On center stage, BCS computer spits out an error message

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

To err is human. To err divinely takes a computer.

Tarot cards, Ouija boards and Punxsutawney Phil could have done a better job than the Bowl Championship Series whizzes in picking teams for the national college football championship game.

A French figure skating judge would have created less controversy than factoring in Boise State's victory over Hawaii to decide who plays for No. 1 in the Sugar Bowl. Maybe Boise State should be the national champ.

If the BCS computer formula had been used in the last presidential election, George Bush and Al Gore both would have lost and Rush Limbaugh would be in the White House on the strength of his radio ratings.

For those of us who never got past advanced calculus in college, the BCS is tough to fathom. Let's see: If USC is X, LSU is Y and Oklahoma is Z, and their paths converge at one point in a three-dimensional sphere, which one is rising on a higher plane?

The simple answer is ... there is no simple answer.

Computers are the wonders of our age, spitting out numbers and solutions, even art and music. They can beat chess grandmasters some of the time. But the more they invade sports, the more they dehumanize our lives. I'd just as soon give them a boot in their rear chips.

I don't want computers deciding who's No. 1 in college football.

I don't want machines calling balls and strikes in baseball.

I don't want sensory devices, laser beams, robots and nanotechnology creeping onto the field. Instant replay is enough of an intrusion.

I vote for the human factor -- people making decisions, right or wrong -- and, perhaps, a one-game playoff after all the bowls are over to settle the issue on the field.

There was always something poetic, whether it was justice or injustice, about the college football championship being regarded as "mythical."

There was the No. 1 team in The Associated Press media poll, and the No. 1 team in the coaches' poll. Sometimes they were the same, sometimes not, and little brouhahas would swell as each team claimed bragging rights.

Nothing wrong with that.

Just as regularly, fans would clamor for a playoff series. It was always good talk show fodder but nothing much happened until the bowl gang intruded six years ago with a formula to crown a champion and, not incidentally, up the stakes and revenues for bowl games.

The formula got tweaked over the years and the one that's in place this season turned out to be as inept as any in the past.

There is no consensus in the media that the writers necessarily get it right every year, even if they and the coaches overwhelmingly agreed that USC is No. 1 right now while the BCS computer has Oklahoma on top. At least they all concluded that LSU is No. 2.

"I'm sort of biased toward humans, although humans are pretty overrated," San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto, one of the AP voters, said. "I've never understood the fascination for letting a computer settle this. I'm of the opinion that you can go back to the old system where you can at least have arguments or go to a playoff."

Ratto, like many writers and coaches, is worried that extended playoffs would hurt college football players and make them look even more like pro teams than they already do.

Some voters, like Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times, call for a mini-playoff.

"I don't know that there is a right way," Gould said. "You just need to take the four New Year's Day winners and let them play a final four and a championship game. My slogan for years has been, 'Three more games, two more weeks."'

As far as Oklahoma getting to the championship game after coming off a crushing loss, Gould chalks that up to "one of the joys and madnesses of college football."

John Hoover of the Tulsa World, who voted for USC and LSU ahead of Oklahoma, criticized the format of the BCS computer formula, saying it has too many variances that hurt some teams and help others week to week.

"You don't see that kind of disparity in either the coaches' poll or the writers' poll," he said, "because there are actually people who watch the games and base their votes on intelligent decisions."

No doubt many fans would wonder how intelligent writers and coaches really are, but they know now how dumb a computer can be. A team like USC finishes strongly with just one loss, Oklahoma finishes weakly, also with one loss, and the BCS puts Oklahoma No. 1 and USC at No. 3.

And now the possible scenarios are fascinating to consider.

If No. 4 Michigan beats USC in the Rose Bowl, the voters in the AP poll will almost certainly cast their ballots for the Sugar Bowl winner.

If USC clobbers Michigan, no matter what happens in the Sugar Bowl, there probably will be a split in the polls for national champion, since the coaches are committed to the BCS system.

So once again we could be left with a "mythical" national champion, two teams claiming to be No. 1. And, really, what's so bad about that?

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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