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TEN YEARS OF BCS: 2004

The Guru's Note: Beginning in June, the Guru will publish a review of each of the 10 seasons since the Bowl Championship Series came into existence in 1998. In this series -- Ten Years of BCS -- the Guru will examine the results from these seasons -- who got lucky and who got robbed, what could've been, what should've been and other controversies of the day. The series will appear weekly leading up to the 2008 season.

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If 2003 was a wakeup call for the BCS, then 2004 represented a broken snooze button.

The alarm just kept blaring. 

Five teams remained undefeated all season. And at the end, while USC and Oklahoma faced off for the BCS title, SEC champion Auburn was left with a consolation prize in the Sugar Bowl. Mountain West champion Utah did get a BCS berth, but its opponent Pittsburgh was so overmatched in the Fiesta Bowl that the Utes didn't get to prove their mettle, either. WAC champion Boise State was left out of the BCS picture all together.

There was no split championship, like in 2003, mostly because the Trojans savagely mauled the Sooners, 55-19. Even Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who was on hand to troll for AP votes, conceded during ABC's halftime show that USC would be difficult to beat "when you give (offensive coordinator) Norm Chow a month to get ready for somebody."

But that was hardly a happy ending for the BCS, which had completely overhauled its formula from the previous season. 

In fact, the BCS formula may be seen in two phases. BCS I ran from its inception in 1998 through the disastrous 2003 season. While there were alterations, they were mostly minor. BCS II emerged with the 2004 season, with human polls taking over the preponderance of the equation.

Ironically, BCS I and BCS II would've yielded the same USC-Oklahoma result in 2004, leaving Auburn and Utah out. With the Utes (and the Broncos), it's fairly easy to explain. The non-BCS conferences are not respected by the voters even if the computers treat them more fairly. The Mountain West in 2004 also was not a particularly solid conference, with only three teams finishing with winning records (both New Mexico and Wyoming were 7-5).

The last non-BCS school to win a national championship was Brigham Young in 1984. And it will remain the last one, well after this country elects a woman president, and possibly all through eternity.

As for Auburn, two factors proved fatal to its BCS title prospects. One, the Tigers were lightly regarded before the season started, checking in at No. 17 in the preseason AP poll. Auburn eventually worked its way up to No. 3, but could never crack the stranglehold USC and Oklahoma held on Nos. 1 and 2 -- going wire-to-wire. Two, just as LSU in 2003 and most of SEC teams in general, the Tigers played an extremely uncompetitive non-conference schedule.

Of their 11 regular-season games in 2004, seven were at home. Their three non-conference games were against Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech and I-AA Citadel -- all at home. Compared that with USC (at Virginia Tech and BYU, home to Colorado State and Notre Dame) and Oklahoma (home to Bowling Green, Houston and Oregon), it's easy to see that both the human voters and computers punished Auburn for the soft schedule.

The Tigers eked out a 16-13 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to finish second in the final AP and coaches polls. But that didn't stop Tuberville and Auburn from declaring themselves champions. The Tigers made themselves big diamond rings to commemorate their "championship" season, and they're now available on eBay.

 

Final BCS Standings: 1. USC, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Auburn, 4. Texas.

Alternative Methods --

Using 1998-2003 (BCS I) formula: 1. USC, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Auburn, 4. Texas.  

Using human polls only: 1. USC, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Auburn, 4. California.

Plus One: USC vs. Utah; Oklahoma vs. Auburn.

 

Controversy

The Mack Brown Campaign: In 2003, Texas finished No. 5 in the BCS standings but was relegated to the Holiday Bowl. The Longhorns seemed headed to San Diego again in 2004, until coach Mack Brown did something about it.

With undefeated Utah poised to become the first BCS Buster, there was only one BCS bowl slot available to a non-conference champion. And since the No. 4 team was guaranteed an at-large spot, the race was on between Texas and California.

The Golden Bears had a tenuous hold on the fourth spot since October. Their only loss all season was a 23-17 heartbreaker to USC at the L.A. Coliseum when they couldn't get the ball in the end zone from the 9-yard line in the game's waning moments. Texas's only loss was a 12-0 defeat at the Cotton Bowl against the Sooners.

