BCS is a formula for chaos

Thursday, November 12, 1998

Question: How many college football coaches does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: Who knows? The job hasn't been done right yet.

Football coaches have a unique ability to take a simple proposition and turn it into trigonometry. Witness the continuing comedy called the Bowl Championship Series.

Challenged to devise an objective procedure to decide the national championship, the collective wisdom of college football has settled on a solution so arcane it could only have been conceived in a sport in which every play is preceded by a committee meeting.

The BCS seeks to distill the opinions of five separate ratings boards (one of them comprised of a single stat freak, the estimable Jeff Sagarin), incorporate selected statistical criteria, and arrive at something that can be called "Consensus."

It isn't working, and it isn't likely to. Where college football is concerned, consensus is harder to find than Andy Katzenmoyer in the library. The more people involved in the process, the messier things get.

Who's No. 1? Who knows?

This week, there are four different No. 1 teams in the various polls and power ratings assigned weight by the BCS: Tennessee, UCLA, Kansas State and once-beaten Florida State. Six major schools remain undefeated: Tennessee, UCLA, Kansas State, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Tulane.

The cloudy picture should clear up some Saturday, with Arkansas at Tennesse, Nebraska at Kansas State and Wisconsin at Michigan. Still, there is nearly no chance that the field will be narrowed to two undisputed titans when the first BCS Championship Game is staged Jan. 4 in Tempe, Ariz. There is every chance that several schools will spend New Year's screaming.

There is a rough justice in this. Until college football faces up to the need to resolve its rankings on the field - as opposed to preserving pointless bowl games and fostering the myth of the student-athlete - it needs to be regularly reminded of the folly of settling the season with spreadsheets. No system is foolproof, but none is more foolish than one which would dare crown a definitive champion from among a multitude of unblemished teams.

Worse, none of the rankings can be regarded as reliable. Coaches tend to vote for their friends and upcoming opponents. Sportswriters demonstrate regional bias and are sometimes slow to recognize emerging powers. The computer rankings - Sagarin's, the New York Times and the Seattle Times - are only as fair as the formulae they are fed.

The New York Times assigns extra credit for running up the score. The Seattle Times recognizes no difference between a one-point win and a 50-point blowout. Sagarin weighs margin of victory only up to 28 points.

Presumably, the excesses of each rating system are balanced by the excesses of the others. But the Seattle Times was the only one of the five polls - computer printouts to place UCLA higher than third this week, and that is the one that seems to count.

Here's a formula: A playoff

Had the season ended last Saturday, Tennessee and UCLA would finish the season in the Fiesta Bowl and Kansas State would finish the season seething. The Wildcats share the No. 1 spot in the coaches poll, are all by themselves atop the Sagarin ratings, but are burdened by a schedule deemed comparatively undemanding.

UCLA, meanwhile, has been so overpowering that it has struggled to subdue Stanford and Oregon State in the closing minutes. Bruins coach Bob Toledo is so distraught by his defense (which has yielded 966 yards in the last two games) that he has ordered his assistants to pare down the playbook so it might be more easily digested by the players.

"When they're thinkin', they're not reactin'," Toledo said this week. "And I think they're thinkin' too much."

The same problem afflicts the BCS. In its unending zeal to make basic things baffling, college football has concocted a contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg. Surely, some simpler solution is attainable. In other sports, hold playoffs. Just a thought.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.