Phillip Marshall: Pre-BCS Format Looking Better

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Bowl Championship Series and Auburn football in this column.

Anyone who reads regularly what I write in this space knows my take on the computer rankings that are used in the Bowl Championship Series standings. I wrote not long ago that the human polls alone should be used. The computer rankings reflect the bias of those who program the computers, and there is not one thing that qualifies any of those people as college football experts.

But after a bizarre couple of weeks, I have come to the conclusion that the entire system is so broken it can't be repaired.

It's difficult to conceive of a system that could be worse. The old way was far better than this mess. Under the old system, this season would have ended with Auburn playing Texas in the Sugar Bowl, USC playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl and Oklahoma playing Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. All three unbeatens, and even Texas, would believe they still had a shot. And in reality they would still have a shot because any or all of the other contenders could lose.

The events of the late season have led many of us to conclude what we probably should have concluded long ago--that reporters who cover college football have no business deciding who plays for the national championship. Those who were voters this year became, through no fault of their own, part of the story. There were reporters interviewing other reporters.

And reporters should never, ever be part of the story. Our role is to report the story.

Upon close scrutiny, the AP poll is inherently flawed. Most voters see far fewer teams than a fan who sits on his sofa all day on Saturday and watches television. I saw Auburn play 12 games this season, and I am as convinced as I can be that Auburn has the best team in college football. But do I really know? I saw only bits and pieces of USC games and Oklahoma games. And I saw more of them than I did a lot of other teams that finished in the Top 25.

I have voted in the AP poll half a dozen times, but my feeling, at least today, is that I will never agree to do it again. The Charlotte Observer announced Thursday that its writers will no longer participate. After the events of recent days at The Huntsville Times, I wouldn't be surprised if we and others do the same.

For all the flaws in the AP poll, it's not as bad as the coaches' poll. Much hostility was directed toward my colleague Paul Gattis, but at least his vote was out there for all to see. The coaches operate in secret, hiding their own agendas.

How could two sets of brothers--Bob and Mike Stoops and Mack and Watson Brown--be allowed to vote? There is an obvious conflict of interest, and it came into play this year because of Oklahoma's race with Auburn and Texas' race with California for a Rose Bowl bid.

Coaches, even well-meaning ones, don't have much time for watching college football. They see bits and pieces, like writers do, and they see tape of the teams playing their opponents. Even while watching those tapes, they're not thinking about polls, they are thinking about game preparation.

It's doubtful any of the money-grubbing officials who run the BCS thought there would ever be three 12-0 teams from BCS conferences in the same season. It might not happen again, but then again, it might happen again next season.

The truth about this season is this: If Auburn beats Virginia Tech--by one or by 50--in the Sugar Bowl, there is no legitimate way to say the USC-Oklahoma winner in the Orange Bowl is the nation's best team.

What would it be based on? That Oklahoma cupcake Houston is better than Auburn cupcake Louisiana Tech? That a computer says Mississippi State losing to Maine means the Big 12, with two teams with fewer than four losses, is better than the Southeastern Conference, with four teams with nine wins or more?

There really is only one outcome to all this that would be fair. That would be for Auburn, if it beats Virginia Tech, to win the AP championship and for the Orange Bowl winner to claim the BCS championship. I've never had a problem with split champions. College football isn't the NFL. There is no requirement that one champion be identified. I don't see how anyone is hurt because 125 players at USC and 125 players at LSU will be able to tell their children they won a national championship.

Will the championship be split again this season? Almost certainly not. Last season was different because USC was No. 1 in the polls and was left out of the BCS championship game. All Auburn can do is play its best and hope.

For this Auburn team to be at its best in the Sugar Bowl will be quite a challenge. Players were truly hurt by being left out of the Orange Bowl. Though many of them saw it coming, they held out hope until the last minute. Only because of the maturity of Auburn's older players do I believe the Tigers will be ready to make yet another statement on Jan. 3.

Virginia Tech, winner of eight straight, might be the best team the Tigers have played and will certainly be ready to answer that statement.

An Auburn loss, in the minds of many, would vindicate the final BCS standings. An Auburn win would render the winner of the Orange Bowl nothing more than a paper champion.

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