- NCF/PREVIEW00 - BCS 101: Understanding how it works

College Football Preview 2000
College Football
Weekly lineup
 Tuesday, August 15
Figuring out the BCS isn't as hard as it looks
 By Brad Edwards
Special to

Editor's note: Brad Edwards is a college football researcher for ESPN and one of the few people who actually understands the BCS. Edwards will contribute regularly once the BCS rankings are released later this season.

It begins in late August with 115 teams and finishes with just two of them on January 3.

In between, the battle for college football's national championship will be fought on the field by approximately 8,000 players. But it could ultimately be decided by 71 media members, 59 head coaches (or sports information directors), over 100 schedule-making administrators and eight computer programmers.

This is college football in Y2K -- year three of the Bowl Championship Series.

For those who need a refresher course, let's start with the basics. The BCS is the system which places eight of the nation's top teams -- not necessarily the best eight -- into the four major bowl games. The part of this system that receives the most publicity, however, is the weekly rankings that ultimately determine which two teams will play for the national championship. These rankings do not decide which teams will play in the other three games; finishing third guarantees you nothing. Kansas State fans can vouch for this.

The BCS rankings are not a poll. It is an intricate combination of two polls, eight computer ratings, schedule strength and number of games lost. Although there are four components to this formula, it is not accurate to say that each one is 25 percent of the equation. Some parts are more important than others. Here's a breakdown of each component using last year's top five teams as examples.

Poll average
Team AP ESPN Avg.
FSU 1 1 1.0
Va. Tech 2 2 2.0
Nebraska 3 3 3.0
Alabama 5 6 5.5
Tennessee 6 5 5.5

This is probably the most critical element of the four because it has only two subsets (the media and coaches polls) to be averaged. Therefore, the impact held by each poll is greater than that of any one computer or any one opponent. It is no coincidence that the top two poll teams have played for the national title in both years of the BCS. It is certainly not impossible for the No.3 team in the polls to reach the championship game, but it is difficult.

Before last season, the number of computer ratings used in the BCS formula was increased from three to eight. Not only did this eliminate the need for an adjusted deviation, but it also decreased the influence of each computer. The computer average is now figured by eliminating the worst ranking and averaging the other seven.

Computer Average
Team Bill. Dunk. Mass. NYT Roth. Sag. S.H. S.T. Avg.
FSU 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.0
Va. Tech 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 2.0
Nebraska 3 3 3 4 3 3 3 2 2.86
Alabama 5 7 6 3 4 6 4 4 4.57
Tennessee 7 6 5 5 6 5 5 8 5.57
(Note: Computer Average is the average of Richard Billingsley [Bill.], Dunkel Index [Dunk.], Kenneth Massey [Mass.], New York Times [NYT], David Rothman [Roth.], Jeff Sagarin's USA Today [Sag.], Matthews/Scripps-Howard [S.H.] and The Anderson & Hester/Seattle Times [S.T.] rankings.)

Though this may be the weakest part of the equation, it can still make a difference. Last year, pollsters eventually overlooked Wisconsin's loss to Cincinnati, but the computers didn't. The result: the Badgers had an average computer rating of 7.71 despite ranking fourth in both polls.

Schedule Strength
Team Rank Points
FSU 6 0.2
Va. Tech 52 2.1
Nebraska 14 0.5
Alabama 1 0.0
Tennessee 16 0.6

Schedule Strength
Strength of schedule carries more weight than just being a category of the formula; it is also factored into most of the computer ratings in some form. Within the schedule strength component itself, teams are ranked 1 through 115 based on the winning percentages of their opponents and their opponents' opponents. Each ranking is multiplied by .04 to give the teams a point value for schedule strength. A difference of 25 spots between teams in schedule ranking amounts to one point -- the same as a one spot advantage in the polls.

Schedule strength is most affected by the non-conference games. The key is finding opponents that won't beat you but will beat almost everyone else they play. Last year, Alabama had the top-ranked schedule thanks to a non-conference slate of Southern Miss (8-3), Louisiana Tech (8-3) and Houston (7-4). Too bad the Tide lost to Louisiana Tech. Great scheduling is easy on paper.

Team Losses
Team L
Va. Tech 0
Nebraska 1
Alabama 2
Tennessee 2

Team losses
Each loss obviously hurts a team in both the polls and computer ratings, but just for good measure, the BCS formula adds another point to the team total. This makes it even more difficult for a one-loss team to finish ahead of a major-conference undefeated team. Difficult, but still not impossible.

Though Virginia Tech managed to hold off Nebraska in the BCS rankings last year, the Hokies might not have been as fortunate with Tennessee if the Vols hadn't lost a second game at Arkansas. It would have been close -- real close.

1999 Final BCS Rankings
Team Poll Comp. Sched. L Total
FSU 1.0 1.0 0.2 0 2.12
Va. Tech 2.0 2.0 2.1 0 6.12
Nebraska 3.0 2.86 0.5 1 7.42
Alabama 5.5 4.57 0.0 2 12.11
Tennessee 5.5 5.57 0.6 2 13.71

Bottom line
The formula is exactly the same as it was last year. Poll average, computer average, schedule ranking points and number of losses are all added together. The teams with the two lowest totals play each other for the national title.

The only BCS change this offseason came in the front office. SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer (and BCS founder) is no longer the BCS Chairman. A decision was made to rotate that responsibility among the commissioners of the major conferences. This year, the duty rests with the ACC's John Swofford. The compilation of the weekly rankings has been assigned to the National Football Foundation.

It is worth noting that this compound mathematical formula has yet to do anything significant. In both previous years of the BCS, the final standings have matched 1 vs. 2 in the polls -- championship games that would have taken place even before the days of the old Bowl Coalition.

Because major college football has no playoff system, debating about the national championship race has long been a popular pastime. The BCS has certainly not changed this. If nothing else, it has made November even more interesting.

BCS not perfect, but it is two for two

ESPN experts: Debating the BCS