Evolving nature of BCS

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2003

Here's hoping LSU coach Nick Saban feels as charitably about the BCS at the end of this weekend as he did after last. Otherwise, he might say something he'll regret.

Assuming several games Saturday go according to form, Saban and the Tigers will be the odd men out of this college season. If LSU beats Georgia and Southern Cal beats Oregon State, the Tigers would finish with a better record than USC against a slightly tougher schedule but with almost no chance of playing for the national championship.

The reasons for that are numerous and confusing, but at least one seems downright diabolical: LSU beat Georgia already this season, and received bonus points in the BCS standings for a win over a quality opponent. If the Tigers win Saturday's rematch in the SEC Championship, the Bulldogs no longer qualify as the same quality of opponent meaning LSU has to give back most, if not all, of the bonus.

Heading into the weekend, Oklahoma is No. 1 in the BCS standings and assured of a spot in the Sugar Bowl. When someone pointed out that the ''double-jeopardy'' scenario could prevent LSU, No. 3 in the BCS, from leapfrogging No. 2 Southern Cal, Saban wisely held his tongue. He said only that he'd worry about that bridge when he reached it.

''I think our focus needs to be on the game that we are playing and what is in front of us and nothing else,'' Saban said. ''I think that when you start thinking of those other things, which I have referred to on occasion as clutter, it affects your ability to perform like you need to.''

Two seasons ago, when Oregon and Colorado wound up the odd men out, Saban's counterparts weren't quite so measured. Ducks coach Mike Bellotti, in a statement he still wishes he could take back, likened the way the BCS did business to ''a bad disease, like cancer.'' Buffs coach Gary Barnett wished long and loud for more ''integrity'' in the system.

Oregon had finished second and Colorado third in both the Associated Press media poll and the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll at the end of that regular season, but both were nosed out of a title shot by Nebraska. It didn't matter that the Cornhuskers lost to Colorado and didn't even win their division of the Big 12. The BCS number crunchers loved them and the way they ran up the scores at least until Miami crunched the Cornhuskers at the Rose Bowl.

Still, the BCS track record is better than you would expect. In three of the five seasons since assuming control of the postseason, it has matched the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AP poll. In the previous 26 seasons, that happened only seven times. It's just that when the BCS founders called it as a ''work in progress,'' they had no idea how much work not to mention luck would be required to record even that much progress.

After the 1998 season, that meant increasing the number crunchers from three to eight so that ''adjustment deviation'' (don't ask) wasn't necessary to come up with a defensible computer ranking. Two years later, after Miami was passed over for a national title shot by a Florida State team it beat during the season, bonus points for quality wins was added to the formula. After the 2001 season, embarrassed by how Nebraska slipped into the championship game, BCS headquarters ordered their computer geeks to remove margin of victory from their calculations. And somewhere along the way, to quiet growing criticism that the six major conferences who effectively own and operate the BCS were ignoring the minor conferences, the BCS bosses eased the eligibility requirements to qualify for one of their four lucrative bowls.

But because they've always been reactive instead of proactive, no one anticipated what could happen to LSU this season. Proving the law of unintended consequences, the ''double-jeopardy'' rule was put in place because not all of the six major conferences stage league championship games, designed to prevent those that did from benefiting too much from the extra game.

A playoff would clear up most of the competitive issues by deciding them on the field. But that can't happen before the BCS' television contract ends after the 2005 season, and there's no guarantee the powers-that-be will opt for a playoff even then.

In the meantime, Saban and the Tigers fans have few choices. They can root for a win by LSU and a loss by USC, and hope that Syracuse beats Notre Dame in an otherwise meaningless game Saturday that could tip the strength-of-schedule balance far enough to slip into the second spot in the BCS standings.

More likely, though, the only consolation they'll get is an admission from the BCS that the flaw will be corrected after the season. The ''double-jeopardy'' rule will disappear, replaced by yet another rule allowing teams that play in conference championships to keep their quality-win bonuses regardless of the outcome.

It's not much, but cleaning up the messes it created is the least the BCS should do.

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

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