What Would Four-Team Playoff Have Looked Like in BCS Era?

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Now that a four team playoff is here, we can officially rejoice.

While we don’t know which system will be used to select these final four playoff teams, it seems likely that the BCS standings, perhaps modified in some form of fashion, will be used to some degree.

Which got me wondering, how would the BCS standings have done if the top four ranked teams since 1998 had been seeded based on the final BCS rankings.

The answer?

Pretty damn good.

Already, you’re hearing that a four team playoff will leave fans steaming mad over the fifth ranked team, the top runner up to college football’s playoff. But how much of a claim would the number five teams in the BCS standings really have had based on the historical record?

The answer? Not much of one.

While no system is perfect, the BCS standings have done a pretty good job of creating a line of demarcation between the top four teams and those left behind. Let’s consider whether there would be any controversies by looking at the results since 1998: 


#1 12-0 Tennessee vs.  #4 10-1 Ohio State

#2 11-1 Florida State vs. 11-1 #3 Kansas State

Left out: #5 UCLA 10-1


#1 11-0 Florida State vs. #4 10-2 Alabama

#2 11-0 Virginia Tech vs. #3 11-1 Nebraska

Left out: #5 9-2 Tennessee


#1 12-0 Oklahoma vs. #4 10-1 Washington

#2 11-1 Florida State vs. #3 10-1 Miami

Left out: #5 10-1 Virginia Tech


#1 12-0 Miami vs. #4 10-1 Oregon

#2 11-1 Nebraska vs. #3 10-2 Colorado

Left out: #5 9-2 Florida


#1 12-0 Miami vs. #4 10-2 Southern Cal

#2 13-0 Ohio State vs. #3 12-1 Georgia

Left out: #5 11-1 Iowa


#1 12-1 Oklahoma vs. #4 10-2 Michigan

#2 12-1 LSU vs. #3 11-1 Southern Cal

Left out: #5 10-2 Ohio State


#1 12-0 Southern Cal vs. #4 10-1 Texas

#2 12-0 Oklahoma vs. #3 12-0 Auburn

Left out: #5 10-1 California (Also, 11-0 Utah)


#1 12-0 Southern Cal vs. #4 9-2 Ohio State

#2 12-0 Texas vs. #3 10-1 Penn State

Left out: #5 10-1 Oregon


#1 12-0 Ohio State vs. #4 10-2 LSU

#2 12-1 Florida vs. #3 11-1 Michigan

Left out: #5 10-2 USC


#1 11-1 Ohio State vs. #4 11-2 Oklahoma

#2 11-2  LSU vs. #3 11-2 Virginia Tech

Left out: #5 Georgia 10-2


#1 12-1 Oklahoma vs. #4 11-1 Alabama

#2 12-1 Florida vs. #3 12-1 Texas

Left out: #5 USC 11-1 (Also, #6 12-0 Utah and #8 12-0 Boise State) 


#1 13-0 Alabama vs. #4 12-0 TCU

#2 13-0 Texas vs. #3 12-0 Cincinnati

Left out: #5 12-1 Florida (Also, #6 Boise State 13-0)


#1 13-0 Auburn vs. #4 12-0 Stanford

#2 12-0 Oregon vs. #3 11-1 TCU

Left out #5: 11-1 Wisconsin


#1 13-0 LSU vs. #4 11-1 Stanford

#2 11-1 Alabama vs. #3 11-1 Oklahoma State

Left out #5: 11-2 Oregon

Let’s consider the conference breakdowns since that would dictate, to a large degree, the money situation:

By my calculations — for purposes of these numbers I considered present conference as opposed to past conference, that is Miami and Virginia Tech are in the ACC as opposed to the Big East, Nebraska is in the Big Ten as opposed to the Big 12, Colorado is in the Pac 12, and TCU is in the Big 12 as opposed to an at large — the SEC would lead conferences with 14 teams, the Big 12 would have 13, the Big Ten would have ten teams, the Pac 12 would have ten, the ACC would have eight, and the Big East would have one team.

How does that compare to just a BCS title game?

