The BCS crunched the numbers, and the result was controversy
Move over, New Coke. The Bowl Championship Series, which is in its third year, is a case study in how to provide the public with an innovation it doesn't want. Few people like the BCS rankings, in part because few people understand them. Last week, as tension heightened and squabbling continued over which teams would receive the two at-large invitations to the BCS bowls (of which there are four), Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen threatened that if league co-champion Oregon State (10-1 and No. 5 in the AP poll) did not get an invitation, he saw no reason that his conference should participate in the BCS when the Pac-10's contract with the bowl series expires after the 2005 season.
Hansen's threat dissipated on Sunday when one of the BCS games, the Fiesta Bowl, selected Oregon State and Notre Dame as its at-large pairing, but not everyone was happy with that. The Beavers (sixth in the BCS rankings) and the Irish (11th) leapfrogged Virginia Tech (fifth) to land the Fiesta berths, causing the Hokies to join Big East champion Miami as the latest critics of the system. The Hurricanes, who finished No. 2 in both the AP and the USA Today/ ESPN polls, were shut out of the Orange Bowl national championship game against undefeated Oklahoma because Miami wound up third in the BCS rankings, .32 of a point behind Florida State, which had lost 27-24 to the Hurricanes in October. Protests from Miami conveniently ignore the fact that the BCS and both polls rank the Hurricanes ahead of another 10-1 team, Washington, which handed the Hurricanes their only loss, 34-29 in September. "The score of the Washington- Miami game has yet to be reported on the East Coast," Hansen says puckishly.
How did college football get into this mess? The BCS began as an attempt by six major conferences and Notre Dame to provide a national championship game without abandoning the lucrative bowl structure. The BCS rankings are derived from a formula that for each team factors in the two aforementioned polls, a strength-of-schedule rating, won-loss record and the average of eight computer ratings, the last of which are the principal source of controversy this season. Five of the computers rank Florida State No. 1, though Oklahoma is the only undefeated team. The eight computer rankings vary widely in their methodologies, very little of which is made public, and none of which is monitored during the season by the conference commissioners and athletic directors who oversee the BCS. For instance only one of the computer ratings, that of The Seattle Times, ignores margin of victory. Another, the Dunkel Index, relies on it heavily. The officials who run the BCS, meanwhile, have made no decisions about how important margin of victory should be.
The computer ratings are supposed to counterbalance the subjectivity of the polls, but they have their own quirks. For example three of them began the season by ranking the teams according to how they had finished in the 1999 computer ratings. They then slowly phased out the previous season's rating as the weeks rolled by.
ACC commissioner John Swofford, the coordinator of the BCS, said on Sunday that the overall BCS rating formula will be reevaluated in the spring and adjusted as necessary. (After the 1998 season the BCS increased its computer contributors from three to make the sampling more geographically diverse.) "Our goal is to have the best situation and the fairest situation that we can possibly have," said Swofford, "and consequently I think we'll look at the formula each and every year to see if it needs tweaking so that we have that."
Change couldn't come quickly enough for Miami coach Butch Davis, whose Hurricanes could still be crowned national champions by the AP poll if they defeat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and if Florida State knocks off Oklahoma. "You could say that if the BCS didn't exist, there would be a good chance we'd be playing in the national championship game," says Davis. "I'd like to know exactly what's being fed into the computers. I don't think that anyone understands how each of the eight ratings works. The information that you get out of the computers is only as good as the information you put in."
Oklahoma's Cinderella Season
Sooners Survive Another Ordeal
Oklahoma's 27-24 victory over Kansas State last Saturday propelled the Sooners into the Orange Bowl to play Florida State for the national championship, but it also reconfirmed that the Sooners are riddled with holes big enough for Chief Osceola to ride his horse through. For the fourth straight game quarterback Josh Heupel couldn't throw deep effectively. He completed 24 of 44 passes for 220 yards with three interceptions and two touchdowns. Five yards per attempt won't scare anyone, particularly the Seminoles, who finished sixth in the nation in total defense. Moreover, the Sooners failed to score a point on two possessions they started inside the Wildcats' 30, and they allowed Kansas State to return a punt 58 yards for a touchdown.
Win one game despite such mistakes, and a team is celebrated as capable of winning even when it doesn't play its best. Win one game after another despite such shortcomings, as Oklahoma has done, and it's time to trot out comparisons with teams that earned national titles while depending on chemistry and intangibles, like Tennessee in 1998. The Sooners play terrific defense, and Heupel, dogged by a ruptured bursa sac in his left elbow, finds a way to win. In the fourth quarter against Kansas State he made a textbook option pitch on fourth-and-one that running back Quentin Griffin took 22 yards. On the next play Heupel threw 17 yards to wideout Andre Wool-folk for the touchdown that put Oklahoma ahead to stay, 24-17. Heupel also carried five times for 20 yards to set up the field goal that gave the Sooners a 27-17 lead with 1:25 to play. "Everybody underestimates his athletic ability," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Mark Mangino says of Heupel. "He's a leader. He's unflappable."