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Bowl Championship Splendor: The golden age of college football
Weekly Standard ^ | December 23, 2013 | Jeffrey H. Anderson

Posted on 12/27/2013 12:03:57 PM PST by rhema

College football wasn’t always like this. The eyes of the nation weren’t always riveted on a massive stadium in a tiny town in southeastern Alabama, wondering whether the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide could really​—​against all probability—be knocked off by archrival Auburn. They weren’t always glued a week later to a game in Big Ten country, wondering whether Michigan State could really hand Ohio State its first loss in two years and knock the Buckeyes out of the national title picture. No, the race for the national championship wasn’t always so exciting. In fact, not that long ago there wasn’t even a national championship—at least one decided by anything other than a purely subjective vote of sportswriters or coaches. There wasn’t a clear national champion because there wasn’t an official national championship game.

All of that changed during the 1998 offseason, when the Bowl Championship Series was created, and a new era of college football began.

On the morning of May 18, 1998, I answered the phone, suspecting nothing out of the ordinary, and was quite surprised to hear that the voice on the other end was that of Roy Kramer, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Kramer said he was devising a new formula to determine which college football teams would play in which bowls, and he wanted to know if Chris Hester (co-creator of the Anderson & Hester Rankings) and I would have a problem if our computer rankings were included. I replied (in what was certainly an understatement), “We would welcome being included.” Three weeks later—once Kramer had gotten buy-in from the other conference commissioners, NBC, ABC, and CBS—the creation of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was publicly announced.

The BCS was designed for one central purpose: to provide college football with an annual national championship game. That game would be hosted on a rotating basis by the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange Bowls. (Since January 2007, it has been hosted separately from these bowls, although still on their sites, as the National Championship Game.) Kramer, a former successful head football coach at Central Michigan, knew that the championship-game matchup needed to be determined on the basis of something beyond the subjective polls, which ask coaches, sportswriters, and the like to rank the teams as they see fit. Kramer rightly sensed that it should be rooted in some sort of objective evaluation. So he turned to computer rankings.

That first season, the only computer rankings that were included in the BCS formula were ours (the Anderson & Hester Rankings, then called the Seattle Times Rankings), Jeff Sagarin’s (which were and are published in USA Today), and the now-defunct and truly terrible New York Times rankings. Collectively, the computer rankings accounted for one-fourth of the original BCS formula, with the polls (the average of the AP and coaches’) accounting for another fourth. The other two quartiles were based on a not-very-accurate internal BCS strength-of-schedule rating and each team’s number of losses. So three-quarters of the original criteria was objective, while only one quarter—the polls—was subjective.

The excitement began early. On the last day of the BCS’s first season, No. 2 (in the BCS) UCLA lost at Miami in a hurricane make-up game that had originally been scheduled for months earlier. Then, in perhaps the game of the year, Texas A&M overcame a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit to defeat No. 3 Kansas State in double-overtime in the Big 12 Championship Game. As a result, Florida State moved up from No. 4 to No. 2 in the final BCS standings, and the Seminoles played No. 1 Tennessee on January 4 in the Fiesta Bowl. The Volunteers won 23-16, to claim the first BCS national championship.

From the start, fans loved the BCS. And one of the things they loved most about it was complaining about it. That first season, a level-headed Kansas State fan wrote and told Chris and me that, by not having the Wildcats ranked in the top-two, our computer rankings were committing an injustice comparable to that of slavery.

To be sure, the BCS generated its share of controversy—and the computer rankings, being its most mysterious part, provided an easy scapegoat. To this day, however, few people seem to realize that an important change was made to the BCS formula after its sixth season. The formula, which had previously been a bit too complex and unwieldy, was streamlined, simplified, and significantly improved. From the 2004-05 season onward, this revised formula included only two basic components: the polls (with the Harris poll replacing the AP poll after the 2005 season) and the computer rankings (which by then consisted of ours, Sagarin’s, Richard Billingsley’s, Peter Wolfe’s, Kenneth Massey’s, and Wes Colley’s). In another important change from the original formula, the polls were given more weight. Going forward, they accounted for two-thirds of the formula, while the computer rankings accounted for the other third. This reflected a recognition that it’s the fans’ game, and the fans’ opinions (largely reflected in the subjective polls) need to hold sway—although not unlimited sway.

