Why Strength of Schedule Is Really the Determining Factor in BCS Rankings

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterOctober 16, 2012

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 15: Trey Burton #8 of the Florida Gators runs in for the touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first half of play at Neyland Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Knoxville, Tennessee.    (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
John Sommers II/Getty Images

When the BCS standings came out, wise college football observers expected Alabama to be No. 1. What they did not expect was for the Florida Gators to be sitting in the No. 2 spot ahead of everyone's favorite second-best team, the Oregon Ducks.

Further down the listings sat undefeated Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati, and people wondered why seven one-loss teams were ahead of the undefeated top Big East team.

While preseason perception and inherent bias of the polls are where most folks turn to explain this, they should also look at strength of schedule as a factor in teams falling where they may. You see, strength of schedule is an interesting monster because it works for and against teams in both "real" and "abstract" ways.

From an abstract perspective, the perceived weakness of a Big East schedule can hold a team like Rutgers back, despite what the raw numbers of the computers tell us. On the flip side of that coin, the perceived quality of the SEC is giving once-beaten Georgia, 17th in the computers, hope by keeping it high in the human numbers.

Strength of schedule, as a real or abstract principle, is not the most important element to the BCS standings. No, that is still on-field performance and the perception of dominance from a team. However, when it comes time to split hairs and mete out the final positions, SOS is a strong determining factor.

In the Top Five, with five teams that have beaten everyone set before them, we see perception battling it out with strength of schedule. Oregon is perceived to be better than the Gators. But when you look at the tale of the tape, Will Muschamp's team has done more than Oregon has all season. Wins over highly ranked LSU and currently ranked Texas A&M trump smashing a beat-up Washington team and Arizona.

The scary thing about strength of schedule as a true determining factor could be revealed later in the season. While only five of the major players can actually finish undefeated, watching how critical who they beat becomes will be interesting. We saw in 2009 that strength of schedule could not lift an undefeated non-BCS TCU or Big East Cincinnati above the likes of undefeated Big 12 or SEC champions.

This year we might find out if beating Oklahoma, Stanford and USC carries more weight than beating USC twice and Stanford. In other words, would an undefeated Notre Dame carry more clout than an undefeated Oregon team? The same goes for the SEC and Big 12, teams whose undefeated champions have, time and again, proven themselves to be heavily favored when all things are considered equal.

As we stated earlier this week, the situation could resolve itself with all the teams playing each other in the back half of the season. If that's the case, the chaos will be over before folks can complain. But we know college football fans, even as the situation works closer to resolving itself, will find a reason that the answer is not good enough.