The Pac 12 and the Big 12 are the biggest beneficiaries of a four-team playoff. The Pac 12 has had just three title game spots, it would have added seven more teams under a four-team playoff so it would have ten total teams in a playoff.

The Big 12 with six title game spots jumps to 13 teams, again including TCU but minus Nebraska.

The Big Ten jumps from four title game spots — including Nebraska — to ten spots in a playoff.

Surprisingly, the SEC, which presently has nine title game appearances, only gains five more spots when you double the field.

The Big East gets one playoff berth — Cincinnatti — where it presently has no teams that have played for the title.

And the ACC — taking on Virginia Tech and Miami’s Big East appearances for purposes of this analysis — adds the fewest of all bids for a major conference, moving from six title game appearances to just eight overall ACC teams in a four team playoff.

So your net four-team playoff pick-ups looks like this: Pac 12 + 7, Big 12 + 7, Big Ten + 6, SEC +5, ACC + 2, Big East +1

Okay, but you might be thinking, which conferences lost the most spots by finishing fifth?

The Pac 12 had five teams finish fifth followed by the Big Ten with four, the SEC with four, and the ACC with one.

So the lost spots in number five were fairly even and the Big East and Big 12 didn’t lose a single team.

Other things of note in the 14 years of BCS standings:

1. No undefeated team ever finished fifth in the BCS standings.

That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen — three times undefeated teams finished sixth — but it suggests that an undefeated major conference team would always get to play for a title. Particularly since Boise State, Utah, and TCU are all now in major conferences.

Of course come 2014 there could be five undefeated major conference champions, but that seems highly unlikely in an era when the SEC, ACC, Pac 12, and Big Ten all play title games and when top teams still have to traverse the out of conference slate which generally features at least one or two tough games. 

The Black Swan of college football could always happen — an unexpected outlier — but the first fourteen years of BCS standings suggest that’s unlikely. 

Why does it matter that five major conference undefeated teams are unlikely?

Because it would take a major conference team being undefeated to really set tongues wagging.  

2. Conference title games matter a great deal. 

So does the final week of the season.

Anyone who argues that the regular season will be less important with a four-team playoff is a fool. Of course, that’s what the BCS itself used to argue.

But even they know how ridiculous that is.

The last week of the season will be exhilarating. Even the top ranked teams in the country — Florida in 2009 — can fall all the way out of a playoff with a title game loss.

3. There would have only been two intra-conference games in the playoff.

And one of those, Nebraska vs. Colorado in 2001, would no longer be intra-conference today.

So the only intra-conference game would have been 2000’s Miami vs. Florida State.

I’m not sure if this is a statistical anomaly or if it reflects something more interesting — a general disdain among voters to rank members of the same conference one after the other.  

4. There was just one immediate rematch.

Nebraska vs. Colorado in 2001 took place on November 23rd 2001 and would have been replayed in the #2 vs. #3 game.

We also came close a couple of times, most notably in 2009 when Florida finished fifth after losing to Alabama.

Would there have been an uproar if there was an immediate rematch?


But history suggests a rematch wouldn’t happen very often.

5. Would voters behave differently if they knew the real voting battle was between four and five?

This is a more intriguing question.

Right now voters know that which team they place second and third matters the most. After third their final polls really don’t matter much at all. That’s typically where you’ve seen the public relations battles fought, over who should be number two.

Would the voting outcomes have been different in other years if the battles had been fought over positions three, four, and five?

It’s an interesting question without an easy answer, but it’s worth considering.

The key takeaway, however, that shouldn’t be lost in all this data is this fact: the BCS rankings have actually done a pretty damn good job of seeding the four best teams every year.

In fact, the greater the number of teams in a playoff, the better the BCS rankings would have done.

Put simply, there’s no fifth team in these rankings that would have had an unassailable claim to be included in the playoff.

By 2014 the outrage over the way college football crowns a champion is going to dissipate in a hurry. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that a four-team playoff won’t expand at some point in the future — it still may — but that will be driven by how popular the four-team playoff is, not by a fifth team being left on the sideline.  

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions, and started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers.