As Virginia Tech steamed toward an unbeaten regular season in 1999 and the national championship game, the attention of Hokie Nation was divided between the team and a complicated and maddening rating system.
The Bowl Championship Series is one of the most consistently satisfying punching bags in sports. Ten years ago, however, the BCS was in its infancy and only beginning to aggravate college football fans.
Tech fans saw their team lose statistical ground despite wins. The Hokies overcame Lions and Volunteers in the weekly horse race, then watched nervously as Cornhuskers grew large in their rear-view mirror before fading at the end.
Coach Frank Beamer refused to get caught up in the debate over decimal points, unlike many of his colleagues through the years. His constant refrain in the fall of '99 was: At the end of the season, the two best teams will play for the national championship.
When the microchips settled, he was correct.
"I believe you better concentrate on what you can control," Beamer said, recalling the end of that season. "And what we could control was how we played. We couldn't control how Nebraska played. So my stance throughout was, if we do what we're supposed to do, it will work out OK. I believed it. But I knew if we spent a lot of time talking about this and that, you're not putting your efforts on things you can control."
Started in 1998, the BCS was an extension of the old Bowl Alliance, charged with devising a formula that would pit the top two teams in the country in a title game at the end of the season while preserving traditional major bowl arrangements when possible.
Components included polls, computer rankings, losses, and a formula that quantified a team's strength of schedule. As in golf, the lower the total number, the better.
That season not only catapulted Virginia Tech's football program to new heights, it also made a minor celebrity out of a graduate student in the school's mathematics department.
Kenneth Massey administered one of the eight computer ranking systems used by the BCS to determine its top two teams. The 1999 season was his first with the BCS, whose poobahs sought him out when they expanded the number of computer rankings in their formula to negate statistical inconsistencies.
Massey, a native of Bluefield, Va., and a sports fan, created a computer program for ranking college football teams a few years earlier as a hobby when he was an undergraduate at Bluefield College. He had refined the program by the time he arrived at Tech, where he completed master's work and nearly completed Ph.D. work before he landed a teaching job.
In education jargon, Massey is A.B.D. (All But the Dissertation) for a doctorate in the area of Eigenvalue problems using Krylov subspaces.
"If it makes me sound more impressive than I am, that's fine," he joked.
Following the 1998 season, former BCS head Roy Kramer requested several years' worth of Massey's rankings for evaluation. He spoke at length with Massey a few days later, in part to determine if Massey, and his formula, might be prejudiced toward Virginia Tech.
Massey admitted that he had been a Tech fan since he was a kid, but assured Kramer that his program was unbiased. He became, at 23, the youngest of the eight computer gurus in the BCS mix.
"The BCS thing was new to me," said Massey, now an assistant professor in mathematics at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. "I remember going to games, and I got interviewed once by ESPN, which was a little awkward, but at the same time very exciting."
Massey's computer had Tech ranked either first or second the last seven weeks of the season — second the final five weeks. This was fairly consistent with the other computers, though the fact that he was based in Blacksburg raised eyebrows around the country.
"Sometimes when I was doing interviews at that time," Massey said, "being at Virginia Tech, I would refer to Virginia Tech as 'we.' 'We are having a great season' or something like that, which of course I shouldn't have done. Even though there was no bias, someone might read that in if they didn't realize where I was coming from.
"Every year, I get e-mails from people claiming that I'm biased, and I don't remember it being any more so then. Fortunately, I wasn't the only one that had Virginia Tech ranked high. That's where it would have gotten sticky, if I had Virginia Tech ranked (No.) 2 and everybody else had them ranked (No.) 5."
Potential bias and stickiness aside, the BCS, and specifically the various computer rankings, caused a weekly stir among Tech fans.
When the first BCS rankings were released Oct. 25, the Hokies were a comfortable third behind Florida State and Penn State — the same place they occupied in the two major polls, the Associated Press and the USA Today coaches' poll, that were part of the BCS formula.
