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College Football Struggles With Math to Find No. 1

The complex system used to decide the sport's national championship is hotly criticized.

November 10, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Each year at this time, Dr. Peter Wolfe receives e-mail from people who consider him an idiot.

They couldn't care less that he is an infectious-disease specialist who treats AIDS patients. They probably don't know that he speaks French and Portuguese and is a fan of Brazilian literature. Or that he is a pilot and classical pianist.

"It is a little bracing to look at your inbox and see these people threatening you," he said. "The obscenities and all that."

None of his accomplishments matter, because the Beverly Hills doctor has a computer program that ranks college football teams. Only a hobby, it is respected enough to be used by the bowl championship series, or BCS, in selecting teams for the top bowl games at season's end.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Bowl championship series -- A graphic Monday on the bowl championship series standings incorrectly reported that Louisiana Tech was seventh in the Nov. 3 standings. Louisiana State was seventh in the Nov. 3 standings.

And that is where Wolfe runs into problems.

While any sports ranking is bound to spark barroom arguments, the BCS has been particularly criticized for the dizzying way it combines polls, computer ratings and mathematical formulas. Some fans claim it favors traditional powerhouses such as Oklahoma and USC -- which rose to No. 2 last week -- excluding smaller schools from the big-money games.

Opinions run so hot that Congress recently held hearings on the matter. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said the BCS "looks un-American ... it looks like a rigged deal."

Not the place you'd expect to find a 49-year-old, Harvard-educated physician. Wolfe said diplomatically: "People feel so strongly about it."

Arguing has always been part of the game because college football is the only major sport without a championship playoff. When Wolfe was growing up in Pittsburgh -- too small to play, scouring the Sunday paper for scores -- there was no BCS.

Winning teams were scattered among various bowls and rarely did the top two meet. The national champion was determined not on the field, but by sports reporters and coaches voting -- and sometimes disagreeing -- in separate polls.

Even as Wolfe went through medical school and became a doctor, he pondered a better method. He wasn't alone.

Before the 1998 season, the six largest conferences and independent Notre Dame joined the four largest bowl games -- the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange -- to form the BCS. Their goal was to match the No. 1 and 2 teams in a title game that would rotate among the participating bowls.

Roy Kramer, then commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, led the new alliance. Brainstorming with his staff, he posed a simple question: If several teams finished 10-1, how to choose among them?

"During one summer, we spent four to five hours a day for three months," said Charles Bloom, an associate commissioner. "There was a lot of research."

They devised a method that works like golf -- low score is best. Each team is ranked by not only wins and losses but also:

* An average of its rankings in the media's Associated Press poll and the coaches' ESPN/USA Today poll.

* An average of its ratings by seven computer services, subtracting the lowest number for each team. These services rely not on votes but on dispassionate, though oft-questioned, statistical programs.

* Strength of schedule. A team that plays strong opponents receives more credit than a team that loads its schedule with creampuffs.

* Bonus credit is given for victories over teams that finish in the BCS top 10.

"We didn't want a system that was too complicated," Bloom said. "If you have a system that determines the national championship, you have to be able to sell it to fans."

But in its five-plus seasons, the BCS has proved neither straightforward nor an easy sell.

Though most agree that the best teams have won the title, there have been glitches and the strength-of-schedule factor has been confusing. For example, in its first game this season USC scored a valuable win over highly ranked Auburn. But Auburn subsequently has lost three more games and tumbled out of the rankings, retroactively decreasing the worth of USC's victory.

Even worse, critics have bristled at sometimes curious results delivered by the computers.

By the time the BCS came along, Wolfe had moved to Los Angeles, gone into practice and become a UCLA fan. He had also stumbled upon others like him -- what he calls the "sports rating subculture."

The Internet bustled with Web sites and literature on formulas borrowed from business and other applications.

Wolfe chose something called a "maximum likelihood estimate," which he insists is simple but can seem ponderous to the uninitiated. It relies upon common opponents.

"Like six degrees of separation," he said. "Even though UCLA doesn't play Occidental, you can eventually connect them."

So his boyhood pursuit of scores continued. Friends and family became resigned to his spending Saturdays, from afternoon until midnight, holed up in the bedroom with a television and computer, keeping tabs on all the games.

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