The improved formula worked like a charm. Controversy about the BCS persisted, but it started to sound more like an echo from the earlier days, with that echo fading further over time. For the past 10 seasons (from 2004‑05 through 2013-14), the BCS national championship matchup has reflected the public consensus each and every year—a remarkable feat for any formula that isn’t based strictly on popular opinion.

Under the BCS, college football has flourished. In 1997, the last pre-BCS season, attendance for the sport’s Football Bowl Subdivision (its major division) was 27.6 million. Last season, it was 37.2 million—an increase of 35 percent. Some of that is because teams now play more games, but the average attendance has also risen, from 42,085 in 1997 to 45,440 last season. Over that same span, average attendance at Division I men’s college basketball games has dropped from 5,485 to 5,190.

What’s more, the BCS has opened up college football’s loftiest heights to more teams. While not a single team from a nonpower conference or school was invited to what we’d now call a BCS bowl game in the 27 years between 1971 (when Air Force played Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl) and the onset of the BCS, 8 such teams have been invited by the BCS in the past 10 seasons alone (Boise State twice, Utah twice, TCU twice, Hawaii, and Northern Illinois).

The BCS took a sport that had developed organically across decades—with all of its unique bowls, conferences, and rivalries—and sought to improve it at the margins rather than fundamentally transforming it. The BCS’s obvious benefit has been the staging of a genuine national championship game. But its less obvious benefit, which even Kramer has indicated he didn’t fully anticipate, is that it has caused fans across the nation to care far more about games in other regions than they did before—thereby greatly enhancing the most compelling regular season in all of sports.

Thus, when Alabama lined up for a potential game-winning 57-yard field goal against Auburn on the game’s final play, two days after Thanksgiving, it wasn’t just the state of Alabama that held its breath. When the Crimson Tide’s well-struck kick dropped about a yard wide and two yards short of its intended destination, it wasn’t just the Deep South that watched with surprise as Auburn’s Chris Davis caught the ball in the back of the end zone. And when Davis started to run it out, when he broke toward the left sideline and into the open field—it wasn’t just SEC country that erupted along with the frenzied home crowd. When Davis crossed the goal line, completing perhaps the most improbable play in college football since Stanford’s marching band ran onto the field more than 30 years ago, it was all of America (minus the Bama fans, of course) that cheered the triumph of an underdog squad (0-8 in the SEC a year ago) that had found a way to beat its archrival, the defending national champions.

Who cheers that way for regular-season college basketball—or, for that matter, for regular-season NFL football?

Before the BCS, that game would have been played with a potential Sugar Bowl berth on the line, not a potential National Championship Game berth. And while people outside the South might have watched, they likely wouldn’t have been watching closely or caring much. For the most part, fans used to pay attention to what was happening in their own regions. Now the irresistible drama of college football​—​particularly of late-season college football​—​is shared throughout the land, and there is nothing quite like it.

At least there hasn’t been. But next year things will change. Next season, the BCS will give way to the College Football Playoff (CFP), which will institute a two-round structure involving the top four teams. Somewhat lost in the hype surrounding a playoff is a profound change in the method of selecting teams, which is perhaps more consequential than the additional playoff round. After all, the BCS had already provided not only a figurative, season-long playoff but also a literal playoff between the top two teams.

There are pros and cons to the additional round. On the one hand, should undefeated Texas and undefeated USC each have been forced to play semifinal games before waging their epic battle for the championship in the 2006 Rose Bowl? Upsets can always happen, and one that year might have denied fans the chance to see the greatest game of the BCS era and perhaps of all time​—​in which Vince Young’s fourth-and-five scramble for an eight-yard touchdown with 19 seconds left gave the Longhorns the victory. (That year’s Texas team holds the highest season-ending rating in the history of the Anderson & Hester Rankings.) In a similar vein, should this year’s Auburn team be forced to play a semifinal rematch versus No. 3 (in the BCS) Alabama before getting a shot at No. 1 Florida State? In other words, should Alabama get a mulligan? That’s how it will work beginning next year.

