The National Championship Game

For the purposes of this essay, all years refer to the season, not the actual year the national title game was played. For example, the 1997 Sugar Bowl was the national championship game for the 1996 season, so it gets referred to as the 1996 national championship game.

There have been 15 “national championship” games, from the beginning of the Bowl Coalition in 1992 to the advent of the BCS National Championship Game last year. Three times in that span the game featured a #3 team due to the Big Ten and Pac 10 refusing to participate prior to the BCS in 1998: in 1994 it was #1 Nebraska vs. #3 Miami; in 1996 it was #1 FSU vs. #3 Florida; and in 1997 it was #2 Nebraska vs. #3 Tennessee.

Counting the upcoming game for this season, out of the 32 possible spots only 12 unique teams have participated in the national title game, in chronological order: Alabama, Miami, FSU, Nebraska, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, USC, and Texas. Only 3 of those 12 teams have played in it once – Alabama, VT, and Texas – with LSU falling out of that category this year. The longest stretch of games featuring newcomers was 2002-05, with Ohio State, LSU, USC, and Texas playing, and for that matter winning, their first national title games in that period. Only 5 of the 16 games did not feature a team from the state of Florida: ’97, ’03, ’04, ’05, and ’07. That 4 of the 5 games have come in the last 5 years shouldn’t be a surprise given the decline of the marquee Florida teams under Ron Zook, Bobby Bowden, and Larry Coker.

The average score of the national title game is 36 – 18.47, for an average margin of victory of 17.53 points. Eight of the 15 games have been blowouts, meaning the margin of victory was greater than two scores (more than 16 points). We have never gone more that two years without a blowout, though there were three blowouts in a row in the Bowl Alliance years of 1995-97. Those were also the only instances of back-to-back blowouts. Only 6 of the 15 games had a final margin under 10 points.

The most points scored in a national title game was 62 by ’95 Nebraska, and the fewest was 2 by ’00 FSU.
Only 5 teams scored fewer than 30 points and won – ’93 FSU, ’94 Nebraska, ’98 Tennessee, ’00 Oklahoma, and ’03 LSU.

The BCS Era

The BCS ostensibly was created to pit #1 versus #2, but how good has it been at selecting those teams? In the first four years, #1 was a perfect 4-0, but since #1 is only 1-4. The average score is 34.22 – 18.89, with an average margin of victory of 15.33 points. Four of the nine games have been blowouts; four of the 5 non-blowouts had margins under 10 points. At least by that quick look, it seems that half the time it sets up a good game and half the time it doesn’t. It’s statistically a coin flip as to who will win, but trends suggest #2 LSU has an excellent chance against #1 Ohio State this year.

Only two conferences – the SEC (with Tennessee, LSU, and Florida) and the Big 12 (with Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas), have put two or more different teams in the BCS title game. Since Miami in 2001-02 was a Big East member, it counts as a Big East team rather than an ACC team; no current Big East team has made the title game.

Almost each year, a controversy has arisen. Almost each year, a tweak to the system has been made to correct that error. However, since the BCS is a reactive institution, it will almost certainly never produce a perfectly agreed upon year unless two BCS conference champions go undefeated. To wit:

  • 1998: The problem was #3 Kansas State not being picked for a BCS bowl. The “Kansas State Rule” was enacted giving an automatic bid to #3 (or #4 if #3 is an auto-qualifier).
  • 1999: The problem was undefeated Tulane and #6 Kansas State (again) being passed over for #8 Michigan.
  • 2000: The problem was having one undefeated team and three 10-1 teams. Two (Miami and Washington) had legitimate cases for the #2 spot, but it went to the third 10-1 team FSU, who had lost to Miami.
  • 2001: Nebraska ends up #2 despite being blown out by Colorado in the Big 12 title game and finishing #4 in the human polls. The #2 team in the human polls, one-loss Oregon, was 4th in the final regular season BCS poll behind two-loss Colorado. Oregon would blow out Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.
  • 2002: No controversy in selecting Miami and Ohio State, the two lone undefeated teams. There was that pass interference call though.
  • 2003: Three one-loss teams from BCS leagues and no undefeated teams for the first time since 1996. USC was #1 in the human polls, but the BCS title game ended up with the other two one-loss teams, LSU and Oklahoma. OU had not won the Big 12, having lost in the Big 12 title game. Three non-BCS teams – Miami (OH), Boise State, and TCU – finished with one loss but none got a BCS bid. LSU and USC split the title, something that the BCS was supposed to prevent from happening.
  • 2004: In a fit of irony, after a year with no undefeated teams there were no less than 5 undefeated teams: USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Boise State, with the first two playing for the title. This was also the year of Mack Brown campaigning against Cal, but it did have some good with Utah being the first BCS Buster.
  • 2005: Like 2002, the system got lucky with only two undefeated teams – USC and Texas – who played a classic in the Rose Bowl. Oregon did get shafted again thanks to Notre Dame’s automatic bid if it finishes in the top 8 in the BCS standings, an increasingly bad idea.
  • 2006: Florida or Michigan? Michigan or Florida? And what about Wisconsin, Louisville, and Boise State? Florida’s trouncing of the Buckeyes led a lot of people to pontificate that the system “got it right.” However, that’s a smokescreen since the computers were evenly split between UF and UM, meaning it was the human polls that decided the game’s participants. The “system” that got it right was no different than the one in the old Bowl Coalition/Alliance days.
  • 2007: Huge upsets every week. No undefeated teams except Hawaii, a team that played a historically bad schedule. Ohio State is the only one-loss BCS conference champion, but its schedule was weaker than some others and it lost a lot of credibility in the desert the year before. The computers say LSU and VT should be in, but since the humans that make the system marginalized the computers a couple years back, it’s LSU and OSU. LSU destroyed VT in an early season game, but what about Oklahoma, Georgia, USC, West Virginia, and Hawaii?

Picking a #1 and #2 can sometimes be easy (2002, 2005), and sometimes extremely difficult (2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007). The BCS is an inherently conflicted system – it includes computer polls to add an element of impartiality unswayed by tradition and regional bias, but after the human polls were overruled by the computer polls several times, the people running the system gave the humans nearly unsurmountable power. It’s a wonder the BCS still includes them on a regular basis; at this point they can only make an impact if the Coaches’ and Harris polls differ on who’s #2.

Until and unless we see a playoff, it’s unlikely we’ll see a controversy-free, true national championship game. And even then, there will still be plenty of whiners. Such is the existence of college football.

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