Tech remained third the following week. Though four of the eight computers had the Hokies ranked No. 1, their strength of schedule was by far the lowest of the top five teams.
Hokie anguish red-lined the week of Nov. 8. Tech survived West Virginia 22-20 on Shayne Graham's last-second field goal, while Penn State lost to Minnesota on a last-second field goal.
The undefeated Hokies moved up to No. 2 in both polls, but remained third in the BCS after once-beaten Tennessee leapfrogged them following a convincing win over Notre Dame. The Dunkel Index dropped Tech from first to sixth, while the Seattle Times computer rated Tech eighth.
The reason: comparative strengths of schedule and margins of victory. The Big East was deemed weak, and back then, several of the computers factored in margin of victory — including Massey's. John Duck, who administered the Dunkel Index, said flat-out that Tech needed to crush opponents to overcome its weak schedule.
Coaches complained that the BCS forced teams to run up the score. Tech fans feared possible doomsday scenarios in which an unbeaten Hokies team could get bypassed for the title game by one-loss teams with more computer cachet.
Meanwhile, Tennessee lost to Arkansas the following week, removing one obstacle, and the Hokies moved up to No. 2 in the Nov. 13 BCS rankings. Nebraska, meanwhile, jumped from sixth to third, 2.40 points behind Tech.
One week later, after Tech bounced Temple and Nebraska sat idle, the Hokies remained No. 2, but their margin shrank to a scant 0.63. Tech had only Boston College remaining that Friday, while the Cornhuskers had Colorado the same day, and then a top-10 Texas team in the Big 12 championship game — two opportunities to impress the microchips.
The Hokies did their part, dusting BC in the season finale at Lane Stadium, which led to an unusual postgame celebration.
Fans stormed the field to celebrate, yet went quiet for Nebraska-Colorado updates. Late in the Tech-BC game, the scoreboard flashed that Colorado had come from behind and tied Nebraska at 27. The capacity crowd erupted, anticipating an upset and well aware of the BCS' margin-of-victory component.
The scoreboard let everyone know that Colorado was deep in Nebraska territory with only seconds remaining. As Tech fans stormed the field, the scoreboard flashed "Hokie Perfect." As fans tore down one goalpost, the words "No Good" flashed on the scoreboard, meaning that Colorado's last-second field-goal attempt missed, and the game was headed to overtime.
After Colorado's Jeremy Aldrich kicked a field goal in the first overtime possession for a 30-27 lead, Tech's P.A. announcer mistakenly announced that the Buffaloes had won. The crowd came unglued. The announcer corrected himself minutes later when Nebraska scored a touchdown on its first overtime possession to win 33-30. The news dampened spirits, but only briefly, as the Hokies' first 11-0 regular season trumped computers and equations.
When the next BCS rankings were released Nov. 29, Virginia Tech was still second and Nebraska third, but Tech's margin had increased to 1.54 points.
The Cornhuskers still had the Big 12 title game. Hokie fans waited and parsed numbers about how many computers would have to rate Nebraska higher and how great the strength-of-schedule difference would have to be in order for the Huskers to make up ground.
Nebraska defeated Texas on Dec. 4, avenging a regular-season loss to the Longhorns. But when the final BCS rankings were released the next day, the Cornhuskers had made up only 0.24. Virginia Tech was headed to the Sugar Bowl.
Ten years later, the BCS is an integral part of the college football landscape. Massey's computer program remains one of the six in use.
He recognizes the flaws in the system, but overall he is pleased that the BCS has placed a premium on strength of schedule and doesn't simply reward records. Four of the last six national champs have had at least one loss.
"It shows people that all 11-0 seasons are not created equally," he said.
Massey has broadened his rating system to now include high school football teams in each state and across the country, as part of a prep sports Web site.
He still attends approximately five Tech games per season, he said. Other Saturdays are spent at Carson-Newman games and occasionally at a University of Tennessee game, since Knoxville is only 30 miles from Jefferson City.
"It's funny to think that 10 years have passed," Massey said. "It seems like just yesterday."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun