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BCS Has Computer Issues, but They Don't Decide Who Plays for Title

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Samuel ChiCollege Football Playoff GuruOctober 30, 2013

We're having a near full-scale computer meltdown in this, the final year of the BCS era.

Two weeks ago, Jeff Sagarin, the operator of one of the six BCS computers, unveiled a new rankings system dubbed "Pure Elo" to replace the "Elo Chess" system that had been in use by the BCS since 2002. While the new system was supposed to be an improvement, it was immediately engulfed in controversy.

Why? Because in the first appearance of "Pure Elo," Bethune-Cookman was ranked No. 4, Fordham No. 7 and Coastal Carolina No. 10. In all, seven FCS teams were ranked in the top 25, and Harvard was ranked ahead of Notre Dame.

A week later, Sagarin quietly retweaked the formula, and the FCS teams tumbled down the rankings. I have asked Jeff for an explanation, as have others. So far, none of us have heard back.

Why is Sagarin tinkering with the formula in the final season of the BCS? Next year, the standings will be going away and the computer rankings will have no real influence on the new College Football Playoff except being used as a reference tool. 

And Sagarin might not be the only one who's tinkering with the formula. There are indications that the other computer operators are doing the same, too. But unless they tell us, we' ll never know for sure. And why is that? Because the BCS doesn't want to—or care to—know.

That's right. All six BCS computer formulas are proprietary, and the BCS has never compelled the operators to reveal the formulas or allow an independent outside agency to verify the results. Wes Colley (of Colley Matrix) is the only one who publicly publishes his formula so that at least his results may be replicated.

While we don't know the exact formulas, we can project the results based on patterns. But that doesn't mean some (or all) of the systems aren't massively flawed. To give one example: Richard Billingsley's rankings in many ways are just a glorified one-man poll, with previous season's results having outsized influence over current season's rankings. That's why Notre Dame began the season at No. 3, never fell below No. 15 and is currently No. 13 in his rankings, far above where anybody else has it.

There is a good reason, though, why the BCS poobahs don't seem to care—beyond that, the BCS is going away in a few weeks anyway.

Since the adoption of the current formula in 2004, the computers have had zero influence in determining which teams get to play for the BCS championship. In each of the past nine seasons, teams ranked either first or second in the final polls have played for the title. 

Final BCS Computer Rankings (Since 2006)
SeasonNo. 1No. 2Title Game Participants
2006Ohio StateMichigan/Florida (tied)Ohio State vs. Florida
2007Virginia TechLSUOhio State (3) vs. LSU
2008OklahomaTexasOklahoma vs. Florida (3)
2009AlabamaCincinnatiAlabama vs. Texas (3)
2010AuburnOregonAuburn vs. Oregon
2011LSUOklahoma StateLSU vs. Alabama (3)
2012Notre DameFloridaNotre Dame vs. Alabama (3)
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Had the computers mattered more than the polls, which account for two-thirds of the standings, then Alabama would not have played in the BCS title game in either of the past two years. Oklahoma State and Florida would've played for the championship in 2011 and '12, respectively.

So for all the coaches and pundits who incessantly fret about the computers, don't worry about them. You're better off investing your energy working on the 170-plus voters in the Coaches and Harris polls, who have real influence. The BCS has been no more than college football's version of American Idol, with the computers as a convenient distraction.

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