College football has returned, with two great opening weekends of games and surprises which all count in the drive for the national title. The most compelling and exciting regular season in sports is back at last!
The offseason has been meaningful too, as the 12 university presidents and chancellors who oversee the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) created a new four-team, seeded playoff that will determine the national champion beginning with the 2014-2015 season. Plenty of planning remains be done (perhaps most importantly, establishing the selection committee structure and mechanics -- and, by the way, we welcome your thoughts on Facebook at EveryGameCounts or Twitter @EveryGameCounts), but the heavy lifting is over.
The new format will be good for student-athletes, fans, alumni and our institutions. It is a best-of-both-worlds result, bringing the excitement of a playoff while protecting this unique regular season and preserving the bowl tradition. A four-team playoff doesn't go too far; it goes just the right amount, and it respects the academic calendar while limiting the number of games played by student-athletes.
But as we look forward to the new format, it is worth reflecting on the record of the BCS, which transformed college football in a number of important ways. Like it or not, the BCS era has been tremendously beneficial.
First, since its inception in 1998, the BCS has done everything it was supposed to do by delivering a matchup of the top two teams in a bowl game. Millions of fans today may be too young to remember, but before the formation of the BCS and its predecessors (the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance), the Associated Press's number one and two teams met in bowl games only eight times in 56 seasons. Talk about controversy! By contrast, thanks to the BCS, the top two teams have played each other 14 times in 14 years by BCS measurements and 11 times in the last 14 according to the AP poll -- including the last eight years in a row. Those games have attracted massive television audiences second only to the Super Bowl.
Second, the BCS enhanced the most dramatic regular season in all of sports, where every game counts. From the opening kickoff in late August to the confetti shower in January, the rollercoaster ride of college football is unmatched. Games featuring top-ranked teams and conference rivalries are must-see because of the national title implications. Upsets send shock waves throughout the nation.
Third, and since every game counts, the BCS has helped turn college football from basically a regional sport to a wonderfully popular national sport. Student-athletes and fans across the country pay close attention to teams and conferences in different regions because it actually matters. In addition to seeing a good game and hoping for a pleasing result, they are sizing up potential future competition. In pre-BCS days, Pac-10 fans were probably most interested in non-conference games in the Big Ten but not the Big Eight, SEC, Big East or ACC, knowing that that their champion was destined to face the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl, irrespective of final rankings. When the BCS made it possible for all conferences to compete in the BCS National Championship Game, it paved the way for upstart programs, new rivalries, and meaningful out-of-conference matchups which have added an entirely new dimension to the traditions of the game, expanding its popularity and reach like never before.
Fourth, the BCS has increased access for all teams into major bowl games. Seven teams from conferences without annual automatic qualification have earned BCS bowl berths in the last eight years, including an historic first in 2011 when TCU played in the Rose Bowl. Compare that to the previous 54 years, when only five teams that are currently members of non-AQ conferences got a similar chance. Revenues have followed a similar path, as teams and all conferences have reaped the rewards for outstanding performances throughout the BCS years.
Last, but certainly not least, the BCS has accomplished all this while preserving the unique American tradition of the bowls, which is so special for athletes, band members, cheerleaders and fans alike. No other sport has anything like it. For many student-athletes, a bowl game is the highlight of their career, an experience which they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
The best metric for the success of the BCS era, however, is in the popularity of the game itself: and college football is thriving. Regular season attendance has shot up nearly 36 percent since the BCS's inception in 1998—from 27.6 million in 1998 to 37.4 million in 2011. And BCS television ratings regularly surpass the NCAA men's basketball finals, the NBA and NHL finals and all other sports except the Super Bowl.
This is the strong foundation upon which the new playoff format was built. It will protect the regular season because it includes the best four teams. It will enhance the bowl tradition because the semifinals will be played in bowls on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. And it will continue to deliver a true national champion and all the confetti.
So let's continue to enjoy the 2012-13 college football season with an extra appreciation for its awesome passion and traditions, even as we look forward to a brand new beginning two years from now.