BCS Picture Clearing Up, but Controversy Remains

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

Finally, after weeks of grandstanding from coaches, the Bowl Championship Series title picture has crystallized. The winner of tomorrow's Southeastern Conference championship game between Alabama and Florida -- rated No. 1 and No. 4 in the BCS, respectively -- will take one spot in the national title game, and Oklahoma, rated second in the BCS, will take the other, provided it defeats Missouri in tomorrow's Big 12 championship game.

Texas, No. 3 in the BCS, and its legion of proponents will feel victimized by a system that a growing number of college football followers believe is flawed, and one that seems to adversely affect at least one team each season. But for all the heated discussion that was generated by the BCS in the past month, everything now appears settled, provided the SEC and Big 12 favorites win their games.

"Of course," said Wes Colley, who administers one of the computer ratings used in the BCS formula, "if Missouri beats Oklahoma, then you maybe have a problem."

If Missouri (9-3) shocks Oklahoma (11-1), the team that would replace the Sooners in the Jan. 8 BCS title game likely would generate controversy. Texas (11-1), which was kept out of the Big 12 championship game solely by virtue of the BCS ratings, would seem a likely replacement. But in the 10-year history of the BCS, only two teams (Nebraska in 2001 and Oklahoma in 2003) failed to win their conference title yet still finished in the top two of the final BCS ratings.

The BCS formula comprises three components: the coaches' poll, the Harris Interactive poll and an average of six computer ratings. Each component counts as one-third of a team's overall BCS score.

Texas is the team best suited to advance to the BCS title game should Oklahoma lose, according to Jerry Palm, who charts the BCS on his Web site, CollegeBCS.com. Palm said Texas is a favorite of voters and computer ratings alike, largely because it plays in a better conference than Southern California, another team that could argue for a BCS title game berth should it beat UCLA tomorrow to finish the season with only one loss.

"The voters could change their minds, reach down and vote for USC, but even if they do, USC's computer numbers are so bad, and don't figure to get a whole lot better playing UCLA, that even if the voters did prefer USC, it might not be enough," Palm said. "Even if the voters vote for you, if you're far enough behind in the computers, you still finish behind in the overall BCS" ratings.

USC is rated No. 5 in the BCS, and because the Pacific-10 does not have a title game, the Trojans would win the conference championship with a win over the Bruins (4-7).

"I know people will bring up the USC factor," said Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema, a voter in the coaches' poll. "But the team they lost to [Oregon State] and the fashion they did, it really wasn't a close ballgame that was decided in the same way that some of the other Big 12 games were, so I think that has to be a factor, as well."

USC's lone loss was a 27-21 defeat at Oregon State on Sept. 25. Since then, the Trojans have played two ranked teams, but none was ranked higher than 21st. Texas, meantime, defeated three teams ranked in the top 11 (including Oklahoma) in as many weeks during its conference schedule before falling to then-No. 6 Texas Tech, 39-33, on a last-second touchdown pass.

However, Texas and USC are not the only teams that could legitimately clamor for a spot in the BCS title game should Oklahoma fall. Big Ten champion Penn State (No. 8 in the BCS) has only one loss, and it came on the road by one point. Utah is undefeated at 12-0 and rated No. 6 in the BCS. Boise State falls in at No. 9 and also is 12-0.

"The controversy is this time of year," said Colley, creator of the Colley Matrix. "It's extremely rare that there's controversy in January. On January 15th, when was the last time people were saying, 'I'm not sure that the team that won the BCS trophy was really the best team or really deserved to be national champion'?"

After the 2003 regular season, Louisiana State won the BCS crown but USC was deemed national champion in the final Associated Press poll. In 2004, Auburn finished the regular season undefeated yet was kept out of the BCS title game in favor of two other undefeated teams -- USC and Oklahoma.

The possibility for another split-poll national championship exists again this season. If Florida (11-1) defeats Alabama and advances to the BCS title game to play a one-loss Oklahoma squad, the winner may have to defend its right to an undisputed crown with the winner of the Rose Bowl, which likely will feature one-loss Penn State and one-loss USC.

The only way for the BCS to escape further criticism, at least for this season, would be for Alabama to defeat Florida tomorrow and then win the national title to remain undefeated.

"Maybe it would be able to eliminate people being critical, I guess, if Alabama runs the table here at the end, but there are probably a lot of people that would enjoy a little bit of turmoil in the system," said Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe, a coaches' poll voter. "It sure creates a lot of interest in college football, and I don't think that's all bad."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company