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BCS math error proved minute; the larger problem more troubling


When the BCS sent out its final rankings Sunday night, the press release contained a quote from coordinator Bill Hancock. "Once again, the BCS has delivered," Hancock said.

The BCS delivered all right. It delivered a mistake.

Monday night, the BCS sent out another release revising its rankings. Jerry Palm, the proprietor of, had spotted an error in Wes Colley's computer ranking. Colley had failed to include the score of the Western Illinois-Appalachian State FCS playoff game in his data set. That omission distorted the BCS rankings. LSU and Boise State were swapped at No. 10 and No. 11, and Alabama and Nebraska were swapped at No. 17 and No. 18.

Luckily, Colley's goof didn't affect No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 TCU. Because if it had, it would have changed who played in the national title game. Lawsuits would have flown at the speed of light. Injunctions would have been sought. More than likely, the mistake would have destroyed the BCS and plunged college football back into the dark ages of teams accepting bowl invites in November.

Worse, we don't know if Colley's mistake was the only one. Of the six computer rankings the BCS uses, Colley's is the only one available to the public -- or to the conferences that run the BCS. The other five could be riddled with mistakes, and the entity tasked with creating the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup would never know it.

"The bigger point is that nobody checks the BCS computer data," Palm wrote at "We should all be grateful to Colley for having a system that is open, accountable and verifiable. The BCS owes us an entire system that is open, accountable and verifiable."

What's amazing is that until they had to revise the final 2010 rankings, no one inside the hollowed-out volcano that serves as BCS headquarters thought this lack of transparency was a particularly big deal. When Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News examined this head-scratcher in October, Hancock didn't seem to think it was a problem. Hancock explained to Solomon that the mathematicians behind the computer rankings checked one another's work "with a fine-tooth comb."

They must have used the combs from the combing-the-desert scene from Spaceballs, because they didn't find ... well, you know. But Palm did. In fact, Solomon wrote his story in October after he learned that Palm had found mistakes in Colley's rankings earlier this season because of -- you guessed it -- incorrect entry of FCS results.

The computer rankings are included in the BCS to counterbalance human biases. But those computer rankings are reliant on humans to enter data accurately. They should be reliant on humans -- employed by the 11 FBS conferences -- to check the math. But except for Colley, the creators of the formulas refuse to reveal them even to the people who run the BCS. Judging by how easily Colley's mistake affected the rankings, it would be relatively simple for someone to subtly manipulate a computer ranking to produce a desired result if two teams were close enough in the human polls. The potential for corruption is enormous in spite of BCS policy to throw out the lowest and highest computer rankings.

It isn't just No. 1 and No. 2 that mean something in the BCS. Stanford is in the Orange Bowl because it finished No. 4 in the final BCS standings, triggering a clause that required the Cardinal to receive an at-large bid. What if, because of a mistake, Stanford had finished No. 5? The Cardinal might have wound up in the Alamo Bowl and the Orange Bowl might have selected BCS No. 14 Oklahoma State, which would have guaranteed better ticket sales.

What's amazing is that university presidents have gone along with this for so long. Remember, the BCS rankings determine how millions of dollars move among mostly public universities. That presidents would continue to endorse a system that operates with virtually no oversight is dumbfounding.

Hancock's tone on the subject changed Monday night. The release announcing the revised standings contained the following quote:

"I was deeply disturbed when I learned about this today," Hancock said. "This error should not have happened and is unacceptable. The final standings have been corrected. Fortunately, it had no effect on any team's eligibility for the BCS games. But the simple fact that it could have means this issue will be near the top of the agenda for the conference commissioners' annual review next spring."

Now he's disturbed? Now the commissioners will consider that it might benefit them to know the formulas that help decide how millions of dollars are distributed?

Don't expect much. It's telling that when the BCS released the revised rankings, its puppet masters couldn't even be bothered to tell the truth about how the mistake was discovered. "Mr. Colley discovered this error in a subsequent review," according to the release, which didn't mention Palm at all.

Maybe they should just keep things the way they are. And maybe a colossal mistake next year will destroy the BCS as we know it and bring back the old bowl system. No one but a few bowl directors and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany would be happy with that, so everyone else would go in search of a new postseason format.

Maybe we should look to the game that caused all the problems this year. Appalachian State doesn't need to worry about whether a data entry error will cost it a national title. The Mountaineers beat Western Illinois last week, so they play Villanova this week. Win that game, and they're two wins from a national title.

No fuzzy math required.