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Thorn in Cal's side

Texas-Texas A&M game, suspicious poll votes may wreck Rose dreams

Posted: Thursday November 25, 2004 12:40PM; Updated: Friday November 26, 2004 10:21AM
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Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers and the Cal fans deperately want a trip to Pasadena.

A swarm of ecstatic Cal students hoisted Aaron Rodgers over their heads at Memorial Stadium last Saturday as the star quarterback clutched a red rose in his right hand. It was a scene Cal fans have dreamed about for decades -- a blowout victory over Stanford in the books, a trip to Pasadena in the future -- but by the time the hangovers were setting in the next morning, the Rose Bowl fantasy was full of thorns.

Leave it to the BCS, a system so flawed it makes the Emmy Awards look stately, to pollute a heartwarming story line. Ranked No. 4 in both polls and in the BCS standings, the Golden Bears, assuming Pac-10 champion USC wins its final two games to qualify for a shot at the national title, should be one victory over Southern Miss away from clinching their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 46 years.

This is what the folks running the Rose Bowl want, and this is what most Cal fans want more desperately than, say, their left arms or free beer for a month. It is also what most college football observers would determine to be fair. But because of a pair of rules may work against the Bears -- and, some suspect, unsportsmanlike conduct by coaches with their own interests at heart -- there are some very real scenarios in which Cal could be shafted and left out of the BCS entirely.

Here's the deal: There are eight spots in the four BCS bowl games (Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta), and six of them are reserved for the champions of the BCS conferences. That means that the Big East champion (likely Boston College, currently ranked 21st in the BCS), Big Ten champion (No. 12 Michigan, which is Rose Bowl-bound despite having lost its season finale to Ohio State) and ACC champion (likely the Miami-Virginia Tech winner) stand to join undefeated USC, Oklahoma (assuming the Sooners win the Big 12 title game) and Auburn (ditto in the SEC) in earning automatic bids.

In theory, Cal should be in line to earn one of the two at-large berths and play the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. But the rules decree that any school from a non-BCS conference that finishes in the top six of the BCS standings automatically earns an at-large berth. That means Utah (currently sixth after completing an 11-0 season) is almost certainly in, and Boise State (seventh, with one game at Nevada remaining Saturday) is knocking on the door.

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Further, there is a rule stating that any non-champion of a BCS conference that ends up third or fourth in the BCS is guaranteed an at-large berth. Right now, the Bears would qualify as the second at-large team based on this rule -- though the provision about non-BCS schools finishing in the top six supersedes it, meaning Boise State could knock out Cal by moving up one spot. Also, there is the matter of Texas, which is fifth in the BCS standings: If the Longhorns were to overtake the Bears and finish fourth by season's end, they'd take the final at-large berth, and Cal would be relegated to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 30.

Confused? Consider this conundrum: When Texas hosts 19th-ranked Texas A&M on Friday, Cal fans will be torn between rooting against an impressive victory by the Longhorns (which could help them overtake the Bears) and against any victory by the Aggies, which might elevate Boise State into the top six. Only a narrow Texas triumph seems less than ruinous to Cal's chances, and even that might not be enough to save the Bears' Rose Bowl hopes, because of forces out of their control.

Something may be rotten in the state of Texas, and because the Coaches' poll does not require its voters to make their ballots public, the potential culprits can't be held accountable. As BCS guru Jerry Palm said to the Austin American-Statesman earlier this week, the fact that Cal, despite a 41-6 victory over Stanford, lost 12 points in the poll (while idle Texas gained 38) "just goes to show you can't trust the [poll] voters, especially the coaches." When asked to clarify, Palm said, "The coaches have secret ballots and agendas."

It's certainly suspicious that the Bears would lose ground after such an impressive victory. This was the first week in which it was clear that Utah, by ensuring its spot in the top six, would be destined for one of the at-large berths, meaning Cal stood directly between Texas and a BCS berth. Might Longhorns coach Mack Brown -- or, perhaps, some of his fellow Big 12 coaches, whose universities also stand to benefit by the split payoff an extra BCS berth for the conference would yield (somewhere between $7 million and $8 million) -- have dropped the Bears on their ballots to boost Texas' cause?

Since every poll point counts toward the BCS formula, such questions are extremely pertinent. Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches' Association, has refused to make coaches' ballots public, as are those of the media members who vote in The Associated Press poll. But to guard against the blatantly unfair downgrading of one team, shouldn't Teaff at least be willing to release the raw data for, say, each of the top 10 teams? We're already told how many first-place votes each team receives; why not give us the precise breakdown for each of the top 10? That would likely dissuade someone from naming a team like Cal or Texas as, say, its 17th-ranked squad.

This is one instance in which the people in my profession seem to have more integrity than the coaches. The Longhorns gained ground on Cal in this week's AP poll as well, but the media vote made sense: The Bears picked up four points from the previous week while the Longhorns, who stood to benefit more from Ohio State's upset of Michigan, gained 22. The reason is that to this point, most writers have agreed that Cal, with only a six-point defeat to top-ranked USC marring a 9-1 season (in a game in which the Bears more than doubled the Trojans' yardage total), should be ranked ahead of the Longhorns (9-1), whose lone loss was a 12-0 shutout at the hands of second-ranked Oklahoma. In recent weeks, Texas needed a pair of furious comebacks to pull out victories over Oklahoma State and lowly Kansas.

Now, if the Longhorns score a decisive victory over the Aggies and the Bears don't blow out Southern Miss in Hattiesburg on Dec. 4, BCS analyst Palm believes it's possible Cal could be overtaken for fourth. "With the polls having so much influence, you can never say never," Palm told the American-Statesman. "I wouldn't rule it out. I pretty much ruled it [a Texas jump] out last week and then the coaches went out and did something stupid ... well, maybe I'd better say 'unexpected.'"

If the Aggies beat the Longhorns, the Bears will face the very real prospect of losing out on the Rose Bowl to Boise State. No offense to the plucky kids who play on the blue turf, but a team that needs double overtime to beat San Jose State probably isn't one of the nation's best eight teams. Georgia, which plays host to Georgia Tech on Saturday, and Miami, which faces Virginia Tech on Dec. 4, potentially could overtake Boise State, but Cal fans will have to cross their fingers.

As an alum who unabashedly bleeds blue and gold, I'm trying to be somewhat reasonable about this travesty waiting to happen, and I've come to these conclusions: First, as I stated long before Cal became a national player, the BCS is stupid, and a playoff system is the only sane way to clean up this mess. Pick the top eight teams, figure out a way to rotate the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls as hosts of the semifinals and championship game and stage quarterfinal games at the home stadiums of the top four schools.

Secondly, if this scenario concerned any other bowl, I'd bite the bullet, chalk up Cal's potential misfortune to subjectivity and politics and a flawed system and deal with whatever fate befell the Bears. But this is the Rose Bowl, and not only has Cal been waiting forever, but if the Bears go 10-1 they belong there a heck of a lot more than Texas or Boise State.

At this point, all Cal can do is beat Southern Miss as convincingly as possible and hope for the best. In the meantime, Teaff should release the raw vote counts for the top teams, if only to insulate his coaches from charges of favoritism.

I'll end this shameless campaign with a heartfelt promise: Do the right thing, and I'll ask Cal coach Jeff Tedford to send each of you a dozen roses.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Silver sounds off weekly on SI.com.