In 2014, ESPN aired one of the first commercials for the new College Football Playoff. In it, actors playing fans for dozens of teams across the country explain why the sport’s move from the BCS to a new championship system is such a welcome development. At one point, fans of schools such as Boise State, Hawai’i, and Utah—as well as DeSean Jackson, for some reason—proudly proclaim that there are “no more computers to keep us out!” You’ll notice that they are joined by fans of the Cincinnati Bearcats; if you follow college football, you already know why that’s funny.
Ah yes, The Computers. From 1998 to 2013, college football determined which teams would play for the national championship by using a formula created by the Bowl Championship Series. This formula included rankings produced by mathematicians. The most accurate way to describe these ranking systems would be to say they were algorithms or formulas, but during the 16 seasons that they were part of the championship selection process, they were always referred to as “the computers.” (Always. Always. Always.) It was as if desktops locked away in a lab somewhere were pumping out college football takes and were convinced your team was trash. I like to picture one of those cute little 2000s-era iMacs calling in to The Paul Finebaum Show.
People hated The Computers. “If we’ve got to let a computer tell us who is the best team, we’ve got a major issue,” then–Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said in 2012. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly once joked that the computers must be falling asleep before his Ducks kicked off in the Pacific time zone. In 2010, Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Dufresne asked, “Who died and made the computers king?” Even President Obama said he was “fed up with these computer rankings” and called for the sport to adopt a playoff.
But our hatred for The Computers was misguided. “The system, the BCS formula, was not necessarily the issue. It was the system it fed into,” says Asher Feldman, who runs BCS Know How, a Twitter account that attempts to reverse-engineer zombie BCS standings for present-day football seasons. “Choosing just two teams at the end of the season was the biggest fault of the system overall.”
Under the new College Football Playoff format, the number of teams involved in the championship picture has doubled, from two to four. That change has been great: Two of the seven champions in the playoff era have been teams seeded fourth, and would have been excluded from competing for a title under the old two-team format. But the method of selecting playoff teams—having a committee of 13 people decide who belongs in the field—is worse than the BCS in every other way. It is less transparent, more prone to biases and conflicts of interest, and more prone to be affected by one person’s bad opinions.