Marshall: Computer Ranking Flaws, SEC Picks

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about flawed or bogus computer rankings and looks to stay on a hot streak with this week's SEC picks.

I have never talked to Jeff Sagarin, though I have seen him quoted on numerous occasions. I'm sure he is a very bright man. But his computer rankings are flawed at best, bogus at worst.

They are perhaps the clearest sign of what is wrong with the crazy system by which college football's so-called national champion is chosen.

I distinctly recall Sagarin saying, or at least being quoted as saying, that Auburn's having played The Citadel in 2004 was a huge problem. Yet, two years later, Texas is ranked No. 5 despite having a loss and despite having played a Division I-AA team just last week.

Sagarin's computer says that the Pac-10 is the best conference in the country and that the Southeastern Conference is third best. It says Louisville is No. 7, one spot ahead of Auburn at No. 8. It says Tennessee, a blowout winner over California in its opener, is No. 16. California? No. 10. The Vols and the Bears have one loss apiece.

Sagarin's computer says Southern California is No. 1, even though Nebraska is the only team the Trojans have played that is ranked in any poll. How could a computer, supposedly with no prejudices built into the program, essentially say USC accomplished more by beating Nebraska than Auburn did by beating LSU or Ohio State did by beating Texas and Iowa?

I say Sagarin's computer needs to go to the shop for repairs.

Or maybe the rankings his computer spits out are proof of the adage "Garbage in, garbage out."

Computers can do many marvelous things. I'm typing these words on one. In this information age, most of us would be lost without one.

What computers can't do is accurately rank college football teams. Yet, computer rankings, which unquestionably reflect the biases of those who write the programs, are a major part of the equation in deciding the two teams that play for the BCS championship.

One of the major flaws in most of those computer rankings is that strength of schedule seems to be affected more by the weakest teams than the strongest. What real difference does is there between Ohio State playing Cincinnati and Auburn playing Buffalo? A sure win is a sure win.

Human polls, of course, are flawed, too. But at least the voters are people who understand something about college football and who come from every section of the country. I trust my colleagues who vote in the Associated Press poll far more than I trust Sagarin's computer or any of the other computers used in the BCS rankings.

As the season reaches its halfway point, the debate is heating up about which of the unbeaten teams is most deserving. I guess a lot of people would say the debate is good because it keeps people talking about the game. Maybe it is, but it sure does get irritating and old.

At this point, I would agree with those who say Ohio State has been most impressive and should be No. 1. But how do you legitimately pick among Auburn, Southern California, Florida and Michigan? You can't. Not yet, at least.

I still say, as I have said from the start, it'll take care of itself. There'll be no more than two unbeaten teams from BCS conferences when it's all said and done. There might not even be two. There might not even be one, which would create a whole new controversy.

For all the contenders, the only thing to do for now is play it out and see what happens. All the fretting in the world will have no impact.

If Auburn is going to stay in the national championship hunt, stay on course for a second perfect record in three seasons, the next two weeks are crucial.

Arkansas will be in town Saturday, followed by Florida's visit a week later in what could turn out to be one of the bigger games ever played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

If Auburn wins those two games, it will almost certainly be 10-0 going into the Georgia game on Nov. 11.

On to this week's games:

Your fearless picker was 7-0 last week. The record for the season is 35-5.

Arkansas (3-1 and 2-0) at Auburn (5-0 and 3-0): The Razorbacks have been blessed with exceedingly good fortune. They won 21-19 at Vanderbilt when the Commodores missed an extra point, then missed a potential game-winning field goal. They beat Alabama 24-23 in overtime at home when the Crimson Tide missed three field goals and an extra point.

But fortunate or not, the Razorbacks can put themselves in commanding position in the West Division if they can upset Auburn on Saturday.

It's not going to happen.

Auburn has better players and more of them. Auburn has better coaches. Auburn is playing at home. The Razorbacks have some weapons and will, no doubt, play with great energy. It won't matter. Auburn 34, Arkansas 14.

LSU (4-1 and 2-0) at Florida (5-0 and 3-0): Other than in its 7-3 loss at Auburn, no team in college football has been more dominant than LSU. The Bayou Bengals have beaten Louisiana-Lafayette 45-3, Arizona 45-3, Tulane 49-7 and Mississippi State 48-17.

Florida coach Urban Meyer.

There will be two very different brands of football on display in The Swamp. Florida is all about finesse and Urban Meyer's supposedly revolutionary offense. LSU is about raising knots on opponents. Some Auburn players are still feeling the effects of LSU's defense.

There is no more difficult place to play than The Swamp. It would be fun next week if Auburn and Florida were both unbeaten, but it's difficult to find any edge for Florida in this game. LSU 21, Florida 10.

Tennessee (4-1 and 0-1) at Georgia (5-0 and 2-0): The Bulldogs have been almost as fortunate as Arkansas. They could have and probably should have lost to Colorado, one of the worst teams in Division I-A. They could have lost to Ole Miss, maybe the worst team in the SEC. But they didn't.

Fifth-year senior Joe Terishinski will be back at quarterback against Tennessee, and that's a good thing for Georgia. He's no all-star, but he'll be a far better answer than the two freshmen who have struggled through the past two games.

Tennessee, its only loss a 21-20 heartbreaker to Florida, is clearly much improved from a year ago. This one could go either way. Maybe Georgia really isn't a good team, but I'm not ready to say that yet.

Call it a hunch.

Georgia 24, Tennessee 20.

West Virginia (4-0) at Mississippi State (1-4): Call me crazy, but I smell the possibility of an upset here.

The Mountaineers are rolling. They are ranked No. 4 in the nation. Mississippi State is staggering toward a third straight losing season under head coach Sylvester Croom.

But West Virginia, for all its gaudy statistics, has not exactly beaten a murderer's row. Its victims include Marshall, Eastern Washington, Maryland and East Carolina.

Mississippi State can play defense, particularly against the run. And running is what West Virginia likes to do best.

I'm tempted, but...West Virginia 28, Mississippi State 20.

Duke (0-4) at Alabama (3-2): The Blue Devils have been shut out in three of their four games, including in a 13-0 loss to Division I-AA Richmond. What better medicine for an Alabama team reeling from back-to-back road losses? Alabama 35, Duke 0.

Vanderbilt (2-3 and 0-2) at Ole Miss (1-4 and 0-2): You know your program is in trouble when you are an underdog at home against Vanderbilt. That's almost as bad as losing 27-3 to Wake Forest at home.

With a break here or there, the Commodores could be having a season to remember. They gave away their home game against Arkansas and scared the daylights out of Alabama before falling 13-10 in Tuscaloosa.

Ole Miss? The Rebels stayed close to Georgia last Saturday. Since a season-opening win over Memphis, that's the high point of their season. Their offense is bad. Their defense is worse. Vanderbilt 27, Ole Miss 17.

South Carolina (3-2 and 1-2) at Kentucky (3-2 and 1-1): South Carolina had a trap baited and set for Auburn last Thursday night. The Tigers escaped, barely.

The Gamecocks, solid from the start of the season on defense, are a much more impressive team offensively with Syvelle Newton at quarterback. At least they were for one night. Kentucky is no slouch on offense, but the Wildcats are woeful on defense. South Carolina 31, Kentucky 28.

Until next time...

Inside The AU Tigers Top Stories