We're No. 1* *But not playing in the BCS title game. Why top-ranked USC got shafted and how the absurd system of deciding the national champion can be fixed

December 15, 2003

In the third quarter of USC's 52-28 victory over Oregon State last
Saturday, Trojans tailback Reggie Bush tried to turn the corner
on a sweep but found himself hemmed in and reversed his
direction. As the defense gave chase, USC receiver Mike Williams
came back and laid a crushing blindside block on Beavers
cornerback Aric Williams. The blow was so devastating that the
flattened defender simply got up and staggered from the field
while the play was still going on.

We can only be thankful that there is no Bowl Championship
Series formula to dissect such hits. Otherwise it might have
taken the players' heights and weights, the yardage gained on
the play and the won-loss record of other teams that had
pancaked Oregon State's Williams, crunched the numbers and
declared the block inferior to several others this season that
had a more impressive set of variables. Anyone who saw the play
needs no such analysis to know that it was as hellacious a hit
as anyone has administered all year.

Therein lies the fatal flaw of the BCS. With its reliance on
computers and complex formulas, it sometimes produces results
that contradict what a reasonable observer can see with his own
eyes. That simple truth emerged from the chaos of last weekend,
when Oklahoma (despite being whipped by Kansas State 35-7 in the
Big 12 championship game) and LSU were given berths in the
national-title game at the Sugar Bowl, while USC, despite
climbing to No. 1 in both polls, was left out of the mix. The
Trojans will play Michigan in the Rose Bowl in what USC coach
Pete Carroll, in a brilliant bit of instant spin, called "the
other championship game."

The Sugar Bowl could just as easily be saddled with that title.
Carroll and his players showed remarkable equanimity considering
how badly they were shafted. Only a system that places more
emphasis on formulas than on football could examine three
one-loss teams and eliminate the one that lost only in triple
overtime, hasn't lost since September and blew out its opponent
on a pressure-packed final weekend.

With all due respect to 12-1 LSU, which won the SEC on Saturday
with a 34-13 victory over Georgia and deserves its title-game
berth, a national-championship game that doesn't include USC is a
sham. Regardless of what the final computer readouts say, anyone
who watched college football at all closely this season surely
realizes that the 11-1 Trojans belong in the Sugar Bowl. The
number crunchers need to look up from their computer screens and
glance at a football game every now and then.

USC's merits were plain to see in the victory over Oregon State,
which included cornerback Will Poole's 67-yard touchdown return
on an interception and a one-handed TD catch by Mike Williams
that looked like a special-effects trick. How potent are the
Trojans? They scored 52 points on Saturday, yet Williams was
right when he said it wasn't one of the offense's best days: "I
don't want to sound arrogant, but what you saw today was only a
taste of what we can do."

USC is being shut out of the title game essentially because of
one bad half--the first at Cal on September 27, when the Trojans
trailed 21-7 after two quarters before losing 34-31 in triple OT.
LSU lost to a more formidable opponent, Florida, and played in a
conference, the SEC, that is arguably tougher than the Pac-10.
But the Tigers also count Louisiana-Monroe, Western Illinois and
Louisiana Tech among their victims.

Indeed, the strength-of-schedule component of the BCS often
defies logic. One of the reasons LSU passed USC in the standings
is that two of the Trojans' past opponents, Hawaii and Notre
Dame, lost their final games on Saturday, lowering USC's
strength-of-schedule ranking. But the computer knows only that
those two lost. It doesn't know whether the Fighting Irish were
so demoralized by their poor season that they were a much weaker
team on Saturday than they were when they played the Trojans. It
doesn't know whether Hawaii used its last game to give
underclassmen experience or reserves some playing time. (Nor, of
course, does the BCS differentiate between tough losses like
LSU's and USC's and the drubbing Oklahoma received last
Saturday.)

The BCS depends on computer formulas that try to measure the
unmeasurable. It gave the Tigers a .32 edge over USC in strength
of schedule, a number that is meaningless to players, coaches and
fans. Indeed, the entire system is mostly a mystery. Ever heard
of Anderson, Hester, Massey and Colley? They're not partners in a
law firm but rather BCS contributors whose computer formulas
ranked LSU ahead of USC. When the only people who understand the
system are--there's no way to put this nicely--computer nerds,
something is terribly wrong. You think it's anticlimactic when a
spindly placekicker decides a game? That's nothing compared to
having the national championship decided by the folks in tech
support.

For a system that was supposed to be a reasoned, unbiased method
of rating teams, the BCS has an uncanny way of producing
illogical situations. LSU actually hurt its rating by beating
Georgia on Saturday. Jeff Sagarin's computer ranking, a component
of the BCS formula, had USC fourth in the nation behind Miami--of
Ohio. Meanwhile The New York Times's computer, also part of the
formula, had USC No. 1 and those same Miami RedHawks 22nd.

So what's the solution? There's little chance of a lengthy
tournament--college presidents don't want one, and the folks who
run the bowls fear that the large fan groups they count on for
tourist dollars won't travel to see their team play in more than
one game. Still, the system must change.

Here's SI's proposal: Match the four highest-ranked teams in the
AP and coaches' polls against each other in two BCS bowls
(sidebar, left), with the winners meeting for the national title
in a third BCS bowl. Only if the polls differ in their top
four--and since the inception of the BCS in 1998 the top four of
the final prebowl AP and coaches' polls have been
identical--would strength of schedule be used to resolve the
issue. This would produce something much closer to an undisputed
champion, would add only one more game to the season and would
include three bowls per year in the championship picture, rather
than just one. True, the No. 5 team in the polls might still cry
foul, but at least this system would push the element of
controversy further down in the rankings.

"You have to work within the system that's in place," Carroll
said on Sunday. "When we play Michigan in the Rose Bowl, we'll be
playing for a championship. If you look at the top of both polls,
USC is the name you'll see." Let's put that into an equation even
a BCS computer might understand: The Sugar Bowl minus USC equals
a big mistake.

COLOR PHOTO: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP BITTERSWEET Despite the hopeful headwear--and a big win--last Saturday, Trojans fans' sugary dreams went sour. COLOR PHOTO: photograph by peter read miller COMING UP ROSES Williams will take his spectacular talents to Pasadena, where the Trojans could still claim a share of the national title. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER FAILED FORMULA Despite dominating their finale against Oregon State, the Trojans fell to third in the BCS rankings.

You think it's anticlimactic when a kicker decides a game? That's
nothing compared to leaving the national title to the folks in
tech support.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)