Every game might not have counted this season, but in the human polls that decide which two teams will play in the BCS title game, every vote counted. If you want to know exactly how the BCS arrives at its rankings, click here. But in terms of context, all you need to know is this: Since the BCS began using this style of formula in the 2004 season, No. 2 and No. 3 have never been this close.
Alabama and Oklahoma State were separated by .0086 ranking points. The next closest spread between No. 2 and No. 3 came in 2006 -- another rematch debate year -- when Florida edged Michigan by .0101 before blowing out favored Ohio State in the actual game. But in that case, Florida and Michigan were tied in the computer rankings. This year, Oklahoma State had the edge in the computers. So the credit -- or blame -- for placing Alabama in the title game goes to a decided advantage in the human polls.
The two polls attempt to control for bias by using a largish sample size of people spread across the country, but in the case of the Coaches' Poll, bias is completely unavoidable. After all, most of the 59 sports information directors head coaches who vote in the poll are paid seven-figure salaries by their institutions, and their primary goal in everything they do is to protect the interests of the institution that writes those big checks -- as well as the conference to which that institution belongs. Voters in the Harris Poll are selected because of their assumed allegiance to a particular conference, the hope being that all the biases cancel out and produce a decent result. The problem is that several voters -- at least judging by their ballots -- don't actually watch college football. In the wee hours of Monday morning, USA Today released the individual ballot of every coach. Later Monday morning, Harris Interactive released its final ballots. The votes, as usual, are quite interesting.
Not surprisingly, the coaches from the Big 12 schools in good standing (Baylor's Art Briles, Iowa State's Paul Rhoads, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville) all ranked Oklahoma State second and Alabama third. Most of the SEC coaches in the poll (Auburn's Gene Chizik, Vanderbilt's James Franklin, LSU's Les Miles, Georgia's Mark Richt and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier) all voted Alabama No. 2 and Oklahoma State No. 3. That also was expected.
Then we have Missouri's Gary Pinkel and Alabama's Nick Saban.
At the moment, Missouri is a member of the Big 12. Next year, Missouri will be a member of the SEC. The Tigers were passed over by every Big 12 affiliated bowl and fell to the Independence Bowl. How did Pinkel punish his old league for making him spend Christmas in Shreveport? Not only did he vote Alabama second, he also voted Oklahoma State fourth behind Stanford. Oklahoma State and Stanford each have one loss, so Pinkel can make the argument that he legitimately thinks the Cardinal are better than the Cowboys.
But no one will believe him.
Saban, meanwhile, voted Stanford No. 3 and Oklahoma State No. 4. Now why in the world would he do that? At least he didn't leave Oklahoma State off his ballot entirely. Or maybe Saban really thinks the Cardinal would beat the Cowboys if they played. (He'll find out in the Fiesta Bowl.)
Of course, no one will believe that, either.
Stanford certainly did Oklahoma State no favors. Five coaches ranked the Cardinal third, and all of those five ranked Alabama second. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun ranked Oklahoma State fifth, but Calhoun is an unusual case. He released his poll ballot every week to the Colorado Springs Gazette, so we can see that he actually brought Oklahoma State up from No. 9 two weeks ago and No. 8 last week.
Stanford coach David Shaw certainly is confident in his team, and he hasn't been shy about ripping the system, but Shaw had plenty of incentive to rank his team as high as possible. Stanford's fan base is not known for traveling well to bowls. Given the option, a BCS bowl might have passed over Stanford for another team. How does that problem get solved? Take away the option to pass over Stanford. By finishing in the top four of the BCS standings, Stanford earned an automatic bid to a BCS bowl. So that might help explain why Shaw ranked his team not only above Oklahoma State -- a perfectly legitimate argument -- but also above an Oregon team that beat Stanford by 23 at Stanford Stadium.
The Harris Poll hurt the Cowboys' chances even more. Three Harris voters (former Notre Dame player Derrick Mayes, former Hawaii coach Bob Wagner and former Iowa sports information director George Wine) voted Oklahoma State No. 6. Wagner could mount a decent defense for his choices, but Mayes and Wine might want to avoid traveling in the state of Oklahoma for a while. Aside from ranking Oklahoma State No. 6, Mayes ranked Oklahoma No. 9 and left Georgia off his ballot entirely. Wine, meanwhile, ranked Houston No. 5. Maybe he thought his ballot was due before the Cougars got thrashed by Southern Miss on Saturday.
The Stanford-Oregon and Virginia Tech-Clemson rankings are an ideal measure of how much voters in the Coaches' and Harris polls actually paid attention to the games. Oregon beat Stanford 53-30. The game was not close after halftime. Yet 45 coaches ranked Stanford ahead of Oregon and 90 of the 115 Harris Poll voters placed Stanford above Oregon. (Remember, Oregon's only losses were to consensus No. 1 LSU and AP No. 5 USC.) The only argument for voting Stanford ahead of Oregon -- and it's a plausible one -- is the fact that Stanford beat USC on the road in triple-overtime.
Clemson, meanwhile, outscored Virginia Tech 61-13 in two meetings -- including one in Blacksburg. If we learned anything this season, it was that Clemson was definitively better than Virginia Tech. So how many coaches ranked Virginia Tech above Clemson? Thirty-four. Meanwhile, 51 Harris poll voters apparently had better things to do than watch or look up the results of those two games.
These people, who couldn't be bothered to notice even massive blowouts, played a key role in deciding who will play for the national title. It truly is a wonderful system.