What You Shouldn’t Like About the BCS

By this point, I think it’s pretty clear that I, like most people, don’t like the Bowl Championship Series. I stated most of my case last season, when I suggested a 12-team playoff replace it. I’m more onboard with a 16-team variation now than I was then, but that’s not necessarily original and doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation.

But when someone, in this very space, deigns to point out any good things about the BCS, well, then it’s my turn to chime in and refudiate those notions.*

*What’s that? Sarah Palin jokes are also unoriginal and gratuitous? My bad. Change that to “repudiate” then.

In his mildly pro-BCS screed, which is really just a “Hey, it’s not pure evil” argument about the system, John writes, “The BCS is no more unfair than, say, the absence of a salary cap in baseball, or the fact that there will be a playoff team from the NFC West this season, but it draws exponentially more ire than either of these injustices.”

But John, comparing the systemic unfairness of the BCS to the aberrational one of the NFC West is disingenuous. Some years—in fact, most years—the NFC West produces a competent playoff team. In the last decade, three teams from the NFC West have reached the Super Bowl, tied with the NFC South for the most of any division in football (and the fourth, the 49ers, only won 4 titles in a 13-year span from 1982 to 1994). This is very different from the intrinsic unfairness built into the BCS and MLB’s salary structure, where imbalances NEVER cycle.

John also attacks my running series, “Every Game Counts”: “But this is because Tim is using ‘count’ to mean a very specific thing, namely to have a direct impact on the national championship. Of course, in this respect, it is impossible for every game to ‘count’ in any system—every league with a playoff has games between teams that have been eliminated, both officially and unofficially, from playoff contention.”

The key difference between my point about college football games that don’t count and your point about professional football games that don’t count is that I am approaching the season a priori. I can even quote you quoting me: “[C]ertain games do not–indeed, cannot–count. Many teams cannot control their own destiny. These are games that, regardless of what happens before or after them, will have no bearing on the national championship picture.” The important parts are the “cannot count” and the “regardless of what happens before or after” (my emphases each), whereas in the NFL, no one could say with certainty that this weekend’s Broncos-Cardinals game would not count. In every other sport on nearly every level, at the start of the season, every game can conceivably mean something. This is not true in college football.

More on the issue: “When you introduce a playoff, you are effectively saying that some games count more than others: Do-or-die elimination games count the most, followed by non-elimination playoff games (in leagues with playoff series), followed by divisional or league games that determine playoff positioning, followed by regular season games between non-playoff teams. This is why teams do things like rest players in Week 16 instead of trying to go undefeated, and why great players take games off, and why regular season records don’t tell the whole story in these leagues.”

I’m not quite sure what you’re using “count” to mean here. If you mean some games in major professional sports matter more than others, well, that’s obviously true. Jets-Patriots last week mattered more than Broncos-Cardinals this week. But that’s also the case in college football, where Oregon-Stanford mattered more than TCU-San Diego State.

But if your point is that Oregon-Portland State counts just the same as Oregon-Stanford, because one loss—any loss—can derail the Ducks’ title hopes, that’s also the case in professional football, where something like the Texans’ Week 1 loss to the Jets last season can cost Houston a playoff berth.

Let me reiterate a point I made last season: College football’s regular season is the most exciting largely because it has the fewest games. If the NFL played a 12-game schedule, almost nothing would ever be clinched before the last week of the season, either. And if college football played a 16-game schedule, there’d be a much better chance of the Cam Newtons of the world taking more second halves off down the stretch.

Also, please do not trump up college football’s regular season by comparing it to the NBA’s, which is nothing more than an overhyped preseason. (Here’s a fun experiment: Take a snapshot of today’s NBA standings, and see how different they are at the end of the season. I’ll set the O/U on “Teams Who Will Eventually Make the Playoffs Who Wouldn’t Qualify Today” at 2, and challenge you to take the over.*)

*I’ve got Portland and…that’s it.

And I can honestly say I have no idea what you mean when you imply that regular-season records DO tell the whole story in college football. I hope hope hope you find that concept as laughable as I and the 2008 Utah Utes do.

