- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

People of a certain age might remember those dire warnings that one day computers would “run the world.” Not yet, perhaps. But in the world of college football, that day has arrived.

America’s most wanted football game at this point, Oklahoma vs. Southern California in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship, might not happen because it doesn’t compute.

Even though USC was voted a convincing No.2 behind Oklahoma in both the media (Associated Press) and coaches (ESPN/USA Today) polls this week, computers lowered the Trojans’ ranking to No.3 in the Bowl Championship Series poll.

Ohio State is ranked fourth in both, also trailing Louisiana State. But the Buckeyes are No.2 in the BCS poll, the only one that matters.

A lot could change, and as soon as tomorrow. But if the rankings hold up, the Buckeyes, not the Trojans, will play Oklahoma on Jan.4 in New Orleans.

The BCS took a lot of heat recently for excluding certain conferences from the four bowl games that pay huge dollars to its members. Even Congress got into the act, and the process probably will be revamped. The ranking system that relies mainly on two polls and the data of seven computers also is under fire.


A plan devised in 1998 to ensure that the top two teams meet to determine a champion — absent a playoff system, which looks unlikely — has generated confusion and controversy. In 2000, many objected to Florida State rather than Miami playing for the national championship. The next season, it was Nebraska instead of Oregon or Colorado that got folks in a lather.

Now the computers like Ohio State more than Southern Cal, while human beings prefer the Trojans. Man vs. machine. From the Buckeyes’ standpoint, the machines are winning.

“I don’t think there’s an easy way to determine who plays in the game,” said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who doubles as head of the BCS. “No matter what method you adopt, it’s going to be controversial.”

No one disputes that Ohio State is a fine team. The Buckeyes have just one loss, the same as USC. They play great defense. They are ably defending the national championship they earned by upsetting Miami in the Fiesta Bowl last January. A victory over archrival Michigan on the road tomorrow would be impressive, although a loss would pretty much make the argument moot.

But few outside Ohio will believe the 10-1 Buckeyes are as good as the 9-1 Trojans, even if they beat Michigan, which has two losses.

“If you had to play Oklahoma right now, who’s got the most firepower? Right now it’s USC,” former Georgia coach Jim Donnan said yesterday on ESPN News, reflecting what seems to be the common sentiment. “How’s Ohio State going to get any points against Oklahoma? Unless they count on the turnovers like they did last year in the championship game against Miami.”

But Tranghese, who does not envision any tinkering with the system until the current BCS contract runs out in two years, points to that game as an indication of human failings. Few gave the Buckeyes a chance against the heavily favored Hurricanes. “People who say this team is better than that team, that’s opinion rather than fact,” he said.

USC, which plays slumping rival UCLA tomorrow, lost to a good California team in overtime in September. Since then, the Trojans have been nearly unstoppable, winning six straight by an average of 26 points. Yet they would still be big underdogs against Oklahoma.

The unbeaten Sooners, who face Texas Tech and its aerial freak show (495.6 passing yards a game) tomorrow, are scary-good. They have scored at least 50 points in six games, and the defense might be better than the offense. But Southern Cal’s explosive offense and overall speed might make things interesting.

If the Trojans get the chance.

Ohio State, which lost a road game to tough Wisconsin 17-10 in October, outscores opponents by nine points a game and lives on the edge, seemingly willing itself to victories in close games. Though Penn State is struggling, the Nittany Lions lost to the Buckeyes by just one point. Last week Ohio State beat Purdue at home in overtime. A win is a win.

Meanwhile, the Trojans were 45-0 winners over Arizona, which is having a terrible (2-9) season. The Wildcats fired their coach in midseason, which hardly ever happens. All this was bad news for USC because the computer rankings strongly consider strength of schedule. The Trojans fell from second to third. And because Purdue is considerably better than Arizona, the Buckeyes moved up.

Ah, the wonders of technology.

Of the seven computers that assess each team, six are counted and the lowest score is thrown away. That actually proved to be a good thing for USC, because the New York Times computer stunningly ranked the Trojans fifth this week, behind Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas (9-2) and Florida (8-3).

Even though that was thrown out, it still begs the question: How did this happen? Times editor Marjorie Connelly, who plugs the numbers into the computer every Sunday, cited schedule strength: USC’s opponents are 49-48, Ohio State’s 64-45. Because of that, three other computers ranked USC fourth, while only one had the Trojans second. Also, the Buckeyes have one more victory.

Connelly noted that computers do not take margin of victory into account and said that overall, the system works because it considers both facts and opinions.

“The sportswriters and coaches watch the game, and they see if someone is playing particularly well,” she said. “The computers don’t know who squeaked out a victory or who should have won bigger. That’s one of the weaknesses of the computer rankings. On the other hand, you don’t have any preconceived prejudices.”

Meanwhile, USC has another worry: LSU, No.4 in the BCS poll and possibly climbing. With two regular-season games against quality opponents remaining, along with a potential Southeastern Conference championship game, LSU could find its strength of schedule ranking soaring.

But the Trojans can’t root against LSU either. If the Tigers lose and Ohio State beats Michigan, the Buckeyes will jump to third in the human polls and almost certainly stay ahead of USC in the BCS poll.

More craziness? Consider Texas Christian, a member of Conference USA, which is not part of the BCS. The only way for such teams to play in a BCS bowl is to finish at least sixth in the poll, which is where unbeaten TCU found itself last week. The Horned Frogs celebrated by beating Cincinnati 43-10 — and dropped to eighth.

Maybe USC coach Pete Carroll has the right idea. The way Carroll looks at this whole BCS thing is by claiming not to look at it.

“I’m sure you’re interested in the depth of my understanding and concern for the BCS,” he told reporters Tuesday. “So what I would say to you is very mundane: I don’t think anything different from this week from what I thought a week ago or the weeks past that. This is a system that will come into play at the end of the year. … We’re aware of it. We know all of the conversations and questions will come, but we also realize it also doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing on the football field.”

In other words, keep winning and hope for the best. And the Rose Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize.

Tranghese once floated an idea to have a committee pick the teams, but abandoned it. Not practical, he said, and you still would have controversy. But come to think of it, what’s wrong with a little controversy?

“This has generated so much interest in college football,” Tranghese said. “There’s always been interest, but now you have SEC fans interested in the Pac-10, Big East fans interested in the Big Ten. It wasn’t always that way.”

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