Reexamining the Plus-One College Football Option

Utah Utes Alabama Crimson Tide Sugar Bowl

On a couple of occasions on this blog, I’ve argued in favor of an 8-team college football playoff system that uses the BCS bowls with their traditional conference tie-ins. While I still believe this would be the most viable solution to determine a national champion, I’m frankly getting completely sick of politicians trying to do anything with college football. Any sports fan that actually supports the federal government to get involved in this issue is completely insane. If there’s one system that’s guaranteed to be worse than the BCS today, it’s whatever convoluted format that Congress would come up with. Congressman Joe Barton needs to find a new issue to focus on, such as the economy, health care, or the multiple wars that our country is engaged in at this time. At the same time, the complaints from the bowl abolitionists such as the Mountain West Conference are getting as tired and worn out as Rachel Nichols’ campouts outside of Brett Favre’s Mississippi compound. The blind drumbeat that Utah was somehow disenfranchised last season has actually made me less sympathetic to the playoff issue since I wrote this post back in November largely supporting President Obama’s views on the matter. If you honestly can tell me that you would feel comfortable wagering your life savings that Utah would’ve beaten Florida, USC, Texas, and/or Oklahoma last season head-to-head, then you can go ahead and claim that the Utes deserved to be national champions. Otherwise, the fact that they went undefeated is irrelevant when compared to 1-loss teams from the much stronger SEC and Big 12. Besides, it’s incredulous to me that the Mountain West Conference and other fans are all of the sudden arguing how unfair the system is today even though the BCS expanded in 2006 to give the non-BCS conferences more opportunities to get into the top-level games and despite the fact those conferences bring very little of their own revenue (and definitely not many viewers as evidenced by the TV ratings) to the table. In the pre-BCS days, teams such as Boise State, Hawaii, and Utah would’ve never gotten a sniff of the Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, yet there were hardly any calls for a college football playoff prior to 1998 even though all bowls were completely about conference tie-ins and backroom deals.

Regardless, the college football playoff issue keeps coming back up like the Chinese water torture drip of baseball player names coming out from the 2003 steroid testing. The more that I investigate the issue, the more that I become convinced that even an 8-team playoff will never come to fruition (much less the extremely bad idea of a 16-team playoff). When the BCS bowls expanded to add a separate national championship game, thereby having 5 bowls with 10 participants, several things occurred.

First, it gave the non-BCS conferences a lot less incentive to push for a playoff. As stated before, those conferences were now getting access to revenue and bowls that they never did in the pre-BCS days, and that’s why all of those conferences opposed a playoff proposal in front of the BCS last week (except for the Mountain West, who submitted that proposal).  (Apparently, Senator Orrin Hatch didn’t realize that this automatic qualification existed for the non-BCS conferences in the Senate hearing on college football matters on Tuesday and actually openly speculated that this was some type of secret despite being published and written about everywhere.  This happens to be the Senator that called this hearing in the first place.  Once again, I don’t care how much you might hate the BCS – you don’t want these politicians anywhere near college football, particularly when you consider that Senator Hatch is relatively smart and thoughtful compared to the rest of that sorry lot.)  Therefore, those non-BCS conferences now have less incentive to mess with a system that they are now gaining revenue from (which they never would’ve had access to in the pre-BCS days).

Second, it clarified to the TV networks that the college football postseason is not like the NCAA Tournament. While the NCAA Tournament is partially about hyping Cinderellas in the first two rounds, the general public has shown year after year that it wants to sit down to watch the power teams in college football such as Florida, Texas, and Ohio State, even if they claim verbally that they want to see the Utahs and Boise States of the world. This is similar to when a lot of sports fans claimed to rejoice when neither the Red Sox nor Yankees were involved in the World Series last season, yet hardly any of those sports fans bothered to subsequently watch that World Series and drove the event to its worst ratings in history. Ever since the major conference realignments in the ACC and Big East that became effective in 2005, the only BCS bowl games other than the national championship games to have garnered over a 10.0 TV rating have all involved Big Ten schools (see historic data and this past year’s numbers). Meanwhile, the Boise State-Oklahoma 2006 Fiesta Bowl overtime classic that lots of non-BCS school proponents love to point out got trounced in the ratings that season by blowouts in the USC-Michigan Rose Bowl and LSU-Notre Dame Sugar Bowl. When ESPN, Fox, or some other network pays for sports rights, it cares about what people actually “do” as opposed to what they “say”, and what people keep doing is watch power programs in the major bowl games while ignoring the less sexy match-ups.

Third, the BCS expansion has better allowed the various bowls to retain their traditional tie-ins more often than not even if they lose a conference partner to the national championship game. The Rose Bowl has been getting its desired Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup even though Ohio State went to the national championship game 2 seasons in a row, while the Sugar Bowl has been able to always pick an SEC team despite the conference having sent its champ to the BCS title game for the past three seasons. This is an important point, particularly for the Rose Bowl, in terms of retaining the historical matchups that these bowls provide.

