What will the BCS computer guys do?
A week before the college football season begins, Jeff Anderson is probably sitting in his office in Washington, D.C., worrying about numbers and results.
But they're not the kind of statistics Anderson focused on the past 16 years as one of the co-creators of the six computer ratings used in the Bowl Championship Series.
As executive director of The Project 2017, a conservative action group, Anderson is more concerned these days about approval ratings, unemployment rates and the national deficit.
After 16 years of helping college football decide its national championship, Anderson and the other creators of the computer ratings have been pushed aside for a 13-member selection committee that will choose the four teams that will participate in the College Football Playoff.
"We knew it was coming," Anderson said. "I always tried to have the attitude that it was an amazing opportunity, and I never banked on it happening the next year. If you would have told me when we first got the call from [BCS creator] Roy Kramer in 1998 that it would have lasted 16 years, I would have fallen over in shock."
If you would have told me when we first got the call from [BCS creator] Roy Kramer in 1998 that it would have lasted 16 years, I would have fallen over in shock.” -- Jeff Anderson, co-creator of the Anderson & Hester Rankings, on the end of the BCS.
In 1992, Anderson and Chris Hester, his roommate at the University of Washington, created the Anderson & Hester Rankings because they believed the Huskies had been robbed during the 1991 season. Washington finished 12-0 and was declared national champion by the coaches' poll; Miami went 12-0 and was No. 1 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll. A split national championship didn't sit well with them.
"We looked at the data and thought it was ridiculous," Hester said. "It's almost like we were trying to prove we were right. We were both obviously biased -- we were Washington students."
But that didn't stop Kramer, then the SEC commissioner, from asking the new college graduates to become a part of the revolutionary BCS system in 1998. Along with Jeff Sagarin, who started ranking teams in multiple sports in 1972 and published many of them in USA Today, the Anderson and Hester Rankings were a part of the BCS until the very end (the venerable New York Times produced the third original BCS computer ratings, but lasted only four seasons).
"When we started it, we were college kids who were college football fans," Hester said. "To graduate from that to helping determine who will play for a national championship was overwhelming. When we first started, I was just out of college and living with my parents. Now, I'm married with kids. Life has changed dramatically, but the rankings and the BCS has been the constant."
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During the past 16 seasons, the six computer ratings (Richard Billingsley, Wes Colley, Kenneth Massey and Peter Wolfe produced the others that were used since 2001) comprised one-third of the BCS formula. The highest and lowest computer ratings for a specific team were dropped and the other four were averaged. The coaches' poll and Associated Press Top 25 poll accounted for the other two-thirds, until the Harris Interactive Poll replaced the AP poll in 2005.
The computer ratings didn't always match up with how the human polls looked, and the computers were typically blamed for being out of whack.
"To some degree, I understand it because the whole concept was strange for the public," Billingsley said. "When Roy Kramer created the BCS and brought computers into it, it kind of came out of left field. But mathematical formulas have been a part of college football for a long time. They're a part of college football history. I think over the years, the computers were a scapegoat. If there was an issue or if somebody didn't like the results, it was the computers' fault, and that wasn't fair at all."
The humans had more to say than the computers did, obviously. Humans had more to do with the BCS than the computers did, but people were just wrong about it. I think the computers got a bum rap.” -- Bill Hancock, the former executive director of the BCS, who is now College Football Playoff executive director.
Bill Hancock, the former executive director of the BCS who now holds the same position with the College Football Playoff, said the men generating the computer ratings fulfilled their duties.
"They did exactly what they were asked to do, did it consistently and did it for a long time," Hancock said. "But it was time to move on."
Hancock said the computer ratings were an easy target because fans weren't entirely sure how they worked. Only Colley was willing to reveal his computer formula, while the others seemed to protect them like national security secrets.
"People didn't understand them because so many of the computer rankers were not willing to release their formulas," Hancock said. "We had the formulas, but we respected them enough not to reveal them. The humans had more to say than the computers did, obviously. Humans had more to do with the BCS than the computers did, but people were just wrong about it. I think the computers got a bum rap."
Even though they're no longer part of the BCS formula, Sagarin will still produce his ratings for USA Today Sports, and Anderson and Hester, Billingsley, Colley, Massey and Wolfe are expected to publish theirs on websites.
Except for Sagarin, the computer ratings were more like a hobby for the men, albeit an important one. Wolfe, who couldn't be reached for this story and preferred to mostly stay behind the scenes during the BCS era, is an infectious disease doctor in Los Angeles. Billingsley is a semi-retired stress management expert in Hugo, Oklahoma, and Colley is an astrophysical scientist at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Massey is a professor of mathematics at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, and Hester builds websites for Microsoft in Seattle.
Only Sagarin and Billingsley, who helped produce the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, seem to want to remain heavily involved in the sport. If nothing else, Billingsley said not being affiliated with the BCS allows him to be more vocal in his arguments. In the past, Kramer and others scolded him for being so outspoken.
"I had a gag order placed on me, and there were certain things I couldn't talk about," Billingsley said. "I couldn't talk about rankings, games and predictions. Those were such a part of my college football profile before I did the BCS, and now I'm excited that I can talk about those things again."
The men who generated the computer ratings have concerns about the sport's future. Anderson is worried about a 13-member selection committee choosing the four teams for the playoff.
"It's going to be very interesting to see whether college football fans accept the decrees from a committee that's meeting behind closed doors," Anderson said. "Thirteen is a pretty small number. The BCS relied on 167 poll voters [62 coaches and 105 voters in the Harris Interactive Poll] and six computers. It's an extremely small group. Who knows what they're going to come up with. Clearly, the support was there for a four-team playoff. I don't think the support was there for a selection committee. I think it's a decision they'll regret."
Billingsley isn't sure the committee members can remain entirely objective, despite the committee's recusal policy.
I'm not going to root for chaos, but it's going to come. I'll be right in the middle of it, instead of having to keep my mouth shut.” -- Richard Billingsley, stress management expert in Hugo, Oklahoma, who was publisher of a BCS poll.
"Like a lot of college football fans, I have a lot of concerns with a human selection committee," Billingsley said. "I don't have any issues with the individuals chosen. I think they've put together a great committee. But I don't care how great they are or how knowledgeable they are, there's always going to be a degree of bias, regardless of the recusal policy. I'm concerned that they're going to vote behind closed doors. The computers were always criticized for not being transparent, and now it's even less transparent."
Colley says picking four teams will be more difficult than choosing two.
"One thing people don't realize is that mathematically it's harder to separate a No. 5 [team] from a No. 4 than it is a No. 2 from a No. 3," Colley said. "What's the difference between the 51st team and the 50th? It's indifferent. I think there will be more reason to debate the merits of four versus five than there was with two versus three. I think you will see a pretty good debate on four versus five in most years."
Even with the computer ratings moving out of the equation, the controversy surrounding the college football national championship probably isn't going away.
"I'm not going to root for chaos, but it's going to come," Billingsley said. "I'll be right in the middle of it, instead of having to keep my mouth shut."