To these drawbacks, it must be added that there’s something about a playoff that requires the suspension of one’s faculty of reason. Some fans act as if the notion of a playoff were brought down from Mount Sinai, but the playoff structure is a rather artificial construct that amounts to declaring that, at some particular point in time, only the games from here on out will really count. Only by respecting such arbitrary decrees can fans make sense of the notion that, say, a New York Giants team that lost six games was nonetheless the 2007-08 NFL champion, because they scored with 35 seconds left in the season’s final game to give the New England Patriots their only loss.

On the other hand, playoffs clearly have their place​—​and, indeed, the BCS’s one-game playoff has been a wonderful addition to the sport. And it will certainly be fun to watch the extra round of playoff games. Moreover, there are years when the top two teams aren’t as cut and dried as in others, years that perhaps cry out for a four-team playoff field. Nor should a four-team playoff have too much of an adverse effect on the regular season.

But the effect of the playoff on the bowls​—​particularly on the oldest and grandest bowl​—​is another question. It is hard to see how there will be many matchups of Pac-12 and Big Ten champions in future Rose Bowls. More often than not, one or both of those conference champions will make the four-team playoff field, thereby pulling them out of Pasadena. This year, for example, the No. 4 team in the BCS, Michigan State, would have been pulled out of its Rose Bowl matchup against No. 5 Stanford, thereby disrupting the traditional pairing of Big Ten and Pac-12 champions in this, the 100th Rose Bowl. And even when the Rose Bowl hosts a national semifinal game, it could only host the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions if those teams were both in the field of four and were matched up in the same game. In other words, enjoy this year’s clash of traditional conference champions in the Rose Bowl​—​it may be the last one for many years.

Of course, the notion that No. 2 Auburn would play No. 3 Alabama, while No. 1 Florida State would play No. 4 Michigan State, is based on those teams’ placements in the BCS standings. But those standings won’t exist next year. That’s because the current conference commissioners​—​in the wake of the retirements of Kramer, former Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen, and others who helped form the BCS​—​have decided to uproot Kramer’s foundational notion that college football’s biggest stage shouldn’t be filled by purely subjective means. After 16 years of anchoring its standings in objective criteria, college football will instead use the subjective findings of a 13-member selection committee as the sole determiner of its playoff field.

This is a profound change, and it remains to be seen whether fans will accept it. If the BCS reflected a Madisonian-like effort to “refine and enlarge” public opinion, the new “panel of experts” more nearly reflects the Progressives’ view that Madison got it wrong. Under the BCS, the polls held sway unless the computers held them to be in error by a relatively wide margin. Thus, the computers marked the outer limits of the acceptable range of subjective opinion. There will be no such limits placed on the CFP’s supercommittee, whose subjectivity will go unchecked and won’t likely be explained to the fans who will be on the receiving end of its unilateral decrees.

Some people called the BCS elitist, but in truth the BCS standings reflected the collective opinion of 167 poll voters, anchored in the objective conclusions of six computers. The selection committee will reflect the collective opinion of just 13 people, anchored in nothing objective whatsoever​—​except for whatever criteria those 13 individuals might subjectively choose to apply.

True, college basketball​—​a sport marked by three weeks of postseason glory, a four-month de facto exhibition season, and (as noted) declining attendance​—​has a selection committee. But it’s one thing to decide between giving a team a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in a tournament field of 68 teams. It’s quite another to emerge from a closed-door meeting, anoint the four top teams, and then announce that every other team has been eliminated from consideration.

Moreover, part of the charm of the BCS was that teams and fans knew, every week from late October onward, where they stood. Each team not only knew what spot it held in the BCS standings but also how far​—​numerically​—​it was behind, or ahead of, other teams. That prepped teams and fans alike for what might come next. The expert panel won’t be as much fun.

There has been talk that the panel might buttress its secret deliberations by using a computer ranking system like the RPI (Rating Percentage Index), which has long been the objective ranking of choice for the basketball selection committee. But the RPI is a laughably bad ranking, a conclusion perhaps obscured by the fact that basketball rankings don’t much matter.