Finally, the Big Ten, SEC, and Big 12 have consistently established themselves as conferences that will almost always send 2 teams each to BCS bowls. Those conferences have teams from top-to-bottom with fan bases that both travel en masse to bowl games and bring in TV ratings. As a result, those conferences received even more benefits from the current BCS system since they are consistently receiving second BCS bowl game revenue shares to split among its members. Schools with horrific football histories such as Indiana, Vanderbilt, and Baylor now take in more bowl game revenue on a year-to-year basis than USC and Notre Dame. So, those 3 conferences aren’t ever going to vote for a system that would reduce their chances of sending 2 teams to the BCS.

The upshot is that even though the general perception is that a college football playoff would be a no-brainer money-maker, the fact is that the BCS conferences, TV networks, bowls, and even the non-BCS conferences actually don’t have much incentive to radically change the system that is in place today.  Team Speed Kills put together an excellent economic analysis of why it wouldn’t be financially rational for the BCS conference to alter the system (and this is coming from someone else that is on record as a playoff supporter).  This means that every sports fan out there needs to stop wasting their breath on advocating scrapping the whole system. You’ll see Sammy Sosa in the Baseball Hall of Fame before that happens.

However, we can still improve upon what we have now for everyone involved by implementing a plus-one model. For the uninitiated, the plus-one model consists of the BCS bowls all being played, having the national championship matchup being determined thereafter, and then a separate title game subsequently being played. I know that I have previously criticized the prospect of a plus-one as simply pushing off a #1 vs. #2 decision from December to January, but I’ve come around to it as a reasonable, if imperfect, alternative to today’s system. Here is how I would envision it working taking into account all of the financial and historical realities that are in place (which way too many fans either ignore or dismiss):

  1. The BCS would add the Cotton Bowl as a true 5th bowl game. As previously noted, there needs to be 10 total participants in order to maximize the opportunities for both the non-BCS conferences (to obtain single bids) and the largest power conferences (to obtain multiple bids).
  2. The BCS bowls will always have their traditional conference tie-ins. I know that this is anathema to a lot of fans that want to see straight seeding (or at least the top 4 teams seeded in a de facto 4-team playoff), but whether you agree with it or not, the Big Ten and Pac-10 aren’t going to give up the Rose Bowl. If the Cotton Bowl is added as a 5th BCS game, it would take the Big 12 champ if it’s from the Big 12 South (meaning any of the Texas or Oklahoma schools) while the Fiesta Bowl gets that conference tie-in if a Big 12 North team qualifies. This makes the most sense from both a historical (old Southwestern Conference connection with the Cotton and the Big 12 South schools) and traveling fan base perspective (Midwestern schools in the Big 12 North such as Nebraska and Missouri prefer going to Phoenix over Dallas). After that, the bowl of those two that doesn’t get the Big 12 auto bid gets the first pick of at-large teams using the same BCS ranking qualifications that are in place today (i.e. teams in the top 14 are eligible, top non-BCS conference school on top 12 must be picked by someone, a maximum of 2 teams can be picked from any one conference, etc.). After that, the bowls with open at-large spots will make selections from the BCS eligible pool in reverse order of the BCS rankings of the the teams that are already locked into those bowls. For example, the Orange Bowl had the lowest ranked team automatically committed to its game last year (#19 Virginia Tech as the ACC champ), so it would have been next in line with its selection, and so forth. This would be the mechanism to get as even of a distribution of teams across the bowls as possible (except that the Rose Bowl gets the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs no matter what). So, last year’s bowl matchups would’ve ended up like this (with BCS rankings after the regular season):Rose Bowl: #5 USC (Pac-10 champ) vs. #8 Penn State (Big Ten champ)

    Cotton Bowl: #1 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) vs. #12 Cincinnati (Big East champ/6th at-large)

    Sugar Bowl: #2 Florida (SEC champ) vs. #6 Utah (non-BCS automatic qualifier/5th at-large)

    Fiesta Bowl: #3 Texas (1st at-large since Cotton got Big 12 champ) vs. #10 Ohio State (3rd at-large)

    Orange Bowl: #19 Virginia Tech (ACC champ) vs. #4 Alabama (2nd at-large)

  3. The day after the last BCS bowl is played, another set of BCS rankings will come out to determine the national championship matchup.  The title game will then be played on an open date thereafter (third Monday in January or one week before the Super Bowl).

Obviously, there’s still the prospect of controversy surrounding those final BCS rankings.  However, at least the outcomes of the BCS bowls provide some important information, such as whether a team such as Utah could handle Florida.  All of the catcalls about Utah last season were with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight after it beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  Up to that point, reasonable college football fans wouldn’t have put Utah in the top 2 teams in the country, so it’s a bit disingenuous to state that they should’ve been in the national championship game based on the information that people had as of the final BCS rankings.  If the Utes were able to beat Florida in a plus-one system, though, then they would have had the marquee win necessary to have legitimately been in the championship discussion before the national title game (as opposed to after it).  Meanwhile, all of the BCS bowls become relevant to the national championship race as opposed to being glorified consolation prizes.  This is a throwback to the pre-BCS days when the first day of the year was one of the best sports days of the year.  The regular season also continues to have much more impact under the plus-one model.  Indeed, this is the biggest advantage of the plus-one system over any form of a playoff and why I’ve warmed up much more to the prospect of the idea.  We lose key historical moments like last year’s SEC championship game, the crazy last day of the 2007 regular season, and the 2006 Ohio State-Michigan game if all of those games become merely seeding exercises for a playoff.

