New BCS will have fewer plot twists

Originally Published: October 17, 2004
By Brad Edwards | Special to ESPN.com

It's that time of year again.

The initial release of the BCS Standings has become an annual excuse to look at a few categories and calculations and vent about all that is wrong with the world of college football. But for those who love controversy, this week should leave little to get excited about.

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A revamped BCS formula will end everyone's fun by creating great symmetry between the BCS Standings and the traditional polls of record. That means no more blaming your team's misfortune on some computer programmer you've never met. Now, your frustrations must be directed at the 65 media members and 61 head coaches who collectively hold the authority to decide which teams will play for college football's national championship. That really puts a damper on your autumn, doesn't it?

Over the next several weeks, you'll see references in this column to the six computer ratings systems that are part of the BCS formula. Each team is rated by all six computers, its best and worst rankings are thrown out, and the other four numbers are used to derive that team's computer points. In the new BCS formula, these points are expressed as a percentage of a perfect score (a perfect score would be all No. 1 rankings) and account for one-third of a team's total BCS score. The rest of that score comes from the team's points in the AP media poll (one-third) and its points in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll (one-third).

These six computers are not allowed to consider scores of games (margin of victory) in their computations. For the most part, they are simply looking at wins and losses in relation to the strength of a team's schedule. Even so, they are different in their methods of applying these factors to their specific formulas and, therefore, all produce different results. Sometimes, the results can be noticeably different.

Here is a very brief overview of what makes these computers unique. Each ratings system is identified by the name of its creator.

Anderson & Hester: In addition to the conventional use of opponent records, these ratings also utilize conference strength to calculate the difficulty of a team's schedule. For example, when Alabama beat Southern Miss on Saturday, it also gave a slight boost to Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee.

Billingsley: These ratings put more emphasis on recent games than on early games, which helps a team like Florida State that started slow but has quality opponents late in the year. On the flip side, Utah's season-opening victory over Texas A&M will not be as significant in December as it might be in other computers.

Colley: With a heavy schedule strength element, these ratings favor teams that play in strong conferences and also challenge themselves in the non-conference schedule. If a few teams are undefeated at the end of the season, the ones with the tougher overall schedules will be ranked higher.

Massey: The BCS version of these rankings is very simple. It's half who you play and half what your record is. No other factors are taken into account.

Sagarin: Schedules are judged by quality opponents rather than a cumulative winning percentage. And because the schedule strength calculations take into account location of games, if two teams have the same record against comparable schedules, the team with the better road wins would likely be ranked higher.

Wolfe: Like Sagarin's, these ratings take into account game location as part of a complex formula to derive schedule strength. And because schedule strength is a point of emphasis, a once-beaten team with a killer schedule can surpass an undefeated team with no quality wins.

Since we're no longer able to discuss far-fetched scenarios resulting from factors such as schedule strength and quality wins, let's just take a look at some recent trends regarding the first look at the BCS Standings. This isn't as reliable as forecasting postseason failure for the Red Sox, but these numbers may offer some insight as to which teams have the best chance to be playing for a certain crystal football in January.

A look at the brief history of the BCS shows us that holding one of the coveted top-two positions means relatively little at this stage of the season. In the first six years of this system, only five of the 12 teams that had the inside track when the first standings were released still held one of those spots when the final standings were published. Only three of the 12 went undefeated through the rest of the regular season.

Top 2 Teams in the BCS Standings
Year Initial release Final result
1998 UCLA and Ohio State Tennessee and Florida State
1999 Florida State and Penn State Florida State and Virginia Tech
2000 Nebraska and Oklahoma Oklahoma and Florida State
2001 Oklahoma and Nebraska Miami and Nebraska
2002 Oklahoma and Miami Miami and Ohio State
2003 Oklahoma and Miami Oklahoma and LSU

As you can see, the top two teams in the initial release have never met in the BCS title game.

Controversy brewing?

