BCS Schemers Are Looking Out for No. 1

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, December 10, 2005

I'm contemplating a run for Congress, despite my admittedly scandalous past and my habit of making mortal enemies. While I don't look forward to the rigors of a long campaign, somebody has to do it, because somebody has to ask the right questions the next time Bowl Championship Series coordinator Kevin Weiberg and his fellow schemers go in front of a subcommittee. Starting with this one: Isn't it true, sir, that a bunch of monkeys could do a better job of running college football than you?

You think I'm kidding about the monkeys? I'm not. A couple of years ago, a talented math student at Georgia Tech named Thomas Callaghan was so intrigued by the ludicrous snarl-up called the BCS that he, with the help of assistant professors Peter J. Mucha and Mason Porter, tried a computer model experiment. They asked the question: "Can a bunch of monkeys rank football teams as well as the systems currently in use?" They created computer-simulated monkeys, and had them rate teams according to a simplistic, nave formula based on head-to-head competition. Do you know what they found? The monkeys were just as reasonable as the BCS.

Even a bunch of monkeys could piece together that USC and Texas are the two best teams in the country and should play in the Rose Bowl for the national title. You don't need a macro-processor to see that -- or to see that the BCS is a profit-taking scheme and not a legitimate competitive series. Weiberg claims that the Rose Bowl shows off "the best of" the BCS. As if the BCS had a thing to do with it. How typical of the BCS hucksters to claim even partial credit for the work of the kids on the field. Here are the only two reasons why the BCS formula worked this season: Reggie Bush and Vince Young.

The fact that there will be, for once, a clear-cut national champion is a fortunate accident and does not excuse the BCS for what it's done to the game, namely corrupt it. This past week, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a hearing to investigate what Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) called "the deeply flawed system" of the BCS bowl, but frankly, anyone who cares about the game surely wished for a gavel and a seat on the subcommittee, because the hearings were so tepid and misdirected.

There is only one real question to ask Weiberg, and the other helmet-haired, necktie-smooth operators of the BCS: Why do you exist?

The truthful answer is, the BCS exists solely to concentrate wealth in the hands of the six super-conferences. This is the only justification for employing the BCS's tortuous formula, as opposed to the monkeys, or better yet, a straightforward postseason playoff. Why should these conferences conveniently be guaranteed places in the four BCS games (the Sugar, Orange, Rose and Fiesta Bowls) worth $89 million in prize money? There are 119 schools that compete in NCAA Division I-A football, but somehow only 65 of them have a legitimate mathematical shot at a BCS game. It's a format that was cooked up by the superpowers, with the aid of network advisers at ABC, for the purpose of self-enrichment.

Think about it: what is competitively fair about guaranteeing some leagues a BCS berth, while others have to win their way in?

The next time BCS reps appear before Congress, we should call the monkeys to testify, too. They make as much sense as Weiberg, who argued against a playoff by trotting out the same old fallacies: it would mean abandoning bowl traditions, it would lessen the importance of the regular season, it would undercut academics, and it wouldn't offer as many berths for postseason play.

Actually, the bowls lost their tradition years ago when they sold out to corporations. You show me tradition and I'll show you the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte. And if academics are so important, schools should stop playing pre-Christmas bowls that fall in the middle of finals. As for postseason opportunities, where is it written that 50-some schools should get to go to bowls so they can run up budget deficits when the payout doesn't even cover the travel?

There is just one sensible and equitable way to determine a national champion: a playoff. No matter how much the BCS "tweaks" or overcomplicates its rankings formula to make it seem legit, it remains fundamentally illegitimate. We were exactly one play away from another gross miscarriage again this season. If Michigan's Chad Henne doesn't hit Mario Manningham for a touchdown with a second to go to beat Penn State, we have three undefeated teams and no way to settle matters. And if Reggie Bush doesn't push Matt Leinart over the goal line against Notre Dame, we have a full-throated national controversy.

The math geeks know this. Callaghan, Mucha and Porter have studied the BCS against their monkeys for three seasons now, and their paper on the subject, called "The BCS -- A Mathematical Review" was published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society last fall. It's worthwhile reading.

Mucha has since moved on to the University of North Carolina, where he continues to track his monkeys against various polls and formulas. While the BCS considers USC to be No.1, the monkeys think Texas might be No.1. Other than that, there's not a great deal of difference between them. The monkeys agree that Penn State and Ohio State are third and fourth, respectively. Virginia Tech will be pleased to know the monkeys ranked it No.5.

Mucha and his colleagues have also analyzed whether the non-BCS schools can ever compete fairly in the BCS scheme. The answer they arrived at is probably not. A ranking formula is only as accurate as the amount of information it processes, and the problem with the BCS, Mucha says, is that for all of its overcomplicated uses of polls and numbers, it actually doesn't process a lot of data. It tries to boil down 119 teams based on comparatively few results, 11 or 12 games. "That's not a lot of information, if you compare it with almost any other league," he says.

In other words, because of the sheer size of NCAA college football, a ranking system is inherently inaccurate and unfair. This is what makes it so hard for a non-BCS school to climb the rankings and qualify for a major bowl.

So, the next time Congress looks into the BCS, it should ask the monkeys what they think. In the meantime, I'll be trying to find out what's on the minds of my fellow Americans, and I'll be working every day to improve their lives.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company