After Cal routed archrival Stanford in the Big Game, its season should've been over. But once again, a hurricane proved to be a Pac-10 team's undoing, as it was in 1998. The Bears' Sept. 23 game at Southern Mississippi was postponed because of Hurricane Ivan, and it was re-scheduled for Dec. 4.

Texas was done with its schedule on Nov. 26, after beating rival Texas A&M. Immediately thereafter, Brown started an endless media campaign on behalf of his No. 5-ranked Longhorns. His tactics also made the Cal-Southern Miss matchup something of a referendum on the Bears, whose game would be nationally televised on ESPN.

Perhaps affected by the pressure and expectations, the Bears did not play an impressive game, but nonetheless they won, 26-16. While Cal coach Jeff Tedford thought his team had done what it needed to secure the program's first Rose Bowl berth since 1959, others weren't so sure.

The Bears' worst fears were realized when they fell from No. 4 to No. 5 in the final BCS standings as Texas snatched the coveted Rose Bowl berth. Voter defection carried the day. In the AP poll, Cal's advantage over Texas shrunk from 85 points to 62. But the real story was the coaches poll.

In the penultimate standings, Cal held a 48-point lead over Texas. In the one that counted, it was ahead by a mere 5 points. In other words, no fewer than 20 coaches switched their placements of Texas and Cal. But more telling was that four coaches voted Cal No. 7 and two No. 8 -- after a Bears victory, and behind 2-loss Georgia.

Predictably, the Pac-10 was furious and demanded that the coaches disclose their final ballot. The AFCA refused and disputed the suggestions that impropriety took place behind the cloak of secrecy. The Longhorns went on to win the Rose Bowl behind the electrifying performance of sophomore QB Vince Young. The dispirited Bears were routed by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

The Texas-California controversy had a long-lasting effect on the BCS standings. First, the AP poll refused to be included in the BCS standings after the 2004 season. Because all AP poll balloting is available to the public, some AP voters were harassed and threatened by fans who were unhappy with the decisions. The BCS had to scramble and invent the "Harris Interactive Poll" to replace the venerable and prestigious AP poll in its standings. Second, to promote more transparency, the coaches reluctantly agreed to reveal their final regular-season balloting.

Through it all, Tedford took the high road. He didn't try to score an extra touchdown against Southern Miss in the game's final minutes to curry favor with the voters and never indulged in a war of words with Brown or anyone else. And the final irony was that the AP flip-flops alone would've put Texas ahead of Cal in the final standings. But the coaches ended up catching most of the heat because of their shenanigans.

BCS Formula Review: The BCS blew up its previous formula (BCS I) and started from scratch. The new formula (BCS II) comprised of only two parts -- the human polls and computers. Strength of Schedule and Quality Win components were purged.

The human polls now account for two-thirds of the formula, with the AP poll and coaches poll each weighing one third. Instead of using the team's actual ranking, the formula now calls for the percentage of total votes received. This alteration actually made the deciding difference in the Texas-Cal controversy as the old formula would've disregarded the vote-margin difference.

The computer ratings shrank further from seven to six, with the New York Times bowing out. The new formula required strength of schedule to be part of each computer's calculations. The computer average counts for one-third of the formula, with the highest and lowest rating for each team discarded.

After replacing the AP with Harris poll following the 2004 season, this formula has stayed exactly intact, at least through the 2008 season.

Analysis: The twin controversies engulfed the 2004 season, mitigated only somewhat by USC's impressive Orange Bowl win and "repeat" championship. But unlike the previous season, the BCS did not blow up the system and start from scratch again.

The nonchalant, near-shrug of a reaction actually, in the long view, saved the BCS. It's as if the BCS simply stated: "We're here to stay so deal with it." It may be because the BCS couldn't risk undergoing another wholesale change without completely destroying its already-tattered credibility. Or because there just wasn't anything else to do short of going to a playoff system.

Either way, this steadfastness would serve BCS well, for better or for worse. Despite all the outcry in the subsequent seasons, the public and media began to grudgingly accept the BCS for what it is.

 

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