The Spread: The More Things Change

On January 7, Florida State will take on Auburn for the final BCS National Championship. The Seminoles played an SEC team (Tennessee) in the first-ever BCS title game too. Like this year’s FSU team, the ’98 Volunteers were the only remaining undefeated major conference team. Like this year’s Ohio State team, the ’98 Buckeyes missed out on a shot at the title because they lost to Michigan State. Ohio State was the preseason #1 team in the 1998 AP poll, but ended up playing in the Sugar Bowl against a team from the Big 12, just like this year’s preseason #1 AP team Alabama will.

At the time, the BCS was an exciting prospect. After years of split national titles decided entirely by polls, we were finally going to get a True National Champion, decided on the field of play, as it should be. Of course, the convoluted and amorphous gel of human polls, computer rankings and bonus points left us unsatisfied. Sure, it turned in a gem of a season finale from time to time, but more often than not, when that last piece of confetti was vacuumed off the field turf, we were left with more questions than answers.

During the BCS era, we’ve seen the sport undergo even more radical changes–from the functional (instant replay) to the philosophical (read-option) to the structural (realignment). Three of the eleven conferences that made up Division IA football (now the FBS) in 1998 no longer exist. The WAC had 16 teams back then. It has 0 now. There was no Mountain West. There was a Sun Belt, but they didn’t play football then. There was a Big East, but they don’t play football now.

In 1998, there were 22 bowl games. Now there are 35. Next year: 39.

A microcosm of the shifting world of college football comes in the form of the Big 12. At the end of 1998, they had five ranked teams: Kansas State, Texas A&M, Texas, Nebraska and Missouri. Three of those teams are no longer in the conference. Neither is Colorado. Baylor was the worst team in the conference in 1998, winning just two games by a combined 10 points. This year, they won the Big 12 with just a single loss and posted a national best 53.3 points per game.

Next year, the College Football Playoff begins and with it a whole new host of arguments and controversies and spats over regional bias and schedule strength. Those things will probably never go away–not until football gets its own version of March Madness. When that day comes, someone will ponder over the four- and eight-team eras. They’ll marvel at how undefeated teams used to regularly get shut out of the national title picture, often before any games had even been played. They’ll remind us that Conference USA used to play at the same level as the Pac-16 (which only had twelve teams back then). They’ll say: Baylor used to be good. Really good.

They’ll say: Michigan State knocked us out of the title game in 2013 too.

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