It may all come down to the computers

Originally Published: November 14, 2004
By Brad Edwards | Special to ESPN.com

Now, THIS could get interesting.

Auburn's domination of Georgia on the heels of two narrow escapes by Oklahoma (vs. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M) has apparently prompted a significant number of voters to change their minds about which team should be ranked No. 2 in the polls. Auburn has pulled within two voting points of the second-place Sooners in the coaches' poll, and the teams are now deadlocked on the AP ballots.

Because these polls combine to account for two-thirds of the new BCS formula, this late-season adjustment by the voters causes a dramatic change to the landscape of the national title chase. The question is no longer, "Can Auburn make up ground on Oklahoma in the polls?" The Tigers have caught the Sooners with two games left to play.

Projected BCS Standings
1. USC
2. Oklahoma
3. Auburn
4. California
5. Texas
6. Utah
7. Michigan
8. Florida State
9. Boise State
10. Louisville
Of course, there could be further fluctuation, depending on whether one team looks either more dominant or less impressive than the other over the final two games. But if neither team flinches, and the voters don't change their current positions, the battle to play USC for the national title will likely be decided by the forgotten one-third of the BCS formula: the computer ratings.

Oklahoma is still a solid No. 2 in the BCS this week, only because the Sooners are currently considered the best team in the country by the computers. But a predominant factor in those computer ratings is schedule strength, which will be more favorable to Auburn the rest of the way, because the Tigers face tougher opposition than the Sooners on both Nov. 20 and in the conference championship games on Dec. 4.

Which team will be ranked higher by the computers at the end of the season, when it truly matters? Oklahoma seems to have a very comfortable lead in a couple of ratings, but a few others indicate that Auburn is close enough to make a move. The answer is that it's too close to call now.

More than likely, the polls will do something to decide this race in the next three weeks. But if they don't, it could end up as one of the closest finishes in the BCS era.

In other BCS news, the fourth through sixth spots in the standings have started to take shape. Wisconsin's loss allowed Utah to move back into the Top 6, and the Utes should stay there if they don't lose to BYU. That would make them the first non-BCS conference team ever to play in a BCS game, likely the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

The only team left with any realistic chance to leap Utah from behind is Michigan, but that would require the Wolverines to climb over Utah in both polls, and that still might not be enough to do the trick. After a lot of recent frustration, there is reason for Utes fans to start getting excited about the BCS once again.

So, the second-most intriguing storyline in the BCS Standings is now the fight for No. 4 between Cal and Texas. A clause in the BCS bylaws says the highest-ranked team that is not a conference champion will be given an at-large spot if it is ranked No. 3 or No. 4. Barring losses by both teams, either the Bears or Longhorns will automatically get into the BCS via that rule. And if Utah stays at No. 6, thereby locking up the other at-large berth, there will not be a spot remaining in the BCS for the team ranked No. 5.

I project Cal to be in that crucial fourth position this week, and given the large points gap between them and Texas in each poll, it seems the Longhorns have little hope if the Bears don't struggle with or lose at home to Stanford on Saturday or at Southern Miss on Dec. 4. Texas should make a move in the computers, but it probably won't be enough. Despite two amazing comebacks in a row, it appears that Mack Brown's Longhorns will be missing the BCS party once again.

But it is, after all, the rivalry season, and you never know what could happen.

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

• Analyzes college football and the BCS 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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