Jeff Sagarin has run the RPI for college football and shared it with me. One week before this season’s climax, the RPI would have called for a championship game between two-loss South Carolina and two-loss Arizona State (teams No. 8 and No. 11 at the time in the BCS). Now, with the regular season in the books, the RPI ranks three-loss Arizona State (losers to Stanford on the season’s final Saturday) ahead of one-loss Alabama. It ranks North Dakota State two spots ahead of Rose Bowl-bound Michigan State. During the 2010-11 season, which culminated in Auburn beating Oregon 22-19 in the title game​—​a matchup that both polls and all six BCS computer rankings unanimously called for​—​the RPI instead called for Oklahoma (No. 7 in the BCS standings) to play Auburn and ranked undefeated Oregon 15th, behind a South Carolina team that had lost four games. Even if the selection committee doesn’t use the RPI’s rankings, it might well decide to use the RPI’s almost equally bad strength-of-schedule ratings (on which those rankings are based), as the CFP website states that the committee will consider strength of schedule.

Even the CFP’s mission statement, which declares, “The committee’s task will be to select the best teams,” is problematic. The best team isn’t the same thing as the most deserving team, and the distinction is crucial. All six BCS computer rankings (which are designed to show the most deserving teams) rank Auburn above Alabama. Similarly, both polls rank Auburn over Alabama. But the entity that’s best-equipped to know the best team​—​Las Vegas​—​would almost surely make Alabama a significant favorite over Auburn in a rematch. So, would the supercommittee really seed Alabama ahead of Auburn? Or would it instead imply that Vegas oddsmakers don’t know who the best team is? Or would it simply refuse to follow its own mandate to seed teams based on which ones are “best”?

Odds are, we college football fans will never know. We’ll just be presented with a list. We will have to take solace in these words from the CFP website: “Each committee member independently will evaluate an immense amount of information during the process.”

It's hard to believe that college football fans, who are instinctively more Madisonian than Progressive and aren’t known for embracing panels of experts in this or most other realms, will tolerate this for long. It therefore seems almost inevitable that college football will eventually go in one of two directions: back to the BCS standings, which could be renamed the College Football Playoff standings, as the tried-and-true means of selecting teams; or on to an eight-team playoff, which​—​by giving five of the eight slots to major conference champions​—​would marginalize the importance of the committee while also marginalizing the importance of college football’s enviable regular season.

If there were an eight-team playoff field, a classic regular-season game like Auburn-Alabama would largely have been sapped of its drama, at least for those living outside of the state in which it was played. Instead of deciding Alabama’s fate in the national championship race, it would merely have lowered its seeding. The same could probably be said of Ohio State’s fate in the aftermath of its game against Michigan State. Meanwhile, matchups between Big Ten and Pac-12 champions in the Rose Bowl would be even rarer under an eight-team playoff than under a four-team one​—​perhaps far rarer. In short, an eight-team playoff would undermine much of what is good about college football.

The other option​—​using the BCS formula to determine the four-team playoff field​—​would offer a proven track-record of success. Across the past 10 seasons (again, since the BCS formula was simplified and improved), that formula​—​generally reflecting public opinion but being anchored in objective measures​—​would have produced uniformly solid fields of teams.

All things considered, the most sensible way to apply the BCS formula in selecting teams for the playoff would probably be to take the top three teams in the BCS standings and reserve the fourth spot for a conference champion (or for an independent that’s ranked No. 4). That way, a nonconference champion would be guaranteed a bid by making the top-three, while winning a conference championship would be given some extra weight. Using that criteria, this year’s lineup would be No. 1 (in the BCS) Florida State, No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 Alabama, and No. 4 Michigan State. Last year’s would have been No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Florida, and No. 5 Kansas State (since No. 4 Oregon wasn’t a conference champion). In 2011-12, it would have been No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma State, and No. 5 Oregon (since No. 4 Stanford wasn’t a conference champion). Or, alternatively, one could just take the top four teams, regardless of conference championships. Either way, it would be hard to argue with these results.

