- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Folks sure are worked up about this BCS mess, especially my colleagues in the media. They just can’t fathom how a computer could exclude USC, the No.1 team in both human polls, from college football’s title game. To these overwrought souls, I offer the following words of consolation:

I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over.

Actually, those aren’t my words. They’re the words of Hal the Haywire Computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Alas, they didn’t change the mind of the astronaut who was dismantling him, and they probably won’t change the minds of those who would junk the BCS’ software.

Let me just point out — since everyone seems to have forgotten — that these human polls have a very spotty record, spotty enough for the BCS to invite computer nerds into the process. Were you aware that in 1970, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1996 and 2002 the top-ranked team in the AP writers’ poll lost its bowl game? That’s 15 times in 33 years the writers backed the wrong horse, a failure rate of nearly 50 percent.

Sometimes those top-ranked teams didn’t just lose, they got pancaked. Texas, No.1 at the end of the ‘77 regular season, lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, 38-10. Miami, No.1 heading into the bowls in ‘92, lost to Alabama in the Sugar, 34-13. And Florida State, No.1 at this stage in ‘96, lost to Florida in the Sugar, 52-20.

Yup, those writers sure can pick ‘em.

The best year they had was probably 1965. That was when their top three teams all went belly-up in the bowls. No.1 Michigan State got upset by UCLA in the Rose, No.2 Arkansas fell to LSU in the Cotton and No.3 Nebraska was beaten by Alabama in the Orange.

Things were almost as bad in ‘75. Top dog Ohio State got beaten in Pasadena by the 11th-ranked team (UCLA, 23-10), and second banana Texas A&M; was blanked in the Liberty by the 17th-ranked team (USC, 20-0).

“Don’t forget to mention ‘78,” one of my bosses says.

Oh, yeah, that was a goody, too. USC and Alabama both went 11-1, but in their head-to-head meeting — in Tuscaloosa — the Trojans stemmed the Tide, 24-14. So how did the writers vote on Jan. 2? ‘Bama No.1, SC No. 2. (Fortunately, UPI’s coaches’ poll got it right.)

Then there was 1984, when both polls opted to overlook the fact that BYU played in the Western Athletic Conference and named the 13-0 Cougars national champions. In truth, they might not have belonged in the top 10.

Do I really need to bring all this up again? Do I really need to remind everybody that human polls are every bit as fallible as computer rankings?

I mean, look at the Heisman Trophy balloting. Plenty of Heisman voters have voted, at one time or another, in one of the football polls — present company included. And over the years, these gridiron sages have chosen Gary Beban over O.J. Simpson, Pat Sullivan (and Ed Marinaro!) over Greg Pruitt, Rashaan Salaam over Steve McNair, Ron Dayne over Michael Vick, Chris Weinke over LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Crouch over David Carr, and my own personal favorite, Gino Torretta over Marshall Faulk.

The BCS formula may have its flaws. It may ignore margin of victory (which would have favored Oklahoma, by the way) and treat a loss earlier in the season (USC to California, LSU to Florida) the same as one at the end (OU to Kansas State). But it’s also devoid of the sectional biases and personal vendettas that influence human voters. It’s not perfect, but no system is.

You have to wonder about these human polls, anyway. For instance, don’t you think it’s amazing that both the AP and USA Today/ESPN juries, totally independent of each other, have decided that Utah is the 25th best team in the country? How do they do that? How do so many people — with so many different points of view — agree that the little-seen Utes deserve to be No.25 (and not, say, No.24 or No.26)? Do you realize the AP Top 25 this week has the exact same teams as the other poll (though in a slightly different order)? Am I the only person who finds that kind of consensus at least mildly suspicious?

The polls and the BCS formula are what they are — educated guesses, nothing more. If a playoff began this weekend, Oklahoma might very well win it. Or LSU might. Or USC might. Or someone else might get hot and run the table. We just don’t know. And after the bowls, we still won’t know who the best team is — not for sure.

So (as Hal the computer would say) take a stress pill, if you’ve got one. And try to have a happy New Year.

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