Few things in life appeal to the senses quite like late summer.
The feel of sweltering heat … the smell of freshly cut grass … the sound of helmets and pads crashing together … the taste of a tailgate meal … and the sight of the top-25 polls.
For those "glass is half-full" types, this means football season is upon us. For the "half-empty" crowd, it means there are only a few more weeks until the BCS hits the fan.
After all, what would football be without a weekly glance at the Colley Matrix and a perceived injustice at the end of the season? Um, nevermind. I guess that would be called a playoff.
Anyway, you have to admit that the BCS finally had a positive impact on the sport last year. In previous postseason formats, Miami would have played in the Orange Bowl, Ohio State would have played in the Rose, and the Buckeyes would have needed a win and a prayer to take the national title back to Columbus. Instead, we got one of the most exciting championship games in history.
So, will Ohio State be able to repeat its magic in 2003? Back-to-back titles are fairly rare, but BCS history gives the Bucks an above average chance to reach New Orleans. In all five previous BCS seasons, one of the title game participants was ranked either first or second in the preseason poll. Ohio State is No. 2 this year.
But the schedule will not be as friendly for the Buckeyes as it was last season. They make a dangerous return trip to Wisconsin and must face Penn State and Michigan on the road, too.
|The schedule may make it tougher for Jim Tressel and OSU to repeat.|
The archrival Wolverines might be the contender with the most manageable schedule. Out of conference, they play host to Central Michigan, Houston and Notre Dame before going to Oregon (the Ducks lost three times at Autzen in 2002). In the Big Ten, Michigan gets both Purdue and OSU at the Big House while missing Penn State and Wisconsin on the schedule rotation -- not a cakewalk, but about as easy as it gets inside the conference.
Oklahoma's list of opponents also seems relatively non-threatening, but it actually looks very impressive within a BCS context. The Sooners' schedule shows only one team ranked in the preseason top 20 (Texas), but their 12 foes were a combined 29 games above .500 last year, and only two had a losing record. Even with a shortage of marquee opponents, OU should have solid schedule strength, which also translates into strong computer ratings.
And while recent history indicates that the No. 1 Sooners and No. 2 Buckeyes have a great chance to reach the Nokia Sugar Bowl, the other side of the equation gives hope to a longshot. In four of the five BCS seasons, a team with a double-digit preseason ranking has also reached the championship game. Three of them -- Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio State -- have won it.
So, who might play that role this year? Cinderella stories are always difficult to predict, but keep an eye on these three:
Pittsburgh: The Panthers not only have one of the nation's best players in Larry Fitzgerald, but they also have a schedule made for a great season. Three opponents -- Miami, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame -- are ranked in the preseason Top 25, and all must travel to Heinz Field.
LSU: The SEC title game would still be a significant hurdle if the Tigers can run the regular-season table, but that's not an impossible dream. Georgia, Florida and Auburn all go to Baton Rouge, and Tennessee is off the schedule. Tuscaloosa looks tough, but LSU has won 7 of its last 10 at Alabama.
Wisconsin: The return of Lee Evans should give the Badgers a potent offense to go with the significant home-field advantage they enjoy at Camp Randall Stadium. Ohio State and Purdue both make the trip there, and Michigan is not on this year's schedule.
But here's one more trend. In five seasons, the BCS champions have come from five difference conferences. The only conference yet to hoist the trophy is the Pac-10, which is also looking for its first championship game appearance. The quest to be next in line begins on the season's first full Saturday, when USC plays at Auburn and Washington is at Ohio State.
State of the BCS
Even though a BCS game hasn't been played since Jan. 3, there is always plenty of time in the offseason for BCS news. In case you missed it, here are the big stories.
No changes have been made to the BCS formula for 2003 - only the second time decision makers have opted to maintain the status quo. The other instance followed the 1999 season, which had the only other national title game between undefeated teams. Coincidence? I think not.
There were no serious discussions about creating an "FSU rule." Many fans were upset that the Seminoles managed to land an automatic BCS berth with four losses last year, but there is no way to negotiate conditional appearances for major-conference champions. Any requirement of a minimum ranking or maximum number of losses for automatic inclusion would simply deter teams from playing a challenging non-conference schedule. That, of course, would not be good for the game.
This year's BCS Championship, the Nokia Sugar Bowl, will be played on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 4, capping a huge weekend of football on ABC. The network will also carry the Rose Bowl and FedEx Orange Bowl on Thursday, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Friday and a pair of NFL Wild Card games on Saturday.
The BCS Rankings will debut this season on Oct. 20.
Nothing was put in writing, but the indication from BCS meetings in July was that the Big East will keep its membership privileges for the duration of the current contract. Miami and Virginia Tech move to the ACC after this season, but the Big East should continue to get an automatic berth in the BCS for 2004 and 2005. As of now, the conference's members in 2004 will be Boston College, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple and West Virginia.
A presidential oversight committee made up of one university president from each BCS conference announced that it does not want an NFL-style playoff as part of the next postseason format, which will begin after the 2006 season. Commissioners and athletic directors from those conferences have been challenged to improve the BCS without going in that direction. Apparently, that directive does not eliminate the possibility of a single championship game being played after the conclusion of the bowl season.
Seeking reform and threatening lawsuits, a group of presidents from non-BCS conferences has agreed to a Sept. 8 meeting in Chicago with BCS reps and possibly NCAA president Myles Brand. These presidents are desperate to help their conferences gain better access to the millions upon millions of dollars sure to be part of the next college football postseason structure. Unfortunately for them, an NFL-style playoff was one of their best options.
Just for fun
OK, this may be bordering on ridiculous, but so is the BCS itself at times. Using the average team rankings between the preseason coaches poll and the major preview magazines along with the 2003 schedule strength ratings from nationalchamps.net, here's a very unscientific and unofficial version of what we'll call the Preseason BCS Rankings.
Avg. Ranking Sched. Rank Total Pts
1. Oklahoma 1.4 24 2.36
2. Miami 2.8 22 3.68
3. Ohio State 3.0 26 4.04
4. Auburn 5.0 25 6.00
5. Texas 5.8 36 7.24
6. Michigan 5.8 50 7.80
7. Kansas State 5.4 64 7.96
8. USC 8.6 9 8.96
9. Georgia 10.8 32 12.08
10. Pittsburgh 12.0 49 13.96
11. Washington 13.0 45 14.80
12. Va. Tech 12.6 57 14.88
13. FSU 15.0 2 15.08
14. Tennessee 15.4 10 15.80
15. Maryland 13.6 61 16.04
-- multiply by .04 to get schedule strength points
Brad Edwards is a college football researcher for ESPN. His Road to the BCS will appear weekly during the season once the rankings start coming out.