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In an effort to simplify, BCS further complicates poll

Jul 9, 2002 6:03 AM

The complicated BCS computer formula to determine the best team in college football was supposed to simplify the rankings and eliminate controversy. They would have had fewer complications trying to broker a world peace agreement.

Ranking the best team in college football has always been subjective. Even the simplest of solutions ”” if only one Division-1A team goes undefeated, they’re champs ”” doesn’t always work.

After the 1984 season, (11-1) Washington beat (9-2-1) Oklahoma 28-17 in the Orange Bowl, staking a claim to No. 1. But with no playoff system, the national title was voted to a 13-0 BYU club that played a weak schedule and beat a 6-6 Michigan team, 24-17, in the Holiday Bowl. BYU was the only unbeaten Division-1A team in the country.

Naturally, that wasn’t the only year the controversial fur was flying. A split national title was voted in 1991 (Colorado and Georgia Tech) and after the 1994 season, Penn State (12-0) and Nebraska (13-0) were clearly the most dominant teams in the nation, yet were unable to meet in a winner-take-all Jan. 1 bowl game (which would have been the television event of the CFA season).

And so the BCS computer formula was born.

Started by SEC commissioner Roy Kramer in 1998, the BCS has been released in mid-October utilizing eight different computer ratings, as well as the ESPN coaches’ poll (for years known as the UPI poll) and the Associated Press media poll. Some of the criteria inputted into the computers have been strength-of-schedule, won-loss records and margin of victory.

The purpose was to identify the top two college football teams at the end of the regular season and let them play for the national championship. In this way, the importance of the bowls and all its history wouldn’t diminish, there would be one deserving champ with no controversy, as well as a ratings bonanza for one college bowl game similar to the Super Bowl.

Everybody would win: the players, the fans, the NCAA and the advertisers paying the bills. But, of course, this hasn’t happened. The system has produced four consecutive undefeated national champions (Tennessee, Florida State, Oklahoma and Miami). But the last two years there has been chaos, confusion and crying.

In 2001, Florida State (11-1) got the nod to play unbeaten Oklahoma despite the fact that Miami (10-1) beat the Seminoles during the season. The Hurricanes were as worthy of a shot at Oklahoma. And the BCS didn’t look good when Miami smashed Florida 37-20 in the Sugar Bowl, while Florida State played poorly in a 13-2 loss to Oklahoma.

Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden admitted after the game that "we were terrible, maybe Miami should have been here instead of us." A lot of college football fans and scribes agreed.

Last season, there was no doubt Miami was No. 1, but there was a lot of controversy about who the Hurricanes should meet in the Rose Bowl. Nebraska got the invitation, though Colorado (10-2) had won the Big 12 title by stomping Nebraska 62-36 and Texas 39-37 in its final two games.

Others argued that Pac-10 champion Oregon (10-1) was as deserving as Nebraska. The bowl games only fueled the flames when Oregon throttled Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl 38-16 and the ’Huskers looked overmatched in a 37-14 loss to Miami.

Last year, four of the computers used margin of victory as a factor and four didn’t, but this fall none will use it. This is important for sports bettors, because in the past coaches were very much aware of margin of victory and were more willing to run up the score in an attempt to impress the voters and the computers.

In October, Miami rolled over West Virginia 45-3 the week the first BCS poll was due out. After a lackluster win over BC, Miami solidified its computer rankings with a 59-0 win over Syracuse followed by a 65-7 rout of Washington.

Larry Coker was in his first season at Miami, so it’s not clear if he’s a coach who likes to run up the score regularly. Iowa’s Hayden Fry, Florida’s Steve Spurrier and Miami’s Jimmy Johnson were coaches that developed reputations of "running it up."

In 1985, Miami trailed Penn State and Oklahoma in the rankings in late November, and Johnson went out and beat Notre Dame 58-7 on national TV. Johnson was criticized for calling a fake field goal late in the game that went for a TD. Whether you’re using human judgment or computer power rankings, a 58-7 win is more impressive than a 13-3 one (especially if you’re ranked No. 3 and want a shot at No. 1).

While at Florida last November, Spurrier’s Gators needed some help to leapfrog several teams for a shot at the Rose Bowl. In consecutive games, Florida beat Vanderbilt 71-13 and South Carolina 54-17, covering the spread by a combined 47 points.

Spurrier made no excuses, either, openly admitting that he poured it on at times. He even enjoyed it. After getting whipped 47-35 by Mississippi State in 2000, Florida mauled the Bulldogs 52-0 last year. Florida’s final score was a 23-yard TD pass with 1:45 to go because the equipment manager (of all people) asked Spurrier to run-it-up! The manager, Clay Carter, had been knocked silly when Mississippi State fans stormed the field a year earlier.

Spurrier has since moved on to the NFL. With margin of victory eliminated from the BCS system, perhaps the era of coaches running up the score has also moved on, or at least diminished. It’s certainly something to keep in mind when handicapping this fall, especially when the first BCS polls come out in October.

On the other hand, like just about everything associated with the BCS computer rankings, things often don’t turn out as expected.