The real BCS - Bashing Common Sense

Monday, December 8, 2003

Somebody better dust off that "mythical" national championship label because by the time the first Monday in January rolls around, it's probably going to come in handy.

For the third time since they hijacked college football's postseason in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series and the computer geeks they employ made hash out of it.

Men and machines do not agree on who should play for the national title -- the polls say USC and LSU; the BCS says Oklahoma and LSU -- and a month from now, they might not agree on who won it.

That's nothing new. Before the BCS got into the business, the humans who vote in The Associated Press media poll and those who cast ballots in what is now the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll disagreed often, resulting in two teams holding up trophies and declaring themselves national champions. That's how it came to be called a "mythical" title.

To choke off the growing demand for a playoff, the BCS stepped in and promised to take the guesswork out of the process. With ABC, the four major bowl games and the commissioners of the six power conferences in their back pockets, the guys in charge also promised they could ensure that the regular season would remain meaningful until the very end. Turns out they were half right.

The very last game this season turned out to be the most meaningful of all. For the record, No. 18 Boise State beat Hawaii 45-28 in that one, and never mind that most of the nation was sound asleep when it ended well after 2 a.m. The only thing that mattered is that all seven BCS computers were just beginning to stir.

By the time they finished clicking and whirring Sunday, factoring in strength of schedule and bashing common sense, that late-night encounter between two teams without a prayer of playing for the national championship decided which two teams would. And it doesn't get any more meaningful than that.

Without going into all the BCS machinations, know this: The humiliating loss Saturday by then-BCS top dog Oklahoma to Kansas State counted for something, as did convincing wins by No. 2 Southern Cal, over Oregon State, and No. 3 LSU, over Georgia.

But because the computers hold so much sway in the BCS' pseudoscientific formula, Oklahoma couldn't fall far enough to matter and the loss by Hawaii -- beaten earlier this season by Southern Cal -- weakened the Trojans' strength-of-schedule component just enough to allow LSU to leapfrog them in the final BCS standings.

BCS expert Jerry Palm calculated the difference between Southern Cal and LSU was .16 in the final strength-of-schedule measure. The loss by Hawaii cost USC .2 in that same index.

That means despite a No. 1 ranking in the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls, USC will play in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. If the Trojans win, the voters in the AP poll will almost certainly award them a national championship trophy. No matter how the Oklahoma-LSU tilt in the Sugar Bowl turns out, the winner will be handed a trophy as well. The coaches don't even have a final vote on No. 1; they're contractually bound to go along with the winner of the BCS title game.

"Unfortunately, there seems to be three teams that people would like to see and the system can't satisfy three teams," LSU coach Nick Saban said. "Unfortunately, we can't have all three teams because we don't have a playoff."

That, of course, is the main flaw of the BCS, but hardly the only one. The real shame is that because the people who put it in place couldn't foresee all the problems it would create, their system is no better than the one it replaced. Sometime after the Sugar Bowl plays out and the controversy dies down, the BCS power brokers will go back and tinker with the formula one more time and pronounce it "fixed."

But don't buy into the scam.

The same strength-of-schedule component sent an undeserving Nebraska team to the championship game against Miami two seasons ago. Just like Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers failed to win their conference and got pounded in their last game. But it was the computers, mesmerized by another regular-season, final-weekend showdown between TCU and Southern Mississippi, that had the final say.

"With the events this year, we'd be foolish if we didn't look at it again in the spring," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who runs the BCS.

The BCS contract runs out after the 2005 season, but if they're serious about fixing things, the best solution is to wheel the computers out to the curb and hope somebody hauls them away for scrap.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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