Southern California and Oklahoma stayed on course for a clash over college football's national title at the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl yesterday after putting more distance between their respective No. 1 and 2 rankings in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings and that of third-place Auburn.
Meantime, the real drama of the latest standings -- the last before the final rankings are issued Sunday -- was the razor-thin margin separating No. 4 California and No. 5 Texas.
With unbeaten Utah having locked up one of the two at-large bids for a BCS bowl by virtue of finishing its season among the top six (the standard for schools from smaller, mid-major conferences, whose champions are denied automatic berths), Cal and Texas have been left to claw over the final at-large spot. Whichever team finishes fourth will get it, and the standings released yesterday had the two separated by .0013 of a point, with Cal boasting .8431 of a point and Texas .8418.
In financial terms, the difference is huge: $4.5 million to the fourth-place team's conference. Barring losses by the No. 1 or 2 teams on Saturday, the Pacific-10 and Big 12 are ensured of placing one team each in a BCS bowl (USC and Oklahoma, respectively) and the $14 million payday that comes with it. Sending a second team (Cal, in the case of the Pac-10; Texas, in the case of the Big 12) would mean another $4.5 million.
In practical terms, the difference is slim. So slim, according to BCS analyst Jerry Palm, that a change of heart on the part of as few as three voters in the Associated Press or coaches' polls could vault Texas ahead of Cal. That's why Texas Coach Mack Brown has been tireless in trumpeting his team's virtues to anyone with a vote. The Longhorns were shut out of a BCS bid last year after Kansas State upset Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game to clinch the conference's automatic berth.
Said Palm, who doesn't have a vote in either poll: "If I'm a voter, I'm uncomfortable with how much power I have. This is a huge conflict of interest for the handful of Pac-10 and Big 12 coaches that vote, as well as writers all over the country."
BCS coordinator Kevin Weiberg, who also serves as Big 12 commissioner, sees no conflict for himself or for any poll voter. He said the current BCS rankings formula puts power precisely where its founders decided it belonged after last season's formula failed to produce a consensus national champion: primarily in the hands of humans, rather than computers.
"Last year there was a lot of concern about the fact there were too many non-human elements weighing on the outcome," Weiberg said in a conference call with reporters. After soliciting the views of coaches, athletic directors and college presidents, BCS rules makers tweaked the formula. This year, the writers' and coaches' polls account for two-thirds of the rankings. The final third represents the average of six computer rankings.
"The system we set up at the start of the year is the one that is proceeding pretty much as we thought it would," Weiberg said. "The human polls are the ones that have a prominent role here, and that's the way it works."
Assuming Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Auburn finish the season unbeaten, there's sure to be debate over whether the most deserving two were tapped for the title game. Only a playoff, Weiberg conceded, is capable of averting season-ending controversy when more than two teams finish with identical records.
But the three-way battle for the coveted Orange Bowl bids is hardly the only controversy brewing in the BCS standings with one week remaining.
Given the poor quality of play in the Big East, which lost Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC over the summer, its champion's guaranteed slot in a BCS bowl -- and the $14 million guaranteed payout -- has become particularly galling to football purists. Pittsburgh, at 23rd, is the top-ranked team in the Big East. The Panthers are locked in a three-way battle for the Big East title and could conceivably lose the crown to Syracuse, which wasn't even bowl-eligible until it upset No. 17 Boston College on Saturday, if it loses to South Florida this weekend.
"The Big East is kind of a laughingstock at the moment," Palm said. "Everyone knew coming into the season that the Big East was going to be no good. There was maybe some hope that West Virginia was going to be okay, but they faded. As a result, the league is going to send a relatively inept champion -- easily the worst team ever -- to a BCS bowl."