In short, the problem with college football going away from the BCS isn’t its expansion from a two-team to a four-team playoff. The problem is its choosing to fill that field via subjective means, in a nontransparent way, through the decrees of a baker’s dozen’s worth of insulated elites. College football fans aren’t likely to accept having their team’s fate decided by the caprice of a committee. If that in turn leads to the further expansion of the playoff field to eight teams (to help relieve the pressure on the committee), it would do serious and lasting damage to college football’s bowl games and its unparalleled regular season. It would also undermine the nationwide interest in regional games, which has been the greatest unanticipated benefit of the BCS system.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to be involved in the BCS from the beginning, it has been a great 16-year run. Not many people have been given the opportunity to have a say in the national championship matchup of their favorite sport​—​let alone 16 times. It has certainly been an honor and a blessing, and I’ll forever be grateful to commissioners Kramer, Hansen, and others.

People sometimes ask whether Chris and I will continue doing our rankings next season. I suppose it’s a fair question, but it always sounds a bit strange to my ears. We were doing rankings before the BCS began​—​with no realistic expectation that they would ever be used in this way​—​and we’ll keep doing them after it ends. After all, somebody’s got to show the supercommittee where it’s gone wrong.

On the day of the final BCS standings’ release, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said, “We all complained about the BCS and everything that goes on, but it’s funny how many times they get it right.” Indeed, the BCS got it right 10 times in a row. From 2004-05 through 2013-14, it offered fans the matchup they wanted to see every year, without relying on pure subjectivity, on closed-door meetings, or on a panel of “experts”​—​let alone relying on all three at once. Instead, the BCS combined subjectivity and objectivity, art and science, and reflected public consensus while also helping to inform it. It did its job, and it did it extremely well.

On ESPN’s College Football Final on the night of the conference championship games, Hall-of-Famer Mark May argued during the show’s always enjoyable “Final Verdict” segment that college football should keep the BCS. May said, “I believe that the BCS system did their job at getting No. 1 and No. 2 matched together. And I believe, if you like the BCS system, you should keep the BCS system.” May then lamented that the new system will open the door to an 8-team playoff, then a 16-team playoff, and so on. The rampart against such an unfortunate occurrence​—​which would ruin the dramatic regular season and colorful bowl games​—​is to continue using the BCS selection process to select the four-team field. A system that worked in picking two teams, to the exclusion of all others, can certainly handle the far easier challenge of picking four.

But whatever the future may hold, the truth is that the BCS took the best sport in America and made it indisputably better. In fact, it seemed to make it better almost every year. As a result, anyone who loves the game and has followed it closely over the past decade is likely to share in this appraisal: The BCS era has been the golden age of college football.

Jeffrey H. Anderson is the co-creator, along with Chris Hester, of the Anderson & Hester Rankings.

TOPICS: Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: bcs; football
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1 posted on 12/27/2013 12:03:57 PM PST by rhema
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Comment #2 Removed by Moderator

To: rhema
The Night College Football Went to Hell [1987 Fiesta Bowl]
3 posted on 12/27/2013 12:11:31 PM PST by FlJoePa ("Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good")
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To: rhema

Why was my comment removed? Did it strike to close to home? What happened to debating the issue? There millions of college football fan like me who think the BCS is a crock. Please explain to me how my comment didn’t fit the rule of FreeRepublic.

4 posted on 12/27/2013 12:17:12 PM PST by sean327 (God created all men equal, then some become Marines!)
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To: sean327

You probably didn’t say anything that most of us are already thinking.

5 posted on 12/27/2013 12:27:28 PM PST by Slump Tester (What if I'm pregnant Teddy? Errr-ahh -Calm down Mary Jo, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it)
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To: FlJoePa

“College Football”, its ALL about the $$$s!

6 posted on 12/27/2013 12:28:16 PM PST by US Navy Vet (Go Packers! Go Rockies! Go Boston Bruins! See, I'm "Diverse"!)
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To: sean327

Nothing but crickets chirping from the idiot moderator. There was nothing in my comment that was offensive. All I did was point out the fact that there has never been a true National Champion in FBS Football. I stated my case for 16 team playoff that would consist of all 10 conference champs and 6 at large teams. I pointed out that this is the only way we will ever have a true National Champion in the FBS division.

