Wednesday, January 1, 2014

BCS Review Series: 2004, Unbeaten Auburn Left in the Cold

Part 7 of a seriesOver the next few weeks, I will be reviewing each of the 16 seasons since the Bowl Championship Series came into existence in 1998. Here is a look back at who got lucky, who got robbed, what could've been, what should've been and other controversies of the day. The series will appear throughout December and January.

Part 1: 1998, A New Beginning for College Football

Part 2: 1999, FSU Ends Michael Vick's Quest for Perfection

Part 3: 2000, FSU-Miami Sows Seeds of Controversy

Part 4: 2001, Nebraska Fiasco Rocks College Football

Part 5: 2002, Controversy On-Field Mars Perfect Ending

Part 6: 2003, Nightmare of Split National Championship


If 2003 was a wakeup call for the BCS, then 2004 represented a broken snooze button.

The alarm just kept blaring.

Five teams went undefeated in the regular season, but in the end, USC and Oklahoma faced off for the BCS title while SEC champion Auburn was left with a consolation prize of appearing in the Sugar Bowl. Mountain West champion Utah did get a BCS berth, but its opponent—Pittsburgh—was so overmatched in the Fiesta Bowl that the Utes didn't get to prove their mettle either. WAC champion Boise State was left out of the BCS picture altogether.

There was no split championship in 2004, as there had been in 2003, mostly because the Trojans mauled the Sooners, 55-19. Even Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who was on hand to troll for AP votes, conceded during ABC's halftime show that USC would be difficult to beat "when you give (offensive coordinator) Norm Chow a month to get ready for somebody."

But that was hardly a happy ending for the BCS, which had completely overhauled its formula from the previous season.

In fact, the BCS formula, in retrospect, may be viewed in two phases.

BCS I ran from its inception in 1998 through the disastrous 2003 season that ended with a split national championship. While there had been alterations, they were mostly minor. BCS II emerged in the 2004 season, with human polls taking over the preponderance of the equation.

Ironically, BCS I and BCS II both would've yielded the same USC-Oklahoma result in 2004, leaving Auburn and Utah out of the title game. It's fairly easy to explain why both Utah and Boise State were left out. The non-BCS conferences are not respected by the voters, even if the computers treat them more fairly. The Mountain West in 2004 also was not a particularly solid conference, with only three teams finishing with winning records, as both New Mexico and Wyoming went 7-5.

The last non-BCS school to win a national championship was Brigham Young in 1984, and it likely will remain the last well after this country elects a woman president, and possibly into eternity.
As for Auburn, two factors proved fatal to its BCS title prospects.

First, the Tigers were lightly regarded before the season started, checking in at No. 17 in the preseason AP poll. Auburn eventually worked its way up to No. 3, but could never crack the stranglehold that USC and Oklahoma held on Nos. 1 and 2—going wire-to-wire atop the AP poll.

The second factor was that the Tigers played an extremely non-competitive non-conference schedule, just as LSU did in 2003, along with most of the other SEC teams.

Of Auburn's 11 regular-season games in 2004, seven were at home. The Tigers' three non-conference games were against Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech and I-AA Citadel—all at home. Compare that with USC (at Virginia Tech and BYU, home to Colorado State and Notre Dame) and Oklahoma (home against Bowling Green, Houston and Oregon), it's easy to see that both the voters and computers punished Auburn for its soft schedule.

The Tigers eked out a 16-13 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to finish second in the final AP and coaches polls. But that didn't stop Tuberville and Auburn from declaring themselves champions. The Tigers made themselves big diamond rings to commemorate their "championship" season, and those rings became available on eBay.

Final BCS Standings: 1. USC, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Auburn, 4. Texas, 5. California, 6. Utah.

Alternative Methods

Using 1998-2003 (BCS I) formula: 1. USC, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Auburn, 4. Texas.

Likely four-team playoff: USC vs. Utah; Oklahoma vs. Auburn.

Since neither California nor Texas won its respective conference, Urban Meyer's undefeated Utes would have completed the field composed entirely of teams without a loss—the only time that could've happened in the BCS era.


The Mack Brown Campaign: In 2003, Texas finished No. 5 in the BCS standings, but was relegated to the Holiday Bowl. The Longhorns seemed to be headed to San Diego again in 2004 before coach Mack Brown did something about that.

With undefeated Utah poised to become the first BCS buster, there was only one BCS bowl slot available to a non-conference champion. Since the No. 4 team was guaranteed an at-large spot, the race was on between Texas and California.

The Golden Bears had a tenuous hold on the fourth spot beginning in October, with their only loss all season coming in a 23-17 heartbreaker to USC at the L.A. Coliseum when Aaron Rodgers couldn't get the ball into the end zone from the 9-yard line in the game's waning moments. Texas's only loss was a 12-0 defeat at the Cotton Bowl against the Sooners.

