Shenanigans are nothing new with the Bowl Championships Series.
It's the reason the cartel was created in the first place, to make sure the stars align in the postseason exactly the way the major conference commissioners and their pals at the big bowl committees and TV networks desire. Or at the very least, as analyst Bill James put it a short while ago, "to create some gobbledygook math to endorse" their version of that universe. Either way, there's more than the usual reasons for optimism this could be the season that brings the BCS house of cards crashing down.
It's only week 2 of the BCS poll, but there are already signs the computers are overheating. There's no arguing with the teams on the top two lines, No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. All three human polls — the USA Today coaches and Harris Interactive, which each account for one-third of the BCS formula, as well as The Associated Press poll — have them ordered the same way. Then the fun begins.
The computers, the final third of the BCS formula, aren't impressed by the Pac-12 or Big Ten so far, even though the humans are. Both the Harris and AP polls have Stanford at No. 3, while the coaches have the Cardinal at No. 4. But Stanford checks in at No. 6 in this week's BCS rankings because the computers have the Cardinal at No. 9, making some people wonder whether the machines, too, have a tough time staying up late to catch games on the West Coast. The real answer is simpler, and for those who want a playoff ASAP, hopeful.
There are eight undefeated teams in the Top 25 at the moment, 10 more with just one loss, and just eight weeks' worth of data for the computers to sort them out. Strength of schedule, to cite just one component, isn't nearly as a reliable an indicator as it will be later in the year. And, because of a ruckus at the end of the 2001 season that left a deserving Oregon team out of the national championship game, the BCS told computer operators the next year to drop margin of victory as a component to determine their rankings. Small wonder then that Stanford has gotten short shrift from the machines.
They have no idea the Cardinal has won 10 games in a row by 25 points or more dating to last season — the first team to accomplish the feat in 75 years — or that a few NFL teams might be sliding into the tank for a chance to draft quarterback Andrew Luck. All the machines know is Stanford has played all six of its games this season against teams with losing records and beat them. The Cardinal, as the BCS soothsayers love to point out, have plenty of control over their fate and their strength of schedule picks up beginning next week with a visit to Southern California. Oregon, 6-1 and No. 7 in the BCS ranking, should benefit similarly from a strength-of-schedule bump as the season progresses. But the Ducks are currently behind one-loss Arkansas and Oklahoma teams in the computers (12th), so even winning out may not be enough.
Big Ten flag-bearer Michigan State might be in the same boat. After upsetting Wisconsin, the conference's previous best BCS hope, the one-loss Spartans checked in at No. 11 in the latest BCS rankings, but were only 15th in the computer rankings. Like Stanford, Michigan State could win the rest of its games and wind up in the Rose Bowl — not a bad consolation prize, but not the BCS Championship, either, which this year is set for the Sugar Bowl.
The BCS counts on the regular season to winnow down the number of legitimate contenders, but in the early going, this looks like one of those seasons that won't cooperate. Of course, deserving teams have been hosed before, and every time their final poll kicks up a fuss — remember 2001, when then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti reacted to the Ducks' exclusion by likening the BCS to "a cancer" — the suits went back and tweaked the formula. The stated rationale is usually to add more "weight" to the human polls; the real reason for the tweaks more often is so those same suits don't get caught trying to explain away the "gobbledygook math" again.
So just imagine the storm if Stanford and someone like Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference finish off perfect seasons and both wind up on the outside of the BCS national championship picture looking in. It happened to 13-0 Auburn in 2004 — it was nosed out of the BCS championship by Oklahoma and shuffled off to the Sugar Bowl — and its coach at the time, Tommy Tuberville, only got a small measure of satisfaction back last weekend. That's when his current team, Texas Tech, knocked those same Sooners, previously unbeaten, all the way back to No. 9 in the BCS ranking.
"Payback sometimes works in mysterious ways," he told SI.com after the win.
But if the guys in charge of the BCS wind up leaving out unbeaten teams from both the ACC and Pac-12, the payback won't be mysterious. It will be devastating.