7 posted on 12/27/2013 12:29:36 PM PST by sean327 (God created all men equal, then some become Marines!)
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To: rhema

College football died when the BCS was created. There is nothing more “exciting” than to see two teams, selected by computers and writers instead of earning it on the field, face each other with the winner anointed as champion of the free world. By this single act of stupidity, the remaining bowls become nothing more than meaningless exhibitions. Thank you NCAA and ESPN/ABC!

Give me a true playoff, or go back to old bowl system with an end of season poll. At least there is some drama with the polls, and something to play for. This present madness is for the birds. I can’t imagine any true sports fan thinking the BCS, or any future variation is a good thing. But hey, I now have lots of free time during the bowl season!

8 posted on 12/27/2013 12:29:44 PM PST by Kandy Atz ("Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want for bread.")
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To: sean327

I agree with you. The BCS should be the B.S. Championship and I don’t see why that post would have been pulled. Someone’s got an itchy trigger finger.

9 posted on 12/27/2013 12:29:45 PM PST by pgkdan
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To: sean327

The ncaa doesn’t technically award a National Championship in Football. The only sport that has such a distinction.

10 posted on 12/27/2013 12:31:23 PM PST by FlJoePa ("Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good")
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To: Jemian

Article of interest,says nice things about Auburn’s placement in the BCS standings :-)

11 posted on 12/27/2013 12:32:32 PM PST by GizmosAndGadgets ( Government big enough to take away your light bulbs is big enough to do any damn thing it wants to.)
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To: US Navy Vet

The funny thing is the money would pour in with a 16 team playoff. FBS football would be Scrooge McDuck swimming in his gold coin silos.

12 posted on 12/27/2013 12:32:40 PM PST by sean327 (God created all men equal, then some become Marines!)
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To: Kandy Atz

Just consider this. College basketball determines their champion through a playoff.

So now, who gives a crap about college basketball during the regular season?

13 posted on 12/27/2013 12:32:49 PM PST by dfwgator
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To: sean327

Calling them idiots is not your best play in trying to get a comment restored. Did you follow the rules when posting?

I have protested some post being deleted. Win some lose some. But, keeping it civil cannot ever hurt.

14 posted on 12/27/2013 12:35:21 PM PST by don-o (don-o loves Mrs. Don-o)
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To: rhema

I started caring less about the bowl games when the BCS started. As far as I’m concerned, it wrecked college football.

15 posted on 12/27/2013 12:35:59 PM PST by Cowboy Bob (They are called "Liberals" because the word "parasite" was already taken.)
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To: rhema

I may be in the minority, but I would like to eschew any sort of playoff system or national championship game. A playoff system and/or a championship game diminishes the stature and significance of the bowls, lengthens the season, and makes college football too much like pro football.

Let’s get back to the bowl system, with the national champion being subjectively picked by sports writers, coaches, computer models, etc.

16 posted on 12/27/2013 12:37:42 PM PST by Fiji Hill
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To: don-o

Why is there no explanation for my post being pulled? I didn’t break any of the posting rules. Why doesn’t the moderator just man up and tell what the issue was with my post?

17 posted on 12/27/2013 12:38:36 PM PST by sean327 (God created all men equal, then some become Marines!)
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To: dfwgator

Apples and oranges though dfw. Many more fans of football and many LESS home dates to see your school’s team.

I think there are serious issues w/ seat licensing (cost of tickets) at many schools, but the passion is there. It’s certainly enough passion to successfully propel a playoff format.

18 posted on 12/27/2013 12:38:49 PM PST by FlJoePa ("Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good")
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To: sean327

That is all you said?! Damn, you have been here a long time, you at least deserve a response why your post was yanked. Maybe the reason will be forthcoming?

19 posted on 12/27/2013 12:40:38 PM PST by bobby.223 (Retired up in the snowy mountains of the American Redoubt and it's a GREAT life!)
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To: FlJoePa

But one of the great things about the Auburn-Alabama game was that it did eliminate Alabama.

Had that game occurred next year, it wouldn’t have mattered as much, since most likely Bama would have still made the playoffs.

20 posted on 12/27/2013 12:40:52 PM PST by dfwgator
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