Florida or Michigan?

Dan Wetzel

ATLANTA – Wearing two hats and willing to be declared two-faced, Mike Slive stood in the Georgia Dome press box and gave up on impartiality.

The Bowl Championship Series coordinator is also the Southeastern Conference commissioner, and moments after Southern California was vanquished from the national-title chase, Slive was determined to petition for the champion of his league to get its shot.

"I think any team that wins our league with one loss should have the chance to play for the national championship," he said of the Florida Gators, who ran their record to 12-1 with a 38-28 victory over Arkansas for the SEC title.

And if Florida doesn't move past 11-1 Michigan to No. 2 in the final BCS standings, which will be released Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, and gain a shot at No. 1 Ohio State in the BCS title game?

"I'd be disappointed," he said.

Only in college football could the official head of the official postseason system officially admit he might not agree with the official result.

Of course, regardless of whether that comment was appropriate, when it comes down to it, Slive was correct. He should be disappointed. And so should any college football fan who doesn't bleed maize and blue (more on that, naturally, later).

In this most hyperactive, insane sport, Saturday was one for the ages – a coast-to-coast, back-and-forth day of action which saw three teams – only two of which were playing – have their title fates swing back and forth.

It was a day in which the crowd here in the South went bananas for the final score out in Los Angeles and where up in Michigan a roller coaster of emotions just kept churning through two distant games on television.

Now the Wolverines and Gators will spend a panicked Sunday waiting for an "American Idol"-esque final call, at which time even more controversy surely will erupt.

Welcome to reality television for men.

The BCS folks are going to make a million on Sunday's show, "Welcome to the BCS Selection Show, sponsored by the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King, for all your NCAA investigative needs."

"We need a playoff," Florida president Bernie Machen demanded after the game. Machen was so nervous about the Gators' chances he promised to push for change no matter Sunday's decision.

Of course, after Saturday, we might not need a playoff as much as a defibrillator.

Before we get to why Florida deserves this, by the thinnest of margins, let's get to whether it is possible. The BCS formula to determine the top two teams in the nation – and the two bids to the title game Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz. – consists of equal parts coaches poll, Harris poll (a consortium of former coaches, administrators and players and media) and the average of six computer formulas (actually of four – the high and low are thrown out).

Ohio State (12-0) is No. 1. USC was No. 2, but its 13-9 loss to UCLA eliminates the Trojans from the debate. No other one-loss team, nor unbeaten Boise State, has the resume to contend. It comes down to current No. 3 Michigan and current No. 4 Florida.

BCS expert Jerry Palm, the publisher of CollegeBCS.com, expects the Gators' victory over Arkansas will push them ahead of Michigan in all six computer rankings. If so, Florida will not need to pass Michigan in the two human polls. It just needs to close the gap enough to edge the Wolverines.

"I expect Florida to lead Michigan in computer average," said Palm. "Worst-case scenario is a tie."

"If UF leads Michigan in computers, they do not have to pass Michigan in the polls at all, just get close enough in point margin for the computer strength to matter."

The question is how close. Last week Michigan led Florida by 86 points in the Harris poll and 40 in the coaches' poll. With USC out, those numbers could move dramatically.

"My expectation is Florida has a 2.0 average and UM 3.0 (in the computers)," Palm said. "If that's right, Florida could be within 57 in the Harris poll and 31 in the coaches' poll (and) pass Michigan for No. 2 overall."

Both of those moves are possible and probably reasonable. Michigan's best hope is that it holds off Florida a bit in the computers, creating a tie. If so, then the polls will determine who is No. 2.

Either way, there is going to be no clear determination until the final announcement.

"It's too close to talk about how close it will be," said Palm.

This could come down to a single vote, or a single computer formula criteria; which is why one school is almost assured to be angry with the system.

"We have what we have," Slive said, apparently back in his BCS coordinator role. "If we don't like what we have, then we should look to change it. But we have what we have."

So here is why Florida deserves it over Michigan.

I have seen both Michigan and Florida live and in numerous television games. To definitively claim one team clearly superior is a reach. They are essentially even.

Michigan has a superior quarterback and, as a result, a more well-rounded team. Its defense looked tremendous in every game except Ohio State. Florida is more dangerous, particularly because the Wolverines have nothing like Percy Harvin. Florida also has a strong defense and a knack for making big, game-winning plays.

"We found ways to win games this year," said Gator wide receiver JeMalle Cornelius.

Gun to my head, I'd take Michigan by a point on a neutral field. But who knows?

Statistically, the numbers which mean the most to me favor the Gators, which is what Gator coach Urban Meyer hopes every voter will look at.

"I hope they list the statistics, put it on the table, here is what it is," Meyer said. "Florida belongs."

It is my contention that who you beat is more important than who beat you. If enough poll voters see it the other way, then Michigan's loss at No. 1 means the Wolverines should get a rematch. But if they agree with me, then Florida will make the jump.

Florida is 3-1 vs. the current BCS top 25, with victories over Louisiana State (5), Arkansas (9) and Tennessee (17). Michigan is 2-1, having beaten Wisconsin (7) and Notre Dame (10).

However, both Wisconsin and Notre Dame's lofty rankings come from blasting through an essentially weak schedule. The Badgers didn't defeat a single current BCS top-25 team. Notre Dame's only quality victory is over No. 22 Georgia Tech, which should fall out of the rankings after losing to Wake Forest in the ACC championship game. Meanwhile, LSU and Arkansas have two such victories. Tennessee has one.

The SEC is widely regarded as the toughest in the country, although like the Big Ten, it has few quality non-conference victories. The SEC has just three non-conference victories over BCS top-25 teams. The Big Ten has two.

In terms of losses, Michigan lost at No. 1 Ohio State by three. Florida lost at No. 11 Auburn by 10, although it was essentially four. The Tigers scored on a last-play fumble return while the Gators desperately were trying to score.

The computers have favored Michigan's schedule (although beating Arkansas will help Florida). But the formula is flawed.

College football truly is a have and have-not proposition. Non-BCS league teams rarely defeat a quality team. Essentially all cupcake games are cupcakes, all directionals are created equal. It doesn't matter whether the game is against 9-4 MAC champion Central Michigan (which Michigan beat) or 4-8 Central Florida (which Florida beat).

Statistically they matter. In terms of common sense they don't. The smaller school almost always loses, so what's the difference? The only victories that should count are against the other quality teams.

Florida's strength of schedule is suffering from its ill-advised decision to schedule 2-9 Western Carolina, a last-place Division I-AA team it scrambled to add when the NCAA expanded the schedule to a 12th game. That and the fall of traditional powerhouse rival Florida State (6-6) hurts the Gators.

But a team should not get more credit for beating a completely overmatched team rather than just a mostly overmatched one. Those easy victories should count the same.

The fact is that Florida did everything it could outside of running the table. The Gators beat six teams that were ranked at kickoff, survived the toughest week-in, week-out grind in the college game and put a stamp on it with a dramatic victory here against another dangerous opponent.

This ridiculous championship system forces these impossible comparisons, forces perceptions and computers and biases over what criteria is most important to take the place of what happens on the field. But as Slive said, at this point that's the system, no matter how bad it is.

So on the merits I believe are most important – more victories over clearly strong competition – Florida deserves its shot at Ohio State.

Whether the official BCS announcement Sunday agrees remains to be seen. The only certainty in this sport is uncertainty.

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