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College Football Might Not Look That Much Different Without BCS


We go now to college football, where figuring out the best teams was a job handled for years by polls and computer programs. Those days are gone. The old reviled Bowl Championship Series is out, replaced this season by a committee of humans who will determine the four teams that will compete in a season-ending playoff. If you thought that would end the controversy in college football you are mistaken. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now. Hey there, Stefan.


CORNISH: So explain the new system.

FATSIS: Well, it's a panel of 11 men, five college athletic directors, an ex-conference commissioner, an ex-NCAA executive, two ex-coaches, an ex-sports writer and a former head of the Air Force Academy and one woman, somebody named Condoleezza Rice.

CORNISH: Heard of her.

FATSIS: She likes football.


FATSIS: They're meeting weekly and releasing a top 25 ranking of the teams. They'll keep doing that until December 7 when the top four will make the playoffs and the next bunch of teams will play in various bowl games.

CORNISH: But is this any better than the old system that pretty much everyone hated?

FATSIS: Well, the playoff part definitely is. The BCS formula picked two teams for a championship game. Picking four teams for a playoff reduces the likelihood that a truly deserving team is left out. Beyond that I'm not so sure it matters much.

The human system offers less transparency really. We know their ranking criteria, but how those criteria are being applied is pretty vague. The committee is getting some statistics, but it's playing them way down, probably as a sort of backlash to the old system. But that's weird given how much advanced analytics are reshaping sports and could be useful here. No matter the system though, college football has so many teams, playing so few games, with this huge range in the quality of their competition, that there probably won't be much difference in the end.

CORNISH: All right, the first rankings came out this week. Mississippi State - number one, followed by Florida State, Auburn and Mississippi. Any controversy yet?

FATSIS: Eh, a little bit but, you know, there's a lot of season to go. I mean, Auburn plays Mississippi tomorrow. Somebody's going to be out of the top four. And that's actually the first of four regular-season games pitting four of the top six teams in the first week's rankings. Those two teams plus Mississippi State and Alabama. So a lot's going to change. There's no real reason to release this top 25 every week. College basketball just waits till the end of the season and then announces who's going to be in the tournament. This way it does provide a glimpse into the committee's thinking, but most important it gives fans and writers and sports radio talk show hosts something to yak about.

CORNISH: All right, but what are they yakking about what then? I mean, what's considered the interesting take-away from the week one rankings?

FATSIS: I think confirmation that this new system is going to further centralize the power of what are now the five big conferences. The SEC, the ACC, PAC-12, Big 12 and Big Ten. Twenty-four of the 25 teams in the rankings are from those conferences. The loan outsider is East Carolina at 23 and it's not Marshall, which is the only unbeaten team not named Mississippi State or Florida State. A lot of the fights in the old BCS system were about access for the outsiders. You can pretty much forget about that now.

CORNISH: But isn't that the overall direction we're seeing for college sports, right? More autonomy for the power schools?

FATSIS: Yes, over the summer the NCAA gave the 64 power conference members, plus Notre Dame, the right to do things like pay athletes above scholarship, loosen restrictions on contacts with agents, change their recruiting rules. The idea basically is to keep those schools from fleeing Division I of the NCAA. But it also dovetails with efforts to get athletes more benefits in response to lawsuits and other challenges to the existing system. The effect is going to be even starker money-based divisions in college sports. And that's what we're seeing with this new playoff format.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks much.

FATSIS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Stefan Fatsis. He joins us on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. If you want to chat with him online try Twitter. He's at @Stefanfatsis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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