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Buffs Taken Aback

A haywire computer stops CU short of its goal.

Don't bother calling Ripley's Believe It or Notor the supermarket tabloids, because they won't believe it either. On Sunday afternoon, a crazed computer from Morristown, New Jersey, snuck up behind a buffalo in Boulder, Colorado, and forced nonconsensual sex on the hapless beast. That's not all. It also proceeded to fuck a duck.

The immediate offspring of these unholy couplings are named Resentment, Outrage and Embarrassment.

In case you've been planting corn in the lower forty or watching figure skating for the last three days, here are some of the grim details. The not-so-hot football team representing a certain university on the desolate plains east of here -- the place where the red "N" on the helmet is said to stand for "Nowledge" and where they installed AstroTurf to keep the cheerleaders from grazing -- will be playing in the Rose Bowl on January 3 for the college game's national championship. Strictly because of a wayward computer. We are not about to use the actual "N" word here, because it's an ugly thing. Suffice it to say that on the Friday after Thanksgiving, "N" played the University of Colorado in Boulder and was annihilated by a score of 62-36. That took "N" out of the running for the Big 12 Conference title and, by logical extension, for any shot at the national crown. Colorado then went on, nine days later, to defeat Texas 39-37 for the Big 12 championship. Coach Gary Barnett's late-season miracle workers immediately started dreaming about the Roses of Pasadena even as some of their beer-fueled classmates celebrated by cheap-shotting the streetlights in downtown Boulder.

Alas, CU was destined to be upstaged by the third-best team in its league -- all because of a computer with brain lock, programmed by morons.

It should never have happened, of course. After a week on heightened Bowl alert following the Texas game, Colorado fans were cautiously hopeful that they still had a shot at the big trophy. But for the most part, they were preparing to relax and take what was coming to them, which was a perfectly good spot in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day against the Oregon Ducks. As soon as favored Tennessee, the nation's number-two team in something called the Bowl Championship Series rankings, beat Louisiana State Saturday night in the Southeastern Conference title game, Ralphie the Buffalo and every other CU fan would have to acknowledge that the BCS's oft-maligned computer, which is supposed to sift through the talent in six major football conferences and match up opponents in the four biggest post-season bowl games, had managed to do its job, if only barely. By pitting Tennessee against undefeated Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national title, the machine would have brought college football to justice. In Buffland, the crisis would have passed with a minimum of collateral damage: two or three thousand hangovers, a couple of scorched couches on the Hill and some slightly bruised egos in the offices of the Dal Ward Athletic Center.

All good and well, except that Louisiana State refused to cooperate with the BCS's fantasy of post-season bliss. Clearly feeling their jambalaya, LSU's Tigers overcame early-game injuries to their starting quarterback and their best pass receiver and went on to thump Tennessee 31-20, blowing the entire body of current post-season football theory out of the water. This year's BCS coordinator, John Swofford (also commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference), didn't put a loaded gun to his head Saturday night, but he probably thought about it. Because Louisiana State's unlikely win threw the post-season picture into chaos. Could the University of Nowledge, 26-point losers to Colorado but ranked one spot ahead of the Buffs by the BCS, really be a more worthy opponent for number-one Miami than Colorado? And what about the Ducks? They had a 10-1 record, were champions of the tough Pac 10 Conference and had a grievance every bit as legitimate as Ralphie the Buffalo's.

Still, when the laptop at the BCS's New Jersey headquarters got done crunching the final numbers Sunday afternoon, Colorado came up a mere .05 of a point behind "N," with Oregon another 1.39 points back. Now, those unacquainted with higher mathematics -- including most linebackers, newspaper folk and CU vandalism majors -- probably don't even want to try grasping the BCS's weird schematics, and that's a good thing. The less we all know about the relationship between "average scoring margins," "quality win components" and "strength of schedule quotients," the better. Anybody who really wants to immerse himself in such matters probably has too much time on his hands and should go out and get a real job. The BCS rankings are calculated by combining the above-mentioned mysteries with the Associated Press college football poll, in which members of the media vote, and the ESPN/USA Today poll, which is the province of football coaches. In Sunday's decisive rankings, Colorado had managed to slip ahead of its nemesis on the Midwestern prairie in the coaches' voting. But amid the eight measures that go into the controversial computer formula, that wasn't enough to make the difference.

In the awkward and enraged aftermath, Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti made the bluntest assessment of the BCS, which the concussion heads who run college football dreamed up four years ago in lieu of a post-season playoff plan. "I liken the BCS to a bad disease," Bellotti said. "Like cancer. It's one thing when it affects people you don't know; it's another thing when it hits home.... It's very difficult now to tell my players that we're not in that championship game."

Colorado's Barnett, who was on his best behavior last week before LSU-Tennessee and his fellow coaches' reversal of opinion, was only slightly less miffed: "It's hard to be gracious," he said, then predicted changes in next year's BCS formula. "With what happened to us, we are the ones that will bring that about. And somebody will benefit from it next year."

What he's probably talking about is heavier weight in the formula for conference championships. But more radical changes are likely in a few years. Because of its ongoing credibility problems, the BCS is almost certain to get blindsided after the 2006 season (when the agreement expires), if not sooner. Major college football will then institute playoffs, if for no other reason than to satisfy the old American hunger for determining who's number one on the battlefield rather than in the lab.

Frank What's-His-Name, the head coach at "N," naturally had his own view of the BCS after his unworthies were elevated to the title game. "There's a system in place," he said. "I don't think I or my team have to prove anything to the critics." He might as well have been talking to cornstalks.

Despite the miscarriage of justice produced by flipped-out megabytes, Barnett and the Buffs must now prepare to play Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. If you like roast duck, tune in. Oregon is a nice little rain-drenched passing team, but if the way Colorado exploded in the late season (after those meaningless mishaps against Fresno State and Texas) is any signal, Oregon's got the same shot at beating the Buffs as Osama bin Laden has of being appointed to the Bush Cabinet. Asked Sunday if his team will be ready for the Ducks, Barnett said, "Yes...we'll be pissed off."

They will also find themselves staring a couple of ironies in the face. First, having finished its tureen of Duck soup January 1, Colorado will actually be rooting for the unloved University of Nowledge two days later, when it plays Miami. Because if both Big 12 schools win, they would likely share the national title. Of course, that's precisely the kind of wretched ambiguity the Bowl Championship Series computer was programmed to avoid.

But then, this thing scrambles its microchips on a pretty regular basis. Next thing you know, it'll probably get drunk and break down the door of the Buffs' homecoming queen.

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