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Northern Illinois vs. Fresno State: Best BCS Race in 2013

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Samuel ChiCollege Football Playoff GuruDecember 15, 2016

When the Week 13 BCS standings were unveiled Sunday, the biggest surprise didn't come anywhere near the top of the standings. Rather, it was the inexplicable jump by Northern Illinois (No. 14), leapfrogging Fresno State (No. 16) for the first time in the BCS standings this season.

To be sure, the Huskies didn't get any of their boost from the human polls, as they lost ground to the Bulldogs in both the coaches and Harris polls last week. But they made a quantum leap in the computer rankings, going from a ranking of 12th last week to seventh.

That NIU made that big of a jump from a victory over Toledo—a solid MAC team but otherwise nothing special—is both surprising and alarming. Very rarely has there been that much of a gain in the computers by one team this late in the season, when computer rankings are less volatile. And most problematic is that this shift seems inexplicable.

No. Illinois vs. Fresno St. in BCS Computer Rankings
WeekNorthern IllinoisFresno State
Computer RankingComputer ScoreComputer RankingComputer Score
11T-14.450T-14.450
1212.52016.410
137.73017.330
BCS Guru

To date, Northern Illinois has played a schedule that's ranked 89th by Kenneth Massey (one of the six BCS computers) out of 125 FBS teams. That compares favorably to Fresno State's strength of schedule of 108th, but not a schedule worthy of a top-10 ranking.

So how do you explain the inexplicable? You can't (that's why it's called "inexplicable"). Since all but one of the six BCS computer formulas are proprietary, it's not possible to replicate the results except from Colley's Matrix. But we can at least attack the major symptom that's causing this upheaval.

The decision by the BCS to demand the removal of margin of victory (MOV) from all computer formulas in 2001 is the chief reason for the rankings irregularities. Jeff Sagarin, who is the dean of the BCS computer programmers, openly states on his site that the BCS version of his rankings is "less accurate" (boldface his). 

And it's not difficult to see why. From the two BCS computers that lists separate versions of rankings, one includes MOV and one doesn't. It shouldn't take a math wiz to determine which version is more accurate:

No. Illinois vs. Fresno St. in MOV Rankings
BCS VersionMOV VersionSoS
SagarinMasseySagarinMassey
Northern Illinois36372389
Fresno State15265337108
Sagarin and Massey Ratings

The burning question now: Is NIU's lead going to hold up? 

The Huskies defeated Western Michigan Tuesday night, a team that finished 1-11 and was ranked 120th entering the game. While their computer rankings will take a hit, with Fresno State playing San Jose State (5-6) on Friday, the Huskies will maintain their computer advantage.

No. Illinois vs. Fresno St. Remaining Schedule
WeekNorthern IllinoisRankFresno StateRank
14Western Michigan120San Jose State88
15Buffalo / Bowling Green63 / 73Utah St. / Boise St.68 / 61
Rankings: Massey BCS

Since both teams will face opponents ranked in the same 60-70 range in their respective conference championship games, NIU's computer edge will remain intact by the end of the season. The intrigue, then, is how much of an edge, and will it be enough to offset Fresno State's lead in the polls?

All season long, the voters have consistently ranked Northern Illinois several spots below Fresno State in their respective undefeated campaigns. I offered the hypothesis several weeks ago that voters are holding the Huskies' deceiving large loss to Florida State in last year's Orange Bowl against them. 

That theory has yet to be disproved. And in light of the major leap made by NIU in the computers this past week, the next standings will tell us if the voters decided to take "corrective action" and rigged the polls to further weaken NIU's odds of landing a second consecutive BCS bowl bid.

The race may well come down to man against machine. 

 

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