Sorting through all the scenarios

Originally Published: December 2, 2004
By Brad Edwards | Special to ESPN.com

If you enjoyed The Matrix, then the BCS should be right up your alley.

Though not nearly as entertaining, it continues the theme that machines can hold power over humans, even when the people are fighting to regain control.

About this time last year, the college football world was up in arms because the University of Southern California, ranked No. 1 in both polls, had been left out of the BCS Championship Game. The Trojans' fatal flaw was that their schedule strength didn't pass muster within the system's formula for determining the nation's best two teams. The computer element of that formula ranked USC third, and the separate strength of schedule component sealed the Trojans' fate.

BCS Standings
1. USC
2. Oklahoma
3. Auburn
4. California
5. Texas
6. Utah
7. Georgia
8. Boise State
9. Louisville
10. Miami
Following SC's dominance of Michigan in the Rose Bowl, the BCS administrators decided that such an injustice shouldn't take place again. By mid-summer, they had developed a plan to overhaul their championship formula, putting the majority of power back into the hands of the human voters.

On the teleconference that announced this change, ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel joked, "Does this mean we don't have to use the word 'component' in a college football story again?"

Not so fast, my friend!

It seems the computer component is anything but irrelevant in this new formula, and when the final BCS Standings are made official Sunday afternoon, it's possible that the popular opinion of the people could be overruled by computer sentiment in determining which teams gain the most important unsettled spots.

It's a foregone conclusion that No. 1 USC will not be left out of this season's BCS Championship Game, provided it wins its season finale against UCLA, but there is still a slight bit of drama over who will finish No. 2. Oklahoma currently holds a solid lead over Auburn for the other spot in the title game, predominantly because of the Sooners' lofty position within the computer ratings. Auburn barely trails OU in both human polls, but the computer deficit will be extremely difficult to overcome.

Assuming both teams win their respective conference titles, the Sooners should have a perfect score (at least five No. 1 rankings) from the computers on Sunday. And because of inferior schedule strength numbers (despite four victories over teams with nine wins), it seems Auburn's best case is to finish at 93 percent, but more than likely, the Tigers will have a final computer score of .920 (at least five No. 3 rankings). It doesn't seem like a lot, but trailing by .08 in the computers is huge.

How huge?

Well, to overcome that margin, Auburn would need to gain the equivalent of 44 points in each poll. Each spot a team is raised on the ballot of one voter is worth one point, so that means 44 voters in each poll would need to move the Tigers one spot higher than they are currently being ranked (or maybe 36 voters move them up one spot, and four voters move them up two spots, or something to that effect).

When you consider that seven of the 61 voters in the coaches' poll already have Auburn ranked No. 1, that means only 54 even have the ability to place them higher. (Six of 65 AP voters have the Tigers ranked on top.) Also considering how many have Auburn ranked No. 2 behind USC -- and how many of those probably won't drop the Trojans without a loss -- Auburn's position begins to look much more helpless.

This week, nine of 31 AP voters surveyed by the Mobile (Ala.) Register said they would not consider changing their order of the top three teams unless one loses on Saturday. If you take that to assume roughly 30 percent of all voters in both polls will not be swayed by any victory margins this weekend, then Auburn's odds of reaching the No. 2 spot in the BCS Standings are about the same as the team bus being struck by lightning on the way to the Georgia Dome ... and the forecast says there's only a 10 percent chance of rain.

For the Tigers to gain sole possession of the No. 2 position in the AP poll, however, only six voters would need to flop their order of Oklahoma and Auburn. In the coaches' poll, only four voters would need to switch the teams in Auburn's favor to get them into the second spot. That means an impressive win by the Tigers over Tennessee in the SEC Championship could be enough to get them to No. 2 in both polls. And even though that likely wouldn't change their BCS ranking, it sure would add to the controversy on Sunday afternoon.

Battle for No. 4
Just as controversial as the battle for the top two spots could be the battle for the final at-large spot into the Bowl Championship Series between California and Texas. Because Utah will finish in the top 6 of the standings, there is only one spot available for a team that did not win its conference title, and that will go to the highest-ranked team that is not a champion. If none of the three undefeateds lose on Saturday, that race is clearly between the Golden Bears and Longhorns.

Right now, Cal is way ahead of Texas in the polls, and Texas is even further ahead of Cal in the computers. If this weekend's games cause any change to those computer ratings, it would be very slightly in favor of the Bears, but more than likely the ratings for both teams will stay the same on Sunday.

If the computers do indeed hold steady, as few as three voters moving Texas ahead of Cal could give the BCS spot to the Longhorns. If exactly two AP voters and one coach switch their order in UT's favor, there will be a tie for No. 4 in the BCS. If two coaches and one AP voter make that same change, Texas would move in front. Ballots of coaches hold slightly more weight in the BCS formula because there are fewer total voters. (A tie, by the way, would allow the bowl with first selection to have its choice between the teams. Given that the Rose Bowl is likely to have first choice, Cal would win in the event of a tie).

Other than lose on Saturday, the worst thing the Bears could do is not look dominant against Southern Miss and give voters any reason to doubt their strength. A narrow victory could be fatal for Rose Bowl dreams. But even if Cal wins impressively, it won't be safe to assume the Bears have squelched any chance of the Longhorns making up ground in the polls.

Because this is the final week of the season, and relatively few teams are still playing, many coaches and writers might have had more time than ever to truly evaluate each team. It's possible that upon reviewing the résumés more closely, a few voters could decide to move some teams around. It's also possible that a few coaches had been letting someone else fill out their ballots up until this point and, upon taking those ballots back into their own hands, might decide to switch the order someone else created.

Having small shifts of points between top teams from the second-to-last poll to the last is fairly common, even when neither team is in action on the final day of the season. If Cal wins big, and Texas still makes up ground in the polls, some will suggest a conspiracy was in effect, but that wouldn't necessarily be the case. And if the movement takes place in the coaches' poll, the leading conspiracy theory will be brotherly love.

You see, Texas coach Mack Brown and Cal coach Jeff Tedford both vote in the coaches' poll, as does Brown's older brother Watson, the coach at UAB. And even though there are many other voters in that poll, the Brown brothers would be guilty until proven innocent in the minds of many angry fans. And because the American Football Coaches Association refuses to let USA Today reveal how each coach voted, innocence would never be proven.

It's all part of the continuing madness of the BCS. It might not be The Matrix, but it never fails to entertain.

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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