What's the Forecast

Only rarely do the planets align against me as they have this week. Not only have the first BCS standings been released, raising the pitch of college football paralysis-by-analysis to nails-on-a-chalkboard level, but it had to come during an Irish bye week.

Essentially, to satisfy my pigskin jones, I had to endure the annoying, yet utterly predictable bitching from all corners of the college football world (including South Bend) that good ol' State U. is underrated and everyone else is overrated.

Here's the thing, though: all that crying is premature at best and completely unnecessary at worst.

About five years after I graduated from Notre Dame, I found myself waiting tables and contemplating graduate school. I had just flamed out of a sales job I never should have taken in the first place. That career path was rooted in the fact that I had defaulted into Marketing as a major at ND. My earnest but ultimately misguided opinion at the time was that a business degree would give me the best chance for success after I graduated. I would never trade my time at Notre Dame for anything, but I certainly would trade my major if I had it to do over again.

I was fairly certain I wanted to get a master's degree in communications so I took the waiter job to make a little cash and worked as an unpaid intern at New England Cable News, sort of a low-rent, regional CNN. I was working in the sports department, but the size of the newsroom dictated that the entire staff was well inside shouting distance of each other.

As a newcomer to TV I was curious about a few things. I was especially eager to ask the meteorologist how far ahead of time they could accurately predict the weather. His reply was 12-to-24 hours. This was a revelation given that the five-day forecast (which has since ballooned to seven days on most TV weather segments and an astonishing 10 days on weather.com) was a staple of every report and an article of faith to most in the audience. Even given all the computing power dedicated to modeling weather patterns for the sole purpose of predicting whether or not it would rain this weekend he was basically saying, "You want to know what the weather is? Open a window."

The point is, weather is a complex system. Even applying the best available technology will not allow us to accurately predict the future. Long-range forecasts are a myth used to fill airtime and inflate ratings. Our chances of predicting weather on a certain day improve as we get closer to that day until finally, the day dawns with sunshine, rain clouds, fog or a blizzard and the weatherman was either right or wrong with his educated guess.

Sound familiar?

A college football season is a complex system as well. Think of all the variables that can determine the outcome of just one game: The starting running back has a sore hamstring, a borderline penalty calls back a punt return for a touchdown, an early turnover snowballs, a puff of wind pushes a field goal wide, the grass in the stadium is too long, Ty Willingham fails to adapt to the new clock rules and runs out of time derailing a potentially massive upset.

Multiply all those variables by a 12-game season. Multiply THAT by 119 teams. That is one buttload of variables to try to account for. Just about impossible, really. But that doesn't stop us from trying. Computer models combined with (hopefully) expert instinct and conjecture, all colored by bias, result in the ranking system known as the Bowl Championship Series Poll.

The BCS is just an attempt to determine the two best teams at the end of the season. But no fan or media outlet allows it to be that. They use it as a predictor and measuring stick each and every week – even in the face of an incomplete data set. It is the seven-day forecast of college football. At any point in the season, except for the end, it doesn't really tell us anything. Yet television analysts, columnists, bloggers and fans blather away for six weeks about the various injustices being perpetrated on this team or that by an imperfect prediction mechanism.

Is Notre Dame the eighth-best team in the country? I have no idea. How is it possible to know that? Is Ohio State the best? Kirk Herbstreit has no idea, though it doesn't prevent him or others of his ilk from pretending that they do (and getting paid handsomely for such pretensions). Here is a reminder to anyone who has bemoaned the fact that a certain team should be ranked higher or lower than it is: THERE ARE GAMES LEFT TO BE PLAYED.

There is uncertainty inherent in each of those many, many games. Enough uncertainty to render the polls meaningless except as a Pavlovian provocation: watch College Gameday, hear my opinion on the new BCS poll, argue with my analysis, enhance my ratings.

So, I'm begging you: TRY not to bitch about the BCS until the end of the year. In the absence of a 16-game playoff (which makes me tingly just thinking about it) and given the time necessary to work – a full season – it isn't really a bad system.

It's the attendant gnashing of teeth each week that drives me insane.

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