Bcs Controversies Revisited: 2004 - The First 4 Team Playoff Proposal


Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ
Jul 28, 2008
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We need to remember, before bashing the BCS system too harshly, that the very reason for the existence of the BCS was controversy. The BCS was invented to settle disputes, a beginning that by definition meant that they would bear the brunt of complaint by a perceived 'wronged' party. There was no reason whatsoever for the BCS in 1999, 2002, or 2005. A trained monkey would have known whom to select in years with only two major unbeaten teams. Nobody would have complained in 1983 if Texas and Nebraska had played for the national title. Same with Miami and Washington in 1991. It's no different with the playoff nowadays, and it is to the PR department for the BCS' detriment that they never stopped to explain this to the rank and file fan. People nowadays are mad at the playoff committee, accusing them of every sort of bias, but we must remember that if there was no controversy then there would be no committee. Asking someone to settle a controversy does not eliminate the controversy, it only (potentially) reduces it. Keep that in mind as we continue.

The aftertaste of 2003 was bitter and persistent across college football. For the fourth time since 1990, co-champions had been crowned. Unlike in past years, however, this co-championship led to fans of the champions loudly insisting which title was "the real one" or defending the title won as "legitimate." And 2004 would not settle this controversy but as history unfolded, it would make the selection of co-champions even more angering. Indeed, the BCS made ANOTHER change to satisfy complaints - and wound up engendering even more contoversy in the process. In 2004, it was decided that HUMAN polls would have a larger say than computer polls - and the University of California found that one out the hard way.

The pre-season coaches poll was as follows:
1) USC
2) Oklahoma
3) LSU
4) Georgia
5) Miami
6) Florida State

Yes, despite beating Oklahoma in the bowl game the previous January, the pollsters put LSU behind Oklahoma. And unlike previous years, this year would be both simple and complicated at the same time. LSU's narrow one-point win at home over Oregon State in overtime dropped them a spot in the polls, quickly surrendered to Georgia. It became moot two weeks later when a missed PAT sent LSU sprawling. LSU scored an opening drive TD to take a 6-0 lead that they held onto until the end, leading 9-3 in the final minutes when Auburn converted a fourth and 12, completed a TD drive, but then botched the PAT, leaving the score 9-9 with 1:14 left. Unfortunately for LSU, they were flagged for a foul on the PAT and Auburn's second chance produced a 10-9 win that put LSU swimming upstream the rest of the 2004 season.

Texas climbed into contention but fell by the wayside, 12-0, to Oklahoma in the Red River shootout. And Miami had seemingly put the debacle of 2003 behind them as the first BCS standings came out on October 18:

1) USC
2) Miami
3) Oklahoma
4) Auburn
5) Florida State

Auburn, who began the year at #18, had climbed methodically up the standings with an unbeaten record in SEC play, with the LSU game their only close call. Those rankings held for two weeks until losses eliminated some contenders. North Carolina took out Miami and on the same day, 3-4 Maryland stunned Florida State, boosting the Sooners to #2, Auburn to #3, and Cal and Wisconsin rounding out the top five. Cal was quarterbacked by future NFL star Aaron Rodgers, and their six-point loss to the Trojans was only their second in a span of 17 games that would see them go 15-2. Wisconsin was undefeated, but the 2004 Big Ten was a dumpster fire and the Badgers had only beaten one team, Ohio State, that would end the year with more than seven wins (their first five opponents ended the year with a record of 12-43). Michigan State took out Wisconsin - and here came Texas once again. For the third time in four seasons, the Longhorns entered the home stretch with their only blemish thanks to the Sooners.

Entering the championship weekend, the BCS standings were:
1) USC
2) Oklahoma
3) Auburn
4) California
5) Texas

Auburn pancaked Tennessee for the second time that season but they were at the mercy of Oklahoma. Unlike their K-State debacle in 2003, Oklahoma showed up and pasted Colorado, 42-3. As it turned out, Auburn wasn't the only team to have a gripe with what happened though not as important.

In 1998, Hurricane Georges wreaked havoc on the college football season and necessitated the playing of the UCLA-Miami game on championship weekend. The Bruins lost and the rest is history. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast and mandated the re-scheduling of the Cal-Southern Miss game. Since USC was contractually obligated to the national title game, Cal could gain the Pac Ten at-large bid with a strong finish. Despite the outcome never being in doubt, Cal's 26-16 win behind Rodgers was treated as though they had lost the game. Texas coach Mack Brown, sharpening his whining skills for future moments when he would need them, began complaining that the voters needed to take control of the thing and suggested that if Texas was passed over again for the Rose Bowl that it would be an injustice. Texas had lost out on a BCS bowl in 2003 when Oklahoma imploded to Kansas State, sending the Sooners to the title game and the Big 12 champion - K-State - to the Fiesta Bowl. Cal had not been to the Rose Bowl since a month before Buddy Holly died and the Bears had had a chance to punch in an extra touchdown and make the USM score even worse. Coach Jeff Tedford opted to sit on the ball and Aaron Rodgers left the field thinking he was going to the Rose Bowl. The next morning he woke up to learn that Cal had lost many points in the coach's poll (overseen by ESPN) and dropped just enough to put Texas in the top four and send Cal to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

And let's be honest: there was probably some corruption behind the scenes. Cal ranked fourth in the coaches poll and WON THE GAME...and then: a) 20 coaches moved Texas up ahead of Cal; b) four coaches dropped Cal from four to seven; c) two more dropped them from four to eight.

