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BCS Poll: Fuzzy Math, Fuzzier Logic

The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

October 27, 2002|Sally Jenkins | Washington Post

The BCS issued its first computer tabulations of the college football season, and once again, my eyelids are fluttering, and I have the beginning of a facial tic. The BCS has carefully counted every factor except one: any shred of real logic. Somewhere in all of those numbers and all of that money, a $26 million championship bowl payout to be exact, the BCS lost sight of something. The real purpose of math is to be right.

Maybe we should be glad the BCS is at least half right, given its track record of wrongness in recent years. The BCS did manage to place Miami and Oklahoma as the top two teams in the country, which is where they belong. The problem is, they're in the wrong order. This is perfectly in keeping with the BCS history of botch jobs, which gave us last year's timeless classic of a championship game, in which Nebraska went down by 23 points.

According to the BCS, Oklahoma is the No.1 team in the nation, despite the fact that its starting quarterback is hurt. Meanwhile, defending champion Miami, which has won 28 straight games and gone unbeaten for a year and a half, is No.2 and in imminent danger of dropping in the ratings, even if it remains undefeated. This is due to the Pythagorean delicacy and complexity of the BCS formula, according to which, you can beat a team Saturday, and fall in the rankings Monday.

The BCS formula includes five different components: losses, average ranking in the two national polls, average ranking in seven other computer ratings, strength of schedule rating (divided by 25), and BCS "quality wins."

Despite these exquisitely fine calibrations, the BCS never makes as much sense as the AP, or the Coaches polls, relying as they do on live organisms, actual witnesses of football games. As opposed to chip-driven electromagnetic devices. According to the AP and the Coaches, the Hurricanes are No.1.

You can bet BCS representatives are rooting heavily for Florida State to beat Notre Dame this weekend, because otherwise the unbeaten Fighting Irish are in perfect position to ascend from No. 3 in the rankings and displace Miami. Which would thereby screw up any chance of a clear national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3.

The answer to this mess is to dump the math. Pythagoras was great, but he also refused to eat beans. Among the more laughable components of the BCS formula is the fact that it actually counts the New York Times rankings among its many factors. Now, anyone who follows college football knows that the Times poll is a dose of instant comedy. The joke is how chronically, stubbornly wrong the paper of record can be, because it, like the BCS, relies on oblique computer tabulations. A couple of weeks ago it actually ranked USC No. 2, despite the fact that had already been beaten by Kansas State. The paper has taken to writing wry apologetic commentaries to accompany each week's poll.

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, who is also the BCS coordinator, has always favored a human committee to decide the bowl lineups. Tranghese spent five years as a member (and former chairman) of the NCAA basketball selection committee, which used the polls only as guidelines in making the postseason tournament brackets. "My experience in basketball was that when you get to the end of the season and you're trying to discern between a team with an RPI of 42 and one with an RPI of 48, you shouldn't base that decision on just a number," he says. "You need qualified people to look at the data and insert some common sense."

Last April at a BCS meeting, Tranghese proposed diminishing the importance of the formula in favor of a committee of actual people. That way the formula would simply be a suggestion, rather than the final determining factor. He got nowhere -- mainly because the seven major conference reps are loath to let independent outsiders wrest control from them.

So we are stuck with a formula that often results in mockeries. In response, I've decided to start my own poll. The SJ poll. The SJ Poll is a complex personal formula, hand tabulated by me. Better yet, call it an index.

The Jenkins Personal Index.

The JP Index is based on the following criteria: How often the school's name appears in my newspaper, one tenth of a percent. Color scheme of uniform, one tenth. Whether a school's mascot is a nice animal or not, six tenths. Mascot animals with eyes in the front of their heads receive bonus points, as opposed to mascot animals with eyes on the sides of their heads.

Based on those sophisticated factors, and depending on whether or not I had a good, hot lunch, here is my own Top 10, henceforth known as the SJ Poll/ JP Index:

1. Army. Name me a school with a tougher strength of schedule factor. The Cadets have to face Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iraq. Plus, they have to play all of their big games on the road.

2. Oklahoma. In addition to having the best head coach and the best defense in the country, they play in a place that legitimately produces golf ball sized hail.

3. The University of Chicago. They dropped football years ago. I just miss them.

3. The Cincinnati Bengals. At 0-6, they should be downgraded to an NCAA team, and sent to the Humanitarian Bowl.

4. Bowling Green. Unbeaten, and people still think they're a bowling school.

5. Penn State. Because my friend Ann went to school there.

6. Texas Christian University. It will make my father so happy.

7. The Bethesda Chevy Chase, Md., High School perennial state champion field hockey team, because as the BCS has proved, an index wouldn't be an index if it didn't have a howler in it.

8. Nebraska. Because I have sympathy for the world's downtrodden.

9.William 10.Mary.

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