Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Orrin Hatch Renews His Attack on the BCS

Orrin Hatch has been attacking the BCS system for several years now.  He has two specific problems as I understand it.  One is that his beloved, undefeated Utah Utes didn't get a "fair" shot at the National Championship game at the end of the 2008-09 season.  The other concerns how it is that participants from non-BCS conferences do not receive as much money for playing in a BCS bowl game as the primary participants from BCS conferences.  I have nothing to say about the latter issue except for the fact that the schools that have built college football and who invest the most money in it year after year deserve the bulk of the money.

The championship game of the 2009-09 season matched two one loss teams, Florida and Oklahoma, with Oklahoma losing 24-14.  That year, Oklahoma was in a 3-way tie for the Big 12 South championship thanks to the fact that Texas beat Oklahoma 45-35; Texas Tech beat Texas 39-33 on a last second play;  and then, disproving the apparent fact that Big 12 teams didn't play defense, Oklahoma crushed Texas Tech 65-21.  Oklahoma got into the conference title game thanks to its being ranked higher than Texas and Texas Tech by the BCS formula.

I presume that the Big 12 adopted use of the BCS standings as its tie breaker in order to facilitate the Big 12 champion's rise to #1 or #2 in the BCS poll.  Oklahoma's destruction of Texas Tech and then, in the title game, its destruction of Missouri sealed the #2 slot and an opportunity to be another Florida victim.

The fact that one-loss Oklahoma got into the championship game while an undefeated Utah did not get in upset Sen. Hatch.  Apparently he could see that 12-1 is not as good as 13-0, never mind the fact that Oklahoma beat two of the highest rated teams in the country while Utah beat an 8 loss Michigan team, not counting the loss to Utah.  The only other BCS school that Utah played before their magnificent bowl win over Alabama was Oregon State, which had two losses other than its loss to Utah, that by a three point margin.  I do not see in their schedule anything like Texas and Texas Tech.  The win over Alabama, which I must say I thoroughly enjoyed, was said by some to be due to a lack of interest on Alabama's part but this sort of excuse by BCS schools for losses to WAC and Mountain West teams is wearing thin.

The problem here is one we have had forever in college football. In 1968 and 1969, Joe Paterno's Penn State teams went undefeated with Orange Bowl wins and the best they could get out of human voters was #2.  In 1973, his team went 12-0 with an Orange Bowl win and the best he could get out of that was a #5.  And then in 1982, they went 12-1 with a Sugar Bowl win and came out #1.  In 1986, they went 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl win and got another #1.  But Penn State returned to form in 1994 when they went 12-0 with a Rose Bowl win and came out #2.

Penn State's problem was with human polls, the Coaches Poll and the AP.  There are serious problems with these human polls.  The first is that they are subjective.  Everyone knows that college sports are regional in nature -- ergo regional biases come into the picture.  Second, unless voters do extraordinary due diligence, they will not remember exactly who beat whom, when, and by how much.  Third, given that coaches tend to be rather busy on Saturdays, they are likely either to pass their votes onto a grandkid or SID or just look at the scores in the morning paper before casting their ballots.  One thing is for sure, they will watch very few games other than their own.  Reporters are in a better position to watch games but even they can't see many.

When the BCS came into being, computer polls were added to the mix.  They have been crippled by being ordered not to include margin of victory.  That's a bit stupid, of course.  Limiting the importance of large margins of victory would be smart but they aren't allowed to do that.  What they can do that human voters cannot do reliably is figure in strength of schedule.  The BCS system currently consists of two human polls, the Coaches Poll, as always, and the Harris Interactive Poll, the latter consisting of a large number of "former players, coaches, administrators, and current and former media," and a set of computer polls the results of which are averaged.

Sen. Hatch's complaint has to be with the humans who do the voting and the computer polls.  His complaint is no different from but has less merit than those of Penn State fans back when they were constantly disrespected.  If Utah wants a shot at the BCS title game it needs to persuade the Pac-10 to include it when it expands to 12 teams, probably sometime this summer.  TCU and Boise State need to pray that the Big Ten takes 2 Big 12 teams when it expands to 14 or 16 teams and the Big 12 takes them.  BYU is screwed.  There is no way the Pac-10 would take two schools from Utah.  One thing is for sure, a playoff system will require something akin to the BCS to select and seed participants so there is really no escaping it.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Should There Be A College Football Playoff?