Unbelievable. And Cal hasn't forgotten to this day.

But we are left with a few questions regarding the selection in 2004.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to argue with the selections for the BCS title game. There was no way USC was going to be snubbed a second year in a row, and they took care of business by winning. Oklahoma had the reputation burnished by Stoops having put together a five-year near dynasty (they were about to solidify their equal reputation as a team that couldn't win big games).

But why not Auburn?

Buried beneath this question was the question of why no consideration was given to Utah, whose 11-0 record under legend in waiting Urban Meyer, was as good as they could have attained. Utah got a Fiesta Bowl out of it and Meyer, heading for Florida, coached the Utes to a win over an undeserving Pitt team.

Why not Auburn???

The perception at the time is that Auburn was hurt by a series of factors, including the fact that the SEC of 2004 was not very good, they had a poor strength of schedule, and they started too far back to catch up. Let's take each of these one at a time.

The SEC of 2004 earned six bowl bids and went 3-3. Minnesota upended Alabama in the Music City Bowl, Miami mauled Florida in the Peach Bowl, and Iowa beat LSU on a last play bomb in the Capitol One Bowl, a game that saw Nick Saban head off the field and towards his NFL job in Miami. Meanwhile, Tennessee rocked ATM in the Cotton Bowl, Georgia edged Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, and Auburn survived Va Tech in the Sugar Bowl. The OOC record of the SEC was second to the Big 12, an overall record of 24-13. But few of those wins were anything to boast about. Alabama thumped Utah State, W Carolina, and Southern Miss, Arkansas beat New Mexico St. and ULM but lost to Texas, and Tennessee had lost to Notre Dame. In fact, the ONLY SEC out of conference game worth boasting about was LSU's narrow escape over Oregon State in Baton Rouge in a September storm.

Auburn had beaten three names out of the cupcake phone book - The Citadel, La Tech, and ULM. Furthermore - in a bizarre irony for Auburn - the Tigers had scheduled a game with Bowling Green as their opener. Bowling Green was an 8-3 team that year and won the MAC. In the spring of 2004, however, Bowling Green had the opportunity to play Oklahoma (of all teams) rather than Auburn. Auburn had offered $500,000 for the game that had been scheduled years earlier. Bowling Green's AD Paul Krebs had once been the Sooners ticket manager and since the game was going to be a loss anyway, he went for the bigger name with whom he was familiar and more money. What made this all the more easier was a bizarre circumstance: it happened because of fallout from the Eric Ramsey scandal of 1991. Auburn Coach Pat Dye had resigned his AD duties in May 1992 after the Auburn basketball and tennis teams had been put on probation. He was succeeded by Blockbuster Bowl President Mike Lude, the former AD at Washington. Lude was brought aboard in large part to help Auburn navigate the NCAA investigation over the Ramsey tapes. One of the things Lude did was negotiate the Bowling Green game - and BGSU's buyout from the game was only $25,000. Seeing the chance to pocket more money playing a bigger name, the $25,000 was easily bought out and Auburn was without an opponent for their opener in 2004.

There was no way for Auburn to line up a big name six months out. Of course, replacing Bowling Green with the Citadel wouldn't help you very much even if you DID play (and maul) BGSU. Auburn was hurt by the records of their SEC opponents as well. They beat Mississippi State but this same Bulldogs team lost to I-AA Maine. They played all of three quality opponents: Tennessee twice, Georgia, and LSU. And they were somewhat fortunate to win the LSU game. Tennessee didn't strike fear into anyone that year, either. Indeed, 6-7 Alabama should have beaten the Vols in the 17-13 loss despite no starting QB for the Tide.

In short, it's hard to argue that Auburn was dealt an injustice. Indeed, the same system that denied them in 2004 is the same system that bailed them out in 2010, when there was a clamoring for TCU or Boise State, in large part due to the Cam Newton scandal. The Tigers were undone by an easy schedule that was even easier than they had intended for it to be - which is not to say this was not an extremely talented Auburn team because - it was.

What about the argument that the top two teams from the pre-season played in the game? It's a false argument. Go back and look at the BCS (the only one that actually counts) rankings in October. Miami - not Oklahoma - was number two. The perception is that Auburn's not being ranked high early hurt them late. The problem with that argument is that if they had played a much more challenging schedule then this fact would not have mattered.

The nonsense that landed Texas in the Rose Bowl claimed another casualty - the AP poll, long considered perhaps the most prestigious poll in college ball, told the BCS to take a hike.

So in the end, the BCS even got this controversy right. For those who think a four-team playoff would have settled this - you have to tell me which four teams. We know three of them, I agree: USC, Oklahoma, Auburn.

But who should be number four?

Cal? Didn't win their conference but they DID lose closer to #1 than Texas did to #2
Texas? They were shut out by OU and didn't win their division
Utah? They didn't play anybody
Georgia? They already lost to both Tenn and Auburn and didn't win their division, either

And we roll on...
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