On underdogs: “In college football, though, an underdog doesn’t just need to pull off one upset, or even a series of upsets—an underdog in college football needs to prove it is one of the best two teams in the country. This can be an especially difficult task since teams like Boise State play a demonstrably weaker schedule than teams like Alabama.”

I only suggest one change here: “[E]specially difficult” should be replaced with “impossible.” It is impossible for a team such as Boise State to “prove” it is one of the nation’s two best teams during a single regular season. If TCU, for instance, won each one of its games this season by 50 or more points, it would likely still not be playing in the title game. And think of how far the Broncos and Horned Frogs have traveled to reach this peripheral point: BSU has been a dominant program for a decade. The Broncos have been every bit as good as Gonzaga has been in college basketball, but this is the first year they’ve had a chance at the title, even though it’s been far from their best team. TCU, meanwhile, has flourished under Gary Patterson, finishing in the top 10 in four of the past five seasons. Think of it this way: If you’re a freshman enrolling at a non-AQ school that hasn’t made national noise yet, there is no chance you can play for a championship in your four years.

As an aside, I would also argue that it’s “especially difficult” for any team, regardless of context  to “prove” it’s one of the two best in the country during a 12- or 13-game season. Right now, we can say Auburn deserves to play for the championship more than TCU based on its schedule; but can we definitively say that the Tigers are better than the Horned Frogs? It was three weeks ago when Vegas had TCU as the favorite in a potential meeting with Auburn.

And I also disagree with your main point that the BCS is considered worse than other methods simply because it is different: “Instead of introducing a hierarchy of games and gradually weeding teams out, the BCS evaluates the entire regular season to determine the two best teams to battle it out for the National Championship. It may get those two wrong, but that’s merely a flaw in the execution, not the principle behind the system.”

The flaw is that the principle behind the system rarely allows it to be properly executed. How many times has the BCS given us, definitively, the nation’s two best teams? Three times! In 13 years!* It doesn’t matter what the methodology is; if it’s used to select only two teams to play in the championship based on a 12-game and totally unbalanced schedule, it will fail more than it succeeds. There simply aren’t enough games to make an informed decision. What made 2008 Oklahoma more qualified than 2008 Texas? Or those Longhorns more qualified than 2008 Texas Tech? It was impossible to create clear distinctions between those three teams.**

*FSU-Virginia Tech in ’99, Miami-Ohio State in ’02, USC-Texas in ’05. That’s it.

**Sure, you can say “Well, the Sooners demolished Texas Tech, so the Red Raiders are out.” But that would be like saying the Jets should be barred from this year’s playoffs because they lost to the Patriots by 42 on Monday night.

And that was as easy as threesomes get in the BCS. Think: Those teams played in the same conference! They had games against one another! There were bases of comparison! It wasn’t as easy in 2004, when Oklahoma, USC, and Auburn hadn’t played each other. How could you figure out a second team in 2007, when Hawaii was undefeated, Ohio State and Kansas each had one loss, and LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia, Virginia Tech, USC, Missouri, West Virginia, and Arizona State were all BCS conference teams with two losses?*

*I bet you, like me, forgot Kansas only had one loss that season.

This gets to my main point, which is that a BCS-like system can work in some sports. A BCS system could work well in baseball, where every team plays every other team in its league several times. It could work in basketball, as well; it might even spice up the regular season (is Pierre listening?).

But college football is the absolute worst sport to use such a system. Why? Nobody plays anybody! Non-conference tilts between high-ranking BCS-conference teams are an endangered species. I’m not entirely positive about this, but my count of non-conference games played between BCS teams that finished in the Top 25 is…two. LSU-West Virginia and Arkansas-Texas A&M. I forgive you for not staying up for those showdowns.

And so there are no meaningful bases of comparison. Our conceptions of conference strength are at best estimates and at worst assumptions. It’s easy to say that Auburn has played a harder schedule this year than TCU. But how much harder? Would a 12-1 Auburn team be more impressive than 12-0 TCU? What if Auburn lost two games? How about Oregon vs. Ohio State? What if the Ducks dropped one game? Would their schedule within the Pac-10 be better than OSU’s in the Big Ten? What about Wisconsin’s Big Ten schedule, which was different even than Ohio State’s? What if Oklahoma went 13-0 in the Big 12? How would that have compared to Auburn’s 13-0 and Oregon’s 12-0? And how would the comparison this year differ from the one made in 2004, when Oklahoma was 13-0, Auburn was 13-0, and Pac-10 USC was 12-0?*

*Answer: They’d be ranked Oklahoma, Auburn, Oregon in that order. Why? Because Oklahoma is Oklahoma and the SEC is the SEC. Oregon doesn’t have the tradition USC did in ’04.

