UW football: Undefeated season no guarantee of BCS title shot

ANALYZING THE BCS
2011-10-21T07:00:00Z 2011-10-21T08:30:16Z UW football: Undefeated season no guarantee of BCS title shotJIM POLZIN | jpolzin@madison.com | 608-252-6473 | @JimPolzinWSJ madison.com

There was a time in University of Wisconsin football history — not that long ago, in fact — when a No. 6 ranking in the first Bowl Championship Series standings of the season would have led to much rejoicing.

This week, it was greeted with mostly groaning and grumbling.

Perhaps UW fans are just practicing up for the chorus of boos they'll unleash on the powers that be if the Badgers march through the season without a loss and don't get a chance to play for a national title.

There were at least two voices of reason at 1440 Monroe St. earlier this week. Star quarterback Russell Wilson said the Badgers are "in a great place" at No. 6. UW coach Bret Bielema, meanwhile, shrugged his shoulders when asked if he was surprised by a BCS ranking that is two spots lower than his team's No. 4 spot in the three major human polls.

"Our day will come," Bielema said. "Just focus on the moment and keep moving (forward)."

That's a good game plan for Bielema and the Badgers (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference), who face arguably their biggest test of the regular season Saturday night with a game against Michigan State(5-1, 2-0) in East Lansing, Mich.

But for fans, it's easy to look six weeks into the future and see trouble brewing. Two of the five teams ahead of the Badgers in the BCS standings are certain to lose before the season ends — No. 1 LSU plays at No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5 and No. 3 Oklahoma plays at No. 4 Oklahoma State on Dec. 3 — but UW, one of 10 unbeaten teams in the country, still could find itself on the outside of the BCS title picture looking in.

"Midway through the season, they cannot just sit there and say, 'If we win all our games, we are the champion,' " Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel said. "I know of no other sport on Earth in which that's the case.

"They don't control their own destiny. Wisconsin could be the best team in the country and it doesn't matter, because they weren't ranked high enough in the beginning of the season."

It'd be difficult to find a bigger critic of the BCS system than Wetzel, who teamed with Josh Peter and Jeff Passan, two of his colleagues at Yahoo! Sports, to write a book that was released in October 2010 and re-released this year with revisions.

The 238-page book — it's called "Death to the BCS: The definitive case against the Bowl Championship Series" — presents a convincing argument why the system should be scrapped and replaced with a 16-team playoff.

"It's hard to take the BCS system serious at any level," Wetzel said. "They don't care, because it's not about determining a No. 1 and No. 2. The bowls do not care about college football, they care about making money for themselves and I fully appreciate that.

"You watch it and it's like, 'This is just ridiculous.' But this is what we have. I love college football. This is all we have."

Computer error

The computers used in the BCS system are holding back UW, and it makes sense on some levels.

Three of the Badgers' five wins are against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents with one victory apiece. Another victory came against South Dakota from the Football Championship Subdivision.

The combined record of UW's FBS opponents is 12-20, a .375 winning percentage. The toughest part of the Badgers' schedule is still to come, so their computer ranking should improve the rest of the way.

Still, the computer element to the BCS is far from perfect. The only one of the six computers used in the ranking to make its formula public is the Colley Matrix and, as Wetzel and his colleagues pointed out in their book, those rankings were found to be inaccurate on two occasions in 2010 because of improper data entry.

UW is ranked as high as No. 6 (Jeff Sagarin) and as low as No. 17 (Kenneth Massey) in the computer rankings this year. In Massey's rankings, the Badgers are ranked one spot lower than Nebraska. It doesn't take an advanced degree in mathematics to understand that UW beat Nebraska just three weeks ago in Madison — by a 48-17 score, no less.

But the computers used in the BCS aren't allowed to factor in margin of victory. So the Badgers' 31-point victory over the Cornhuskers looked like a one-point victory to the computers — and even that, apparently, wasn't enough to move UW higher than Nebraska in Massey's formula.

What does Wetzel think of the computers not factoring margin of victory into the equation?

"It's simply preposterous," he said.

Best route? Routs

Yet margin of victory is still important, and it could be the Badgers' only way to move through the muddled mess of teams that could still be unbeaten in early December.

How much a team wins by is still very important in the human polls, as Bielema and the Badgers proved last year.

On Nov. 13, UW beat visiting Indiana 83-20. None of the top 18 teams in the polls lost that weekend, yet the Badgers still gained 39 points in the Harris Interactive poll and 13 in the USA Today coaches' poll.

Wetzel doesn't believe Bielema ran up the score on the Hoosiers, but he wouldn't blame the coach if he did.

"He should have scored 100," Wetzel said. "It's not Bret Bielema's fault that the poll voters can't tell the difference between a 48-20 score and an 83-20 score."

UW has beaten just one quality opponent to date in 2011, but the manner in which the Badgers have beaten up on Nebraska and their five much weaker opponents clearly has impressed the voters. UW has outscored its opponents 301-58, an average margin of victory of 40.5 points.

If the computers are going to continue to keep them behind the best teams in the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 Conference, the Badgers' only way to the title game — barring upsets, of course — might be to jump one of those teams in the human polls.

But another BCS expert believes the Badgers have one other ace up their sleeve: The Wilson factor.

"I think when you start analyzing their schedule, they're going to have a chance to make some impressions late," Brad Edwards, a BCS analyst for ESPN, said of the Badgers. "I think it absolutely helps that Russell Wilson is getting the attention that he's getting in the Heisman race because voters are going to pay more attention to Wisconsin's games because of that."

Of course, this could all be a moot point if UW falls this week at Michigan State or next week at Ohio State. If that happens, the Badgers' national title hopes will be dashed.

Maybe that's why Bielema recommends enjoying the ride while it lasts instead of worrying about the future.

"The computers and the rankings and all that stuff, it's going to sort itself through in the end," Bielema said. "I really do believe in that."

 

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