TBT: Unraveling the 2008 BCS Mess

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No season in the 15 years of the Bowl Championship Series become more of a tangled mess than 2008. Controversy was inherent with the BCS, which is why the College Football Playoff now exists — and, in fact, the College Football Playoff largely owes its existence to the 2008 BCS debacle.

The push for postseason reform kicked into high-gear following that season, with everyone from the President-elect to Saturday Night Live jumping into the fray.

The Utah Utes took Playoff rhetoric from mere talk into action, threatening an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS.

It’s a much different college football landscape now than during the 2008 BCS controversy, but even the Playoff cannot make full sense of that particular campaign.

• One power conference finished with three one-loss teams
• The Pac-10 and Big Ten champions were both 11-1
• The SEC champion and runner-up were both 12-1
• Two non-power conference teams finished the regular season unbeaten, and one had several high-profile wins

A repeat of the 2008 BCS is the College Football Playoff’s doomsday scenario, and the committee recognizes it.

Hence, when opening its doors to media last season, the Playoff committee used the 2008 BCS landscape to detail how this new system would work.

No True Champion

Even when the Big 12 had a conference championship game, “One True Champion” was a dubious tagline. The conference’s regular season ended in 2008 with Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all sitting 11-1. Oklahoma, which represented the Big 12 South in the conference title game, beat Texas Tech, which beat Texas, which beat Oklahoma.

Keep that one in your pocket when the topic of conference championship deregulation arises. A Red River rematch would have solved…well, some of…the Big 12 mess.

There’s still the question of what to do with Texas Tech. For all the talk of how the Big 12’s nine-game conference schedule sans title game hurts the conference’s Playoff chances, at least the current round robin ensures there can’t be a three-way tie.

This year’s TCU-Baylor tie is as bad as it’ll get for the Big 12 now.

USC vs. Florida

Given the strength of the Big 12 in 2008 — and without the benefit of hindsight — the conference’s champion deserved inclusion in the BCS Championship Game. That left two very worth teams jockeying for the other spot, one of which won the title.

Until a time-traveling DeLorean becomes reality, I’ll never be convinced the 2008 USC Trojans wouldn’t have beaten Florida.

The 2008 USC defense is statistically one of the greatest in college football history. The Trojans held opponents to an absurd 9.0 points per game. Just two Trojan opponents broke the 20-point threshold in the regular season: Stanford, which USC routed by three touchdowns, and Oregon State, which handed USC its sole loss.

The Oregon State defeat ostensibly kept USC out of the BCS championship picture. The Trojans also played one less game than Florida in 2008, the result of the then-Pac-10 lacking a championship game.

Without the SEC Championship Game, USC and Florida beat the same number of ranked opponents at season’s end. But Florida knocking off Alabama in the conference title game certainly hurt USC’s title chances.

However, USC’s 27-21 loss in Corvallis was a Thursday night road contest immediately following the Trojans’ 35-3 deconstruction of Ohio State.

Under the College Football Playoff system, both USC and Florida would have played for the national championship. That in and of itself validates the new system over the BCS, which would have left USC out of a four-team Playoff.

Alabama was slotted No. 4 above the fifth-place Trojans in one of the more indefensible BCS moments.

Utah’s Case

Alabama beat reporter Cecil Hurt took to Twitter to gripe about the Crimson Tide’s hypothetical exclusion from a six-year old Playoff scenario.

Now, in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, Alabama trailed Utah wire-to-wire and lost by two touchdowns, but hindsight is 20/20.

Taking the Sugar Bowl out of the equation and comparing Alabama to Utah strictly before that matchup, it’s clear which the more deserving was of a shot at the title: Utah. And really, it’s not all that close.

Typically playing in a Group of Five — back then, non-BCS — conference would mean a less impressive resume than a power-conference counterpart, particularly one from the SEC. And indeed, Boise State finished the regular season undefeated, but its sole meaningful win was over Oregon.

Utah, on the other hand, built an impressive resume that was actually stronger at the top than Alabama’s.

In 12 games, Utah beat three teams ranked in the final AP Top 25 of the regular season. In 13 games, Alabama beat two.

The primary knock against Utah is that its lesser competition was drastically worse than Alabama’s. This is indeed true; New Mexico was one of, if not the worst team in the FBS in 2008, for example. But when the chief argument in favor of a team’s championship worthiness is the strength of its weaker opponents, that’s a tremendous reach.

A repeat of Utah’s season — particularly in the same circumstances as the 2008 BCS picture — would present the Playoff committee with quite a conundrum. There are five power conferences and just four College Football Playoff spots. Not tough to do the math.

But should a Group of Five team beat multiple opponents ranked at season’s end, and be the only viable undefeated left standing, does that team leapfrog the Power Five?

The mock selection last October says no despite Utah’s resume.

Everything that could invalidate, or at least weaken the Playoff happened in the 2008 season. This is the scenario the committee desperately wants to avoid, lest public outcry for expansion to eight teams reach the same pitch that helped force the current system into the BCS’ place.