The NCAA basketball tournament has almost run its course and by sometime Monday night we will have a new national champion. It is taken as given that the NCAA basketball tournament is a legitimate method of determining the champion.  So, naturally, sports reporters and many fans think that a playoff is just the ticket for college football as well.  Understand one thing, the call for a football playoff is not about Truth (finding the "true champion"), Justice (opening the process to the little guys like Boise State, Utah and TCU), and the American Way (giving the people what they want.)  The clamor is simply about a desire that universities create a football extravaganza for sports reporters to opine about, watch, and then report on.  And for fans to watch as well.

The people who call for a playoff don't give a damn about universities and what is in their best interests.  College football is a great sport second only the professional football in the united states in popularity.  The schools that built college football into what it is today are not the little guys like BYU, Utah, and Boise State.  These programs are little more than a sideshow attraction.  It has been built by the BCS schools.  There can be no doubt about that.  I would argue that we should leave college football in the hands of the those who created it and these good people don't want a playoff.  That's good enough for me.

Some reporters seem to think that the BCS schools are run by village idiots since, as seems quite obvious to them, a playoff would bring in huge amounts of money universities are currently "leaving on the table" (as is often said).  They point to the NCAA basketball tournament as the model for their financial imaginings.  There are two problems with that.  First, the BCS schools do not want to share the money they have earned the way the NCAA currently shares basketball tournament revenues. The NCAA dispenses the CBS money to a very large number of schools.  I have no proof that the NCAA might try to grab control of any Division 1 football playoff but the fact is that they control all of the other playoffs.

The second problem with the financial imaginings of reporters and fans is that bowl division schools receive a great deal of money from bowls.  It is very likely greater than what a playoff would bring in but that misses two key points.  First, while the NCAA tournament has just one team that ends its season with a win, the bowls allow for a very large number of winners.  Moreover, it provides exposure to a very large number of schools, albeit not always a great deal of exposure.

The only genuinely compelling reason to have a playoff would be that that is the best way to find the best team in the country, the "true champion."  This is, of course, perfect nonsense. The notion that basketball playoffs reliably find the "best team" in the country is refuted by the facts.  Does anyone really think that North Carolina State was the best basketball team team in 1983 when it beat the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars by a fluke basket in the last seconds of the game?  Did Dereck Whittenburg make a beautiful last second pass to Lorenzo Charles for a dunk or did he throw up a desperation air ball that Charles fortuitously happened to be in position to pluck out of the air and toss down.  Anyone who say the play knows that it was the latter.  Was NC State the best team that year?  The Sporting News calls it the biggest tournament upset ever.  The fact that NC State won 7 of its last 9 games that year coming from behind in the last minute supports the view that while gritty this team was not the best team.  And, the 8th seeded Villinova team that beat Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game was manifestly not the best team that year.

This year, we have two 5 seeds, Butler and Michigan State, a 2 seed in West Virginia, and a 1 seed in Duke.  Butler got to the Final Four honestly -- it beat a 1 seed and a 2 seed to get there.  Michigan State beat a 4 seed but the rest of the work was done by others.  Tom Izzo was characteristically honest about the situation.
"I don’t know how many of those teams lose if it’s a best-of-three or best-offive,” Izzo said. “But that’s the excitement of the tournament.”  
Is any of the teams in the Final Four the best team in the country?  Very possibly not.  How would we know?  How could we prove it? If we let the tournament decide then we will have to accept that NC State was the best team in 1983 or or Villinova was the best team in 1985 and if Michigan State wins this year we will have to accept the manifest falsehood that it is the best team.

The problem with the basketball playoffs is that who wins is too much a function of seedings and the match ups they generate.  This would be no less true of a football playoff.  A question of real interest to me is how the 8 teams that would play off the championship would be determined?  Ironically we would have to use the BCS formula, possibly tweaked a bit.  Though no one would say that the humans that vote are objective or that they can remember key stats, we have the computer polls for that.  But if we are going to do that then we might as well accept the current system where the BCS determines which two teams will play in the national championship game.  There is no way to prove that the BCS winners are not the best teams of the years they win.

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