So, the unseeded plus-one system is an option that the BCS conferences actually have a rational economic incentive to put into place.  Whether this could ever be put into place is obviously the continuing dilemma.

(Image from


10 thoughts on “Reexamining the Plus-One College Football Option

  1. Zach

    I think that this system is the best idea except for one thing. Why not have the bowls with the highest ranked automatic-qualifying teams pick their at-large team first? That way the best at-large teams are playing the best conference champions. Of course, one or two bowl games would become irrelevant to the championship picture because of this, but controversy would be taken away by focusing the top teams into 2 or 3 games.


  2. Zach,

    I see what you’re saying and it’s perfectly logical, but your latter comment about a couple of the bowls becoming irrelevant is exactly why I think that the bowls and conferences would push for the reverse order approach as a practical matter. It’s more about getting an even distribution of the higher ranked teams among all of the bowls as opposed to concentrating them in a couple of the games. From the point of view of the BCS conferences and bowls, they care more about minimizing the worst case scenario (i.e. avoiding awful dog matchups like last year’s Orange Bowl at all costs since that dilutes the value of the BCS games) than about attaining the best case scenario (possibly having blockbuster #1 vs. #4 and #2 vs. #3 games). Also, if you’re a #1 or #2 team heading into the bowl season in a plus-one system, the last thing that you want to have happen is to have to play the higher ranked teams. If we look at it from how playoffs work, those top teams ought to have the easiest games in the “play-in” round as opposed to the hardest ones.

    So, I’m not discounting your idea at all from a substantive standpoint – I thought about that scenario, as well. However, the pragmatist in me believes that the reverse order selection is what would be more likely agreeable among all of the parties involved.


  3. Very nice article, but I do not think the plus one system that you came up with does any good. Your system might not differentiate between say the top 3 or 4 teams if they’re playing the weaker BCS participants. Plus, if a highly ranked team from the Pac 10 champ has to play another highly ranked team from the Big Ten while a top ranked team from the SEC, Big XII, or ACC may get a much easier bowl opponent. I’ve always been a BCS supporter but over the past year or so I have started to think a 4 team playoff would be the best idea. There needs to be a matchup of #1 vs #4 and #2 vs. #3. A team from outside the Top 4 rarely has a case to be in the title game plus you would match up the teams at the top that are hard to differentiate. The bowls shouldn’t have much of a problem with this setup as the semifinal matchups would be very sexy and they would rotate from bowl to bowl every year.


  4. Terry


    I came to your blog through a referral on the Big Ten Expansion Index. That article and the subsequent ones are superb. I love sports analysis based in business and your articles hit it out of the park.

    …except this one.

    The BCS and its predecessors, the Bowl Coalition and then the Bowl Alliance are a stepped progression to one goal, control and thus revenue of college football by the conferences.

    By now, the BCS controls the intellectual property of post-season college football, D1A. The Bowls are a sub-contractor to the BCS. Take a look at how the Bowl Alliance cancelled the Orange Bowl and Fiesta Bowl contract with CBS to give a total exclusivity deal to ABC to get them to pony up more money and bring in the rosebowl/pacten/bigten to create the BCS.

    In the period from the creation of the Coalition in 92 thru the Alliance in 95 to the BCS in 97, expired bowl contracts were replaces with new ones where the coalition selected the teams to go to the bowls, not the bowls themselves. This undercut the bowls contracts with the networks, until finally the networks contracted with the Conference Consortium (BCS) not the bowls themselves.

    Indeed with the 5th bowl, the BCS went whole hog in to the Bowl Business, with the traditional bowls simply providing venue services.

    Since regular season revenue is the property of the conferences/schools, the BCS provides (for the 6 super conferences) the ability to control and profit from all of D1A college football.

    There will be no playoff under the BCS. The only dynamic which makes sense is that of the NCAA claiming the IP of post-season college football, just as it does in all other sports. The opportunity for this coup comes at the renewal period of the CBS contract with the NCAA. Currently at about $700M per year, the NCAA distributes a great deal of that money to all 1100 NCAA schools. When the CBS deal is up in 2015, it is very possible that no one will step to the table with an offer of similar size. The little schools have grown accustomed to their slice of the $700M pie, and might look around for replacement revenues. At that time the “General Assembly” of the NCAA might look to take the “Security Council’s” BCS bowls away from them and make a playoff under NCAA control.

    1100 votes beat 70 everytime.

    When sports radio talk about that playoffs have to be a decision of University Presidents they are right. It’s just a matter of the 1100 presidents being hungry enough to take on the 70 BIG presidents.

    Until that time, playoffs are not to the benefit of the 6 super conferences. They believe (and rightly so IMHO) that a playoff will soften regular season revenues, without adding additional post-season $$ since contracts are already in place.

    Only with a coup, and a new TV buyer, will playoffs happen.


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