Undefeated major-conference teams
in the BCS Standings
Year Initial release Final release
1998 6 1 (Tennessee)
1999 5 2 (FSU, Virginia Tech)
2000 4 1 (Oklahoma)
2001 7 1 (Miami)
2002 7 2 (Miami, Ohio State)
2003 3 0
2004 5 ???
The biggest potential BCS controversy will happen if the regular season ends with more than two major undefeated teams.

Entering this week, there are five teams from major conferences that are still unbeaten. None play each other, but history says the odds of having more than two survive still aren't good.

The only time it's happened in the last 20 years involving three teams eligible for postseason play was 1992 (Miami, Alabama and Texas A&M).

The outsiders

Non BCS schools highest rankings
in the initial BCS Standings
Year Team Initial rank Final rank
2003 Northern Illinois 10 --
2000 TCU 13 14
1999 Marshall 14 12
2000 Southern Miss 14 --
2003 TCU 14 18
Utah is in the Top 10 of the initial release, which is the highest debut position ever for a team outside of the major conferences.

Northern Illinois currently has the record at No. 10 last year.

Only one non-BCS school to be ranked in the initial Top 15 has ever completed the regular season undefeated (Marshall in 1999).

Looking Ahead
Every national championship game participant in the BCS era has been ranked in the top 12 of the initial standings. All but LSU, which was No. 12 last year, have been ranked in the top 6.

BCS Standings
1. USC
2. Miami
3. Oklahoma
4. Auburn
5. Florida State
6. Wisconsin
7. Utah
8. California
9. Tennessee
10. Georgia
11. Texas
12. Purdue

As a general rule, this new BCS formula will cause the standings to fall in line with the order in the human polls, especially near the top. You can see that to be the case with the projected top 5. Miami and Auburn are virtually deadlocked in voting points between the two polls, but the Hurricanes got the nod for the No. 2 spot because of their extremely strong ratings in the computers.

The most interesting story is the position of Utah. If the Utes can finish the season ranked in the top 6, they must automatically be included in a BCS game. One loss probably ends this dream, but if Utah keeps winning, its movement in the BCS Standings should be interesting to observe. Expect the Utes to stagnate in the polls for the next few weeks and get passed from behind by a few once-beaten teams from major conferences. But if enough of these major programs take a second loss, Utah will eventually climb again. The computers, however, should give the Utes slightly more favorable rankings than the polls, which means they will have an excellent chance to reach the final BCS top 6 if they can get as high as No. 7 in each poll. Currently, they hold rankings of 9 and 10.

The "X factor" is Texas A&M, which is clearly Utah's signature conquest this season. The Aggies have not lost since falling to the Utes in the season opener and, at the moment, seem to be a serious contender for the Big 12 title. The more games A&M wins, the more Utah is strengthened by having that victory over the Aggies in its pocket. There are no games scheduled between the six teams projected ahead of Utah in the BCS Standings, however, so at least one of them must lose to help the Utes crack the final top 6. Texas A&M hosts No. 2 Oklahoma on Nov. 6, so that becomes a huge game for Utah in more ways than one.

One more BCS-related note: The Big Ten currently has a pair of unbeaten teams in conference play, Wisconsin and Michigan. They miss each other on this season's schedule rotation, though, so the possibility exists that both could finish with a perfect conference record. If this happens, the tiebreaker for the Big Ten's automatic BCS bid (to the Rose Bowl) is better overall record, which would belong to Wisconsin because of Michigan's non-conference loss to Notre Dame. But if the Badgers happened to finish in the top two of the final BCS Standings, they would play for the national title in the FedEx Orange Bowl, leaving an opening in the Rose Bowl that could be filled by another Big Ten team as an at-large selection.

Brad Edwards is a college football researcher at ESPN. His Road to the BCS appears weekly during the season.

• Analyzes college football and the CFB Playoff as part of ESPN's Stats & Information Group
• Analyst for both College GameDay on ESPN Radio and the ESPN College Football app

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