The little-loved Bowl Championship Series will cease to be after January 2014, and will be mourned about as long as a rat caught in a basement trap. The four-team playoff that will supplant the convoluted system of selecting two teams for college football's championship game was hailed as a breakthrough. The playoff was celebrated as the sport finally coming to its senses and joining the rest of the bracket-loving world.
But Saturday night showed what we could lose in the movement toward a supposedly tidier, more inclusive system: goofy, gorgeous, sudden-death mayhem that could arrive unscheduled on any late-fall weekend.
The top two BCS-ranked teams—Kansas State and Oregon—fell, shockingly, on the same night for the first time since 2007. Kansas State, which had dispatched all comers with ease, could not beat a 4-5 Baylor team with the worst-ranked defense in football's top division. The Bears harassed erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate Collin Klein into three interceptions while large men named Glasco and Lache ran over the Wildcats for nearly 300 yards en route to a 52-24 victory. Kansas State's one and only reign as the No. 1-ranked BCS team lasted a week.
Minutes later, the hopes of Oregon's pyrotechnic offense died at the simplest of plays: a 41-yard Alejandro Maldonado field goal that bonked the left upright like a bird into a glass door. Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson made his 37-yard kick, and the Ducks' bid for their first national title ka-thunked to the side of the road in a 17-14 loss to the Cardinal.
The back-to-back roundhouse punches were jaw-dropping, the kind of blue-moon-eclipse results you refresh your cellphone to confirm. Was it possible to top the previous week's stunner, No. 1 Alabama's loss to Texas A&M? Does the pope root for Notre Dame?
Baylor fans spilled onto the field at the final whistle, and shirtless fans with the painted letters of their alma mater on their chests bobbed through the crowd like human alphabet soup. Normally pulsating Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., was stunned silent, the Ducks' nation-leading 13-game winning streak leveled.
Neither fan base's reaction would have been as spectacular had this season been heading toward a four-team playoff, which will launch as planned after the 2014 season. Their teams would no longer be playing for their football lives.
Fans generally hate the BCS for its confusing capriciousness, and that's fair. Its computer rankings are opaque and its coaches' poll political at best and conference-backing gerrymandering at worst. A more transparent selection method would improve the system. But the concept of elevating only two teams from more than 100, after a 12- or 13-game season, is pure, torturous genius. The essence of that idea will die along with the BCS.
Right now, this is a sport where one loss—especially late in the season—can drive a stake through a team's chances. It demands the kind of sustained success shown by Notre Dame, which is 11-0 for the first time since 1989 and gunning for its first national title since 1988. Or by Alabama, a team that navigates through Southeastern Conference quicksand every week and so far has lost only to Texas A&M, which is led by a baby-faced man who could be the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, quarterback Johnny Manziel.
No sport requires as much of its teams to prove their worthiness for a title shot. Major-college football has no play-in games, no wild cards, no automatic-qualifying tournaments. There is only a relentless, season-long mud march.
Had this season been a prelude to a playoff, there would have been more wiggle room. Oregon could plot to revive its season with victories at ranked rival Oregon State and in the Pacific-12 championship game. That safety net would have taken some of the edge off the piano-wire-tense game against Stanford.
In a future playoff incarnation—and, yes, already there is chatter about expanding it to eight teams—even Kansas State could beat a ranked Texas team on Dec. 1 and lobby the playoff selection committee that it deserves to make the postseason, that the Baylor debacle was a fluke. Nationwide, the arguments for teams to be able to "prove it on the field" will annoyingly multiply.
As things stand now, there is little room for error. Although it's possible for Kansas State and Oregon to get back in it, with two games left in the regular season it's increasingly unlikely. Notre Dame and Alabama are Nos. 1 and 2 in the BCS projections by CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm. Georgia and Florida are Nos. 3 and 4, each having lost only one game, to a top-15-ranked team. Two weeks remain in the regular season, with rivalry and conference championship games looming. The Irish must travel to Los Angeles to face reeling, cranky USC, the preseason No. 1 laid low after a loss to UCLA. Alabama must host reeling, angry Auburn, then face Georgia in the SEC championship. Florida plays hungry Florida State, whose only hiccup was a one-point loss at North Carolina State.
It's a final slog to cap an already brutal season, and survival of it is required to reach college football's pinnacle. It's exhausting, it's draining, it's beautiful and it's almost gone. Saturday night's upsets? Call them the BCS's Irish wake.
Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com