New BCS ready for a recall

Posted: Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Don't be too dazzled by the new-and-improved model of the Bowl Championship Series coming to a newspaper or TV outlet near you. It will have to go back to the dealer soon enough.

If not in the coming months, then in the not-too-distant future. And it will be going back over and over until there is a playoff.

The BCS model unveiled Monday is the fifth version from the guys who hijacked college football's postseason in 1998. Even though they took over the business promising to reduce the human element, this latest version does just the opposite.

In the past, the votes from The Associated Press media and the coaches poll were averaged, then combined with such redundant factors as losses, strength of schedule and quality victories. Now the formula is much simpler: The AP poll counts for one-third of a team's BCS points, the coaches poll counts for a third and an average of six computer rankings makes up the final third.

Yet, no sooner did the BCS take the wraps off than the first disagreement between man and machines popped up. Oklahoma, a clear No. 2 behind Southern Cal in both human polls so far this season, failed to impress the computers and slipped to No. 3 behind Miami.

All that proves is that like the ''Windows'' program on most computers, the BCS has become a work forever in progress. The system is still flawed, and always will be. And the latest somebody to say so has already done the math.

His name is Bradley P. Carlin, and he is a professor of biostatistics and Mayo professor in public health at the University of Minnesota. Suffice it to say that Carlin can crunch numbers, and this is what he concludes in an op-ed piece Sunday in The New York Times:

''No matter how you arrange the formula, the BCS remains nothing more than an elaborate seeding system for a two-team tournament. Its sole benefit is to create one game that precludes all but two powerful contenders from a legitimate title shot. More to the point, it will always run a high risk of crowning the wrong champion.''

Kind of restores your faith in things, doesn't it?

What Carlin did was take the top 16 teams from last season, based on the ranking of one of the BCS-approved computers, and seeded them like an NCAA basketball tournament regional bracket. Then, anticipating the argument of college presidents that the season is already too long, he cut the field to eight, finding that it reduced the probability of anybody in the field winning the national championship by only 18 percent.

Finally, he proposed using seven existing bowl games to play out an eight-team tournament, even allowing for the current BCS practice of rotating the title game among them. While this last part isn't substantially different from a number of plans that have been floated in the past, what Carlin has done is provide the justification for doing it as soon as possible.

Which is why there's almost no chance of it happening until the end of the decade. The guys in charge of the BCS already have ABC, the major bowl games and the commissioners of the six power conferences in their back pockets, and a contract extending through the end of the 2005 season.

One sure sign that they expect to renew the deal for a few more years: Beginning in 2006, a planned fifth game will be added to the BCS series, with the championship game played a week later at the site of one of the BCS bowls. The only thing encouraging about that, Carlin notes, is it ''sounds a lot like a four-team tournament, which would be a modest yet clear improvement on the current two-team approach.''

Of course that's not the plan for now, as the BCS stubbornly insists on trying anything but a playoff.

Other than having split national champions dumped in their lap, very little happens at the BCS by accident. When Southern California guaranteed just such an ending to last season, the BCS tried to pretend the flaws in the system were actually strengths.

''We live in an age when everybody wants a clean, simple NFL-style playoff,'' then-BCS chief Mike Tranghese said on the eve of the Sugar Bowl. ''Well, we're not the NFL. But it's interesting that the NFL playoffs are going on even as we're talking and everybody is still talking about college football.''

We were, to be fair, and the same discussion likely will take place again this season. You could also argue it would be louder and go on longer if a playoff was guaranteed at the end.

The BCS bosses' worst nightmare has always been reaching that juncture with three or more deserving teams. And so, they will keep their fingers crossed that only two of the seven unbeaten teams making their debut in the first poll are still perfect on Jan. 4 so long as those two aren't pesky mid-majors Utah and Boise State. More than once in the past six years, late-season upsets saved their bacon by papering over that fundamental flaw.

And if they're not that lucky this time around, well, at least they can blame the writers and coaches.

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



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