College football fans might be in for a surprise as unexpected as Utah's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
If the Bowl Championship Series had relied on one set of its computer rankings, Oklahoma would not be playing Florida for the BCS title on Thursday night. Instead, Oklahoma would be facing football's newest darling.
That's right, the Utah Utes.
In the Anderson & Hester computer rankings used by the BCS, Utah finished in a virtual dead heat with top-ranked Oklahoma. And that was before the Utes stunned Alabama in the Sugar Bowl with a convincing victory that improved their record to 13-0 and guaranteed they will finish this season as the only major college football team to go undefeated.
But Utah will be watching the BCS title game rather than playing in it.
"Our rankings thought they were deserving," said Jeff Anderson, who operates the computer poll with his former college roommate, Christopher Hester. "But our rankings are not the only thing to decide such matters."
The BCS standings use a combination of six computer rankings, the coaches' poll and the Harris Interactive Poll that includes 114 panelists. In the BCS standings, released before the bowl games began, Oklahoma finished first, Florida second and Utah sixth.
Utah finished no higher than fourth in the other computer rankings and finished seventh in both the coaches' poll and the Harris Interactive Poll.
A special emphasis on the relative strength of each conference might explain why Anderson & Hester rankings are now the personal favorite of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
"If we're tied with Oklahoma in that poll, I'm all for that one," he said.
But the formula worked in Utah's favor only because of the success of the conference in which it plays, the Mountain West. Generally speaking, the MWC generates all the rest of, well, the Utah Utes. But this season astute college football fans took notice. At least they should have.
The current BCS standings include three MWC teams in the top 20 – Utah at No. 6, Texas Christian at No. 11 and Brigham Young at No. 16.
"No non-major conference has had a year like this in the BCS era, or anything close," said Jerry Palm, a noted BCS analyst.
The MWC was 25-11 in all games against non-conference opponents and 6-1 against teams from the Pac-10, so Utah's victories against teams in its own conference carried more weight in the Anderson & Hester rankings than they had in previous seasons.
In explaining the importance of factoring in strength of conference, Anderson said, "It may well be that a 4-4 record in a strong conference is really more like going 6-2 in a weak one."
But what the Anderson & Hester rankings took into account might have gone unnoticed by many others who help determine the BCS standings and, ultimately, which teams play for the BCS title.
For example, David Housel, former Auburn athletic director and one of the Harris Poll voters, ranked Utah 10th in his final ballot. When asked why he ranked Utah no higher, he said, "Probably because I didn't have enough respect for that conference, to be honest about it."
Nick Saban, Alabama's head coach, learned the dangers of snubbing the MWC.
Alabama plays in the SEC, one of the six so-called power conferences, and Saban's team finished the regular season 12-0 before losing to Florida in the SEC championship game. Before the Sugar Bowl, Saban irked Utah players, coaches and fans when he said Alabama was the only team to finish the regular season undefeated in a "real BCS conference."
So there Saban was Friday apologizing for the remark after Utah had whipped Alabama 31-17. Anderson, meanwhile, was beaming. Utah's victory helped validate the team's strong finish in the Anderson & Hester rankings that he and his friend have been computing for the BCS standings since 1998, when the postseason system began in its current form.
But Anderson quickly added, "I do want to make clear that I do not believe that Florida does not belong in the (championship) game."
In fact, Anderson said he supports the matchup of Oklahoma vs. Florida in part because Utah finished seventh in the poll conducted by the coaches and the poll conducted by panelists that included former coaches, former players and others affiliated with college football.
Said Anderson: "There would be no point in staging a championship game between what nobody believes are the two best teams, even if in reality they are."