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Who's No. 1? Ask those who rate with wallets, not hearts

The Bowl Championship Series computer thinks Missouri is the best college football team in the country. So, too, do a group of pollsters who are charged with the weekly task of rating teams.

Down on the Las Vegas Strip, though, the Tigers aren't even rated the best team in their next game, against No. 9 Oklahoma.

For decades, people who follow college football have tried to figure out surefire ways to crown legitimate national champions, with varying degrees of success. In recent years, the BCS has taken over with a system that forgoes a playoff in favor of computers and polls.

There are, of course, better ways.

Here's one: Why not just turn it over to the oddsmakers, who rate with their wallets instead of a ballot.

'We do it for a living. If we send out bad numbers we're going to lose clients,' said Mike Seba, senior oddsmaker at Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which sets much of the Vegas line. 'We have to be right.'

Being right in this case means Oklahoma is a 3-point favorite against Missouri in a game the Tigers must win to get in the BCS championship. Bettors seem to be in agreement with it if the wagers so far are any indication.

But don't stop there. Southern Cal is ranked No. 8 in the BCS and doesn't have a shot at the national title game after two midseason losses.

Put the Trojans on a neutral field with Missouri right now, and USC would be at least a 3-point favorite and possibly more to beat the No. 1 team in the country. The same goes for once-beaten Ohio State.

'The polls are just a measuring stick for popularity,' said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton. 'It's like voting for prom queen.'

The polls sometimes give you great matchups, like Texas-USC two years ago. But this year's possible title game likely will have little outside of two awfully small media markets in Missouri and West Virginia.

But network executives say no matter the matchup, the game likely will draw roughly 30 million viewers and dominate that night's schedule.

Fox is paying $80 million this year for four of the five BCS games, including the Jan. 7 national title game in New Orleans. Last year, it got a premier matchup between Florida and Ohio State for its money.

Of course, everything about the championship game could change next weekend.

If Oklahoma beats Missouri and West Virginia is upset by rival Pittsburgh, the third- and fourth-place teams in the BCS standings are likely to move into the title game. And while one is Ohio State, the other is Georgia, a team that didn't even get into its own conference title game.

'That would probably be the nightmare scenario,' said Charles Davis, who will be in the Fox booth as an analyst for the BCS title game.

Davis believes USC is probably the best team in the country right now, but the way the BCS system is set up it is almost impossible for a team with two losses to make the title game. That has purists screaming for a playoff system that would clearly identify the best two teams the way it is done in college basketball.

Davis said the current system works to the extent that people are at least talking about possible matchups this week.

'If someone earns their way in, what's the downside?' he asked. 'BYU won it all in 1984 and the earth did not spin off its axis.'

BYU won its championship doing the same thing Hawaii is doing this year - beating everyone else, something that has gotten Hawaii only a No. 12 ranking in the BCS. The Cougars didn't even play in a major bowl, winning the Holiday Bowl, but were voted in The Associated Press final poll as the top team in the country.

This season's Rose Bowl could end up being the most intriguing of the bowls, assuming USC beats UCLA this weekend and Ohio State doesn't move into the BCS title game. The Rose Bowl traditionally gets the highest ratings of any of the bowl games except the BCS championship game, which will be played six days later in prime time and have the entire college audience to itself.