College football's bowl system has perhaps the richest traditions of any elimination-style "event" in American sports history. Stretching back to the earliest part of the 20th century, the college football bowl games have captivated much of the American populace since they allow both current students and alumni to cheer for their respective teams and unaffiliated individuals to easily adopt the colors that suit them.
College football is unique in that it doesn't have a playoff. Every other college sport (and team pro sport for that matter) does. The argument rages over whether the bowl system is good for college football or whether a playoff system would be better. A couple points in favor of the bowl system is the wonderful history and pageantry of the bowls; the fact that it allows many teams to end their season with wins; champions of the bowl they went to; and it increases the importance of the regular season because even one loss could drastically affect which bowl you go to.
The college bowls were originally set up as a set of separate bowl games with different sponsors. The only commonality that tied them all together was that the coaches polls at the end of the season, based on wins and other metrics, would play a crucial role in deciding what teams played in each bowl. However, each bowl was independently sponsored, run, and played no direct role in determining the National Champion; this was done through the final coaches poll after the Bowl Series.
During this era, there was a high level of play and close rivalry between various teams from power conferences, including Notre Dame and USC. However, due to anger over arbitrary rankings, compensation issues for schools, and a host of other problems, the NCAA recently reorganized the Bowl System into the BCS Bowl Series in 1999.
The BCS Bowl Series was initially organized around the four major bowls-the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar, and Rose - with each rotating annually as the game that determined college football's National Champion. However, in 2003, the BCS realized the lucrative potential for an actual championship game and invented the "BCS National Championship Game" and placed it above the four original major bowls.
Unfortunately, while a moneymaking machine, the BCS game has somewhat mitigated the value of winning one of the original top four bowl games. This has slowly reduced the prestige of these four games and contributed to widespread angst over the conduct of the BCS and the manner in which it directs college football.
Historically, the bowl games were an ingenious way to include smaller and mid-major schools in the college football "post-season" while still keeping dominance in the hands of the major conferences. Before the BCS, the lower bowls were filled with mid-majors but the four major bowls were usually reserved for high stakes battles between power players in the top six conferences, particularly the SEC and Big Ten. However, under the BCS, the mid-majors have quietly made their way into the higher bowls culminating in a 2010 Fiesta (Flop) Bowl battle between mid-majors TCU and Boise State.
Unfortunately, this has at least partially come as a result of weakness in the major conferences (aside from the SEC and Big Twelve) recently; the Big Ten in particular has a record under .400 in bowl games since 1999. You can read more about the best college football bowl conferences and Southeastern Conference bowl game history.
Looking to the future, the BCS will have to continue to reform if college football is to retain its dynamism. The BCS will need to find a way to reconcile its desire to wring every possible cent out of the championship series with the need to protect the importance and mystique of the original bowl games. Moreover, it will have to find a way to press the Big Ten, Pac-10, and Big East to improve their level of competition with the SEC and Big Twelve.
If these changes are made, college football's bowl series will remain America's December (and early January) pastime. If not, the BCS Controversy could pave the way for a college football playoff.
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