After Cal routed archrival Stanford in the Big Game, its season should've been over, but once again, a hurricane proved to be a Pac-10 team's undoing, as it had in 1998. The Bears' Sept. 23 game at Southern Mississippi was postponed because of Hurricane Ivan, and was rescheduled for Dec. 4.

Texas finished its schedule on Nov. 26 after beating rival Texas A&M. Brown immediately started an endless media campaign on behalf of his No. 5-ranked Longhorns. His tactics also made the Cal-Southern Miss matchup something of a referendum on the Bears, whose game was nationally televised on ESPN.

Perhaps affected by the pressure and expectations, the Bears did not play an impressive game, but still won, 26-16. While Cal coach Jeff Tedford thought his team had done what it needed to secure the program's first Rose Bowl berth since 1959, others weren't so sure.

The Bears' worst fears were realized when they fell from No. 4 to No. 5 in the final BCS standings, as Texas snatched the coveted Rose Bowl berth. Voter defection carried the day. In the AP poll, Cal's advantage over Texas shrank from 85 points to 62.

The real story, however, was the coaches poll. In the penultimate standings, Cal held a 48-point lead over Texas. In the one that counted, it finished ahead by a mere five points. In other words, no fewer than 20 coaches switched their placements of Texas and Cal. Even more telling was that four coaches voted Cal No. 7 and two voted them No. 8—after a Bears victory, and behind a Georgia team with two losses.

Predictably, the Pac-10 was furious and demanded that the coaches disclose their final ballots. The AFCA refused, however, and disputed suggestions that impropriety had taken place behind a cloak of secrecy. The Longhorns went on to win the Rose Bowl behind the electrifying performance of sophomore quarterback Vince Young while the dispirited Bears were routed by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

The Texas-California controversy had a long-lasting effect on the BCS standings. First, the AP poll refused to be included in the BCS standings after the 2004 season. Because all AP poll balloting is available to the public, some AP voters were harassed and threatened by fans who were unhappy with their decisions. The BCS had to scramble and invent the "Harris Interactive Poll" to replace the venerable and prestigious AP poll in the standings.

Second, to promote more transparency, the coaches reluctantly agreed to reveal their final regular-season balloting, beginning in 2005.

Through it all, Tedford took the high road. He didn't try to score an extra touchdown against Southern Miss in the game's final minutes to curry favor with the voters and never indulged in a war of words with Brown or anyone else. The final irony was that the AP poll's flip-flops alone would've put Texas ahead of Cal in the final standings, but the coaches ended up catching most of the heat because of their shenanigans.

2004 BCS Bowl Matchups
BowlScoreAttendanceTV Rating
Orange Bowl*#1 USC 55, #2 Oklahoma 1977,91213.7
Rose Bowl#4 Texas 38, #13 Michigan 3793,46812.4
Sugar Bowl#3 Auburn 16, #8 Virginia Tech 1377,3499.5
Fiesta Bowl#6 Utah 35, #21 Pittsburgh 773,5197.4

BCS formula review: The BCS blew up its previous formula (BCS I) and started from scratch.

The BCS blew up its previous formula (BCS I) and started from scratch. The new formula (BCS II) comprised of only two parts—the human polls and computers. Strength of Schedule and Quality Win components were purged.

The human polls now accounted for two-thirds of the formula, with the AP poll (and later, Harris poll) and coaches polls each weighing one-third. Instead of using a team's actual ranking, the formula now called for the percentage of total votes received. This alteration actually created the deciding difference in the Texas-Cal controversy, as the old formula would've disregarded the vote-margin difference.

The computer ratings shrank further from seven to six as the New York Times bowed out. The new formula required strength of schedule to be part of each computer's calculations. The computer average counts for one-third of the formula, with the highest and lowest rating for each team discarded.

After replacing the AP with the Harris poll following the 2004 season, this formula has stayed intact through the end of BCS's existence.

Final analysis: The twin controversies engulfed the 2004 season, mitigated only somewhat by USC's impressive Orange Bowl win and "repeat" championship. But unlike the previous season, the BCS did not blow up the system and start from scratch again.

The nonchalant, near-shrug of a reaction actually, in the long term, saved the BCS. It's as if the BCS simply stated: "We're here to stay so deal with it."

It may have been because the BCS couldn't risk undergoing another wholesale change without completely destroying its already-tattered credibility, or it may have been because there just wasn't anything else to do short of going to a playoff system.

Either way, this steadfastness served the BCS well—for better or for worse. Despite some outcry in subsequent seasons, the public and media began to grudgingly accept the BCS for what it was and understand both its strengths and limitations.

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