2004 season. The matchup of the 12–0 Trojans against 12-0 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl might have felt like a victory for the BCS, but with 12–0 Auburn stuck in the Sugar Bowl with no chance to win the national title, no one in SEC country was happy. The angriest of all was SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who vowed his league would never have another undefeated champion denied a chance at a national title. After that season, one of the BCS’s most powerful allies became its most powerful enemy—working to blow it up from the inside. Meanwhile, Mountain West Conference champ Utah did manage to use that new rule to bust the BCS. But by the time coach Urban Meyer’s Utes whipped Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, Meyer had already taken the Florida job. He would leave Arizona and head straight to Gainesville, where he would help turn the SEC into—chant with me now, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt fans—the S-E-C and make everyone else hate the BCS as much as Slive did.

You’ll learn quite a bit more later this week about the polls in the aftermath of the 2004 season, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version. The Associated Press, realizing media members shouldn’t be directly affecting the story they’re reporting on (who plays for college football’s national title), pulled its ranking from the BCS formula in late December 2004. Meanwhile, fans and media demanded that coaches poll voters reveal their final ballots after Cal was denied an at-large berth and Texas was awarded a berth in the Rose Bowl.

The changes did produce less controversy in the title game selections, but the BCS produced arguably its greatest unintended effect during these middle years. The decision to favor six conferences over the other five had clearly delineated college football’s castes. The only way to change a program’s fortune was to somehow win a golden ticket into one of the chosen leagues.

While the schools in the non-BCS leagues tried to figure out how to win entry into the other six, the power conferences were playing their own game. Some commissioners and athletic directors realized that the real power lay not in membership in a BCS conference but in having a television deal so valuable that a league couldn’t be left out of the power structure no matter how much it changed. When the BCS formed, the ACC and Big East were essentially equals. But ACC commissioner John Swofford, who is in fact a ninja, realized two things: Football would drive every decision, and he needed to shore up his league’s flanks to avoid getting picked apart as power conferences sought bigger TV deals near the end of the new century’s first decade. He began by swiping Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East in the early years of the BCS. Later, with the Big Ten, Pac-10(12), Big 12 and SEC still in flux, Swofford grabbed Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Louisville, acting independently of any conference, informed the Big East it would be leaving as well. The Cardinals hoped to join the Big 12 or ACC but had no guarantees. Louisville leaders only knew they didn’t want to be members of a league whose power was significantly diminished.

Conference realignment raged in the background of the 2010 and ’11 seasons. The BCS had survived a challenge from Slive and Swofford—who wanted either a four-team playoff or an extra game to determine a champion—in 2008 and remained in place until the end of the ’13 season. But 2012 would bring another vote, and one final BCS controversy would doom the system and usher in the playoff era. On a cold Friday night in Ames, Iowa, in November 2011, Iowa State back Jeff Woody crashed into the end zone in the second overtime to stun previously undefeated Oklahoma State. As the fans at Jack Trice Stadium poured onto the field, it felt like another earthquake. The loss threw the Cowboys, who almost certainly would have faced LSU in the BCS title game had they been undefeated, into a beauty contest with one-loss Alabama. Voters and computers chose Alabama, setting up an all-SEC national title game that would guarantee that league its sixth consecutive national title.

A day after the bowl selections were announced, Big 12 athletic directors voted in a straw poll to support scrapping the BCS in favor of a four-team playoff. The Big East had been ripped to shreds, so its vote didn’t really count anymore. With the ACC, Big 12 and SEC in favor of a playoff and new Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott relatively agnostic about the postseason, the BCS stood no chance. It would be replaced by a system that is more fun, more interesting, more lucrative and just as controversial. 

But before the world moved on from the BCS, we at SI gave it a funeral.

While the BCS roasts in hell rewatching the Oklahoma-Connecticut Fiesta Bowl for all of eternity, please enjoy a week of stories looking back on a system that changed college football forever.

A Random Ranking

All this thinking about 1998 has inspired me to rank the top 10 songs of that year. No algorithms were used in this ranking. If you hate it, it’s my fault.

1. “Rosa Parks”, OutKast

I probably should just list the other tracks on Aquemini and call it a day, but we have to give some other people a chance.

2. “Intergalactic”, Beastie Boys

You haven’t truly lived until your seven-year-old screams “I’ll stir-fry you in my wok!”

3. “You Got Me”, The Roots featuring Erykah Badu

I’m a sucker for a song that tells a story.

4. “Can I Get A…’, Jay-Z featuring AMIL and Ja Rule

The Jay-Z and AMIL parts are so good that I’m willing to forgive Ja Rule’s presence.

5. “Wide Open Spaces”, Dixie Chicks

The Chicks were just hitting their stride at this point. 

6. “Bittersweet Symphony”, The Verve

This song was recorded in 1996 but wasn’t released as a single in the U.S. until 1998. Ten years later, it would become every third person’s ringtone.

