For the first time since 1971, eight Division I-A college football teams headed into November with unblemished records. Now, there are only four. It came late this year, but the first “shakedown” Saturday arrived in full force this weekend. With four undefeated teams left and four more weeks of college football, this weekend may only be the beginning of separating the national championship contenders from the rest of the field.
To recap this weekend, first the luck of the No. 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish ran out at home in the form of seven turnovers and a 14-7 loss to Boston College.
Then, No. 8 North Carolina State’s run fell short at home against Georgia Tech’s running game, 24-17.
Later, in the day’s biggest surprise, undermanned Pittsburgh scored 21 unanswered points to shock No. 3 Virginia Tech on the road, 28-21.
Finally, to cap the day, No. 5 Georgia’s journey hit a road block against Florida in a 20-13 upset loss.
While Oklahoma will remain atop the Bowl Championship Series standings for the third week in a row, Miami and Ohio State will be vying for the second spot. Goodbye Georgia and North Carolina State. Good luck to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, who may be able to climb back into contention if the final four undefeated squads lose sometime before the end of the regular season.
If two teams with challenging schedules survive this fall without a loss, then it doesn’t really take two human-engineered polls and a number of computers to determine that they should play for the championship. But, if there are more than two deserving teams, that is where the computers are supposed to help — to decide who, of the multiple candidates, should be invited to the dance.
And that’s when the controversy begins — when there are more candidates than slots for the national championship game. Three of the last four years have offered seasons with only one perfect team. Once the BCS number crunching machine determines who the other contender will be, the floodgates of criticism spring open, immediately thrusting coaches, players, administrators and prognosticators into the role of instant experts.
If the remaining undefeated squads finish without a loss, or if there are more than two contenders for the national championship spots, then the BCS will likely face a controversial decision — conjuring up nightmares of the past:
1. In 1998, the BCS’s first year, three undefeated teams took the field, on the final day of the season, to stake their claim for an invitation to the title game. Upset losses by both UCLA and Kansas State left Tennessee as the only team with a perfect record and raised serious questions regarding who the Volunteers would play for the championship. When the dust cleared, the BCS formula indicated previously fourth-ranked Florida State — only one of many quality one-loss teams — would be their opponent. Not bad for a team that wasn’t even playing that day.
2. In 2000, despite the fact that Miami and Florida State had identical records and Miami had defeated Florida State during the regular season, the BCS selected the Seminoles to face Oklahoma in the national championship. Such a selection, and the cries of protest from South Florida that accompanied it, put the BCS committee and its supposed “one-size-fits-all” formula under fire. Usually, a head-to-head victory between teams with the same record actually means something, but apparently the computer-based formula thought otherwise.
3. Perhaps last year proved most egregious, however, when Nebraska proved that it is actually possible for a team to lose in the final game of the regular season and still go to the title game. A 62-36 loss at the hands of rival Colorado did not phase the BCS computers, leaving a very qualified Oregon team out in the cold. The Cornhuskers played the nation’s only undefeated team, Miami, and lost badly. For the first time ever, a team that did not win its final regular season game, let alone its own conference, played for the national championship.
Fortunately for the BCS powers that be, in each situation, things sorted themselves out as the undefeated team heading into each controversial match-up — Tennessee, Oklahoma and Miami — prevailed. Ah, but just because the better team won does not mean the system actually worked: did the right teams actually play in the game? Only in 1999, when undefeated Florida State matched undefeated Virginia Tech, did the BCS formula actually produce a controversial-free title game.
Saturday morning, it seemed we were on our way to more BCS controversy — out of the numerous teams that were advancing toward undefeated regular season records, only two could party at the top. With the mystery of the BCS computer scheme, it was clear that winning out would not be enough.
Today, the BCS gurus can breathe just a little bit easier since only four unbeaten teams remain (one, Bowling Green, has no chance at the title because of its light schedule). With four weeks left in the season, there is a chance others may fall.
If two of the three undefeated contenders lose, leaving one unbeaten squad and a slew of potential opponents with one loss during the regular season, then we’re right back where we were three of the last four years — agitating for reform in the system and musing that the outcome should be determined on the field, not by computers.