7. “Make Em Say Uhh!”, Master P featuring Silkk The Shocker, Mystikal, Fiend and Mia X

Admit it. You wanted to drive a gold tank onto a basketball court. Heck, I still want to do that.

8. “Ex-Factor”, Lauryn Hill

You know it’s better than “Doo Wop (That Thing)”.

9. “Father of Mine”, Everclear

Ubiquitous radio play wore out this song’s welcome, but it’s poignancy returns when it isn’t being played once every 37 minutes.

10. “Gone Till November”, Wyclef Jean

Wyclef was only beginning to scratch the surface of what he could do as a solo artist.

Three And Out

1. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm broke a bone in his left (non-throwing) hand last week, but he isn’t expected to miss any time. Fromm, who earlier this year had to get a piece of crankbait removed from his leg, continued his string of Extremely Georgia Injuries when, according to and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a wake-boarder being towed by the boat Fromm was riding in let go of the tow rope and the handle snapped back and hit Fromm in the hand. At this point, the only injury more Georgia than the ones Fromm already has suffered involves a Dale Murphy–signed bat falling out of the sky. 

Fromm probably should wear a helmet everywhere just in case.

2. Jeff Long, who was fired at Arkansas for being the guy who hired (and didn’t want to fire) Bret Bielema, didn’t stay unemployed long. Last week, Long was hired to replace Sheahon Zenger at Kansas. Long’s task will be to fix a football program that has won three games in the past three seasons. That can’t make current coach David Beaty very confident.

Meanwhile, Long has shielded himself in case any calamity befalls the Jayhawks’ most successful program. The Kansas basketball program is wrapped up in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, and Long has a clause in his contract that will automatically extend his contract by the number of years Kansas is penalized should “the University be placed under any federal, state, NCAA, or Conference investigation leading to restrictions or probation for its football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball or women’s volleyball programs…” 

3. Alabama tailback Najee Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle that he considered transferring during a freshman season that started slow but ended with a major role in the second half of the national title game. At 6’2″ and 230 pounds, comparisons to former Crimson Tide back Derrick Henry were inevitable. But Harris’s comments suggest he and Henry had similar experiences as freshmen. Henry was barely used in 2013 before breaking out in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. He played a much bigger role as a sophomore and then won the Heisman Trophy as a junior.

If that frustrating freshman year leads to sophomore and junior seasons for Harris that come close to the ones Henry had, Harris and the Tide will be thrilled.

What’s Eating Andy?

I’m struggling to be good at one thing, but Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges is the epitome of a dual threat. Last week, Hodges was named the No. 1 duck caller in the state of Alabama.

This is nothing new for Hodges, who won the Junior World title in 2009. 

What’s Andy Eating?

Two years before he opened a barbecue joint that almost instantly asserted itself as one of the best in Texas (and therefore among the best in the country), Grant Pinkerton looked into his freezer, saw a package of duck chunks and had an idea. He was cooking for a tailgate before the Texas Bowl that matched his alma mater Texas against Arkansas, so he needed to please a big crowd. His idea? Duck and sausage jambalaya.

Then-Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would later describe that game as “borderline erotic” because his team held Texas to 1.4 yards a play in a 31–7 win. While Pinkerton would prefer to forget everything that happened on the field that day, he never forgot how his friends reacted to jambalaya turned into a rich, silky delicacy by rendered duck fat. So when Pinkerton opened his restaurant in December 2016, he included the duck and sausage jambalaya on the menu as something between a side and an entree.

When I visited Pinkerton’s—a six-minute drive from downtown Houston—on Saturday, an order of that jambalaya sold for $7.50. If Pinkerton only sold that jambalaya and charged twice as much, his place would still draw lines. But that jambalaya, which I’d happily fill a swimming pool with so I could eat my way out, isn’t even the best item on the menu.

The competition for that prize is between the brisket and the Candy Paint ribs, which multiple Houston Texans think they named even though Pinkerton came up with the sobriquet years ago. The brisket is textbook—tender and velvety under a layer of crispy bark and a deep red smoke ring. My final bite on Saturday might have been the perfect bite of brisket. It was a chunk from the side near the corner of the giant hunk of meat, so it had bark on three sides covering a moist nugget of beef. I was completely stuffed full of jambalaya and ribs and the rest of the brisket, but I had to take this one more bite. And I’m so glad I did.

I was so full because of those ribs. If you read this space often, you know how I feel about barbecue sauce. It isn’t necessary if the meat is cooked properly. And no sauce is necessary on anything at Pinkerton’s. But glazed ribs fall into a different category for me. In their case, sauce is applied near the end of the cooking process to create something that comes much closer to candy topping than sauce. Too much of this can be terrible, but used judiciously, that glaze can produce a sweet-smoky-salty combo that pleases nearly every cluster of taste buds. That’s what Pinkerton’s ribs do. A glimmer of glaze sits atop a pad of thick, juicy pork and produces supremely satisfying bites. Half of a rack can disappear within minutes.

But don’t worry. There’s always more brisket and borderline erotic duck jambalaya. 

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