The problem is that in the large majority of its operative years, the BCS cannot do what it purports to do, which is to give us a legitimate championship game between the nation’s top two teams. It’s not that it gets it wrong those years; it’s that there’s no way for it to get it right. In 2008, BCS proponents cannot legitimately justify why Oklahoma deserved to be in that title game over Texas, just like they wouldn’t have been able to legitimately justify the vice versa. The same could be said about ’07 (LSU over a host of teams), ’06 (Florida over Michigan, Louisville, Wisconsin), ’04 (USC and OU over Auburn), ’03 (OU and LSU over USC), ’01 (Nebraska over CU and Oregon), ’00 (FSU over Miami and Washington), and ’98 (FSU over K-State, Ohio State, and UCLA). Bill Hancock et. al—and perhaps John—may say I just don’t get it because I’m still viewing things through a playoff prism, but if TCU wins the Rose Bowl this season, it will be the third consecutive a year a team finishes the season undefeated yet without a title. And that can’t be satisfying to anyone.

If you design a system that doesn’t properly execute its function more than half the time, then the system is a failure. And even Richard Billingsley’s computer rankings know that’s not a good thing.

About these ads

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Weylin Ruetten on December 14, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    let’s face it: arguing against a playoff is like arguing against gay marriage…

    Reply

  2. Posted by John S on December 14, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    Well, allow me to defend myself against this uncalled for attack on my logic.

    1) “Comparing the systemic unfairness of the BCS to the aberrational one of the NFC West is disingenuous. Some years—in fact, most years—the NFC West produces a competent playoff team.”

    That is true w/r/t the NFC West in particular, but the point still holds. In any given year, in any given sport with divisional alignment, there are invariably weak divisions: This year saw the AL West, the NL Central, the NBA’s Atlantic Division. Two years ago the AFC West was as bad as the NFC West is now. The point is that divisional alignment DOES in fact present systemic problems, as does virtually every system, including the BCS.

    2) “If your point is that Oregon-Portland State counts just the same as Oregon-Stanford, because one loss—any loss—can derail the Ducks’ title hopes, that’s also the case in professional football, where something like the Texans’ Week 1 loss to the Jets last season can cost Houston a playoff berth.”

    This is technically accurate but totally misleading. Obviously any team that finishes one game out of the playoffs can point to any one loss as the one that derailed its season, but it’s wrong to say that the Texans’ loss to the Jets in Week 1 last season “cost” that team a playoff berth. That team was still alive for a playoff berth after the loss. In fact, the team was alive until the last game of the season. This would not be true for Oregon. A loss to Portland State would kill its season just as much as a loss to Stanford.

    In addition to the emphasis on going undefeated, this is because the BCS does not provide a threshold of wins you need to reach to make the playoffs. As a result, every game is potentially do-or-die, which is simply not true in the NFL: The Texans season was far from dead after the loss to the Jets.

    3) “If college football played a 16-game schedule, there’d be a much better chance of the Cam Newtons of the world taking more second halves off down the stretch.”

    I see virtually no evidence of this. I mean, I guess there would be “a much better chance,” but still not a very high one. I mean, depending on how the schedule was filled out, the Tigers still couldn’t risk losing, for fear that TCU or Stanford might pass them in the standings. I just don’t see any way a team could theoretically “clinch” in the BCS.

    4) “Think of it this way: If you’re a freshman enrolling at a non-AQ school that hasn’t made national noise yet, there is no chance you can play for a championship in your four years.”

    Is this really all that different from other college sports, namely basketball? You’re one of the few people who knows how Butler built itself up over the course of the last half-decade, and that was the biggest Cinderella story in NCAA Championship history. You can point out, of course, that I’m ignoring that so many teams get the opportunity to play in the Tournament, and that the early round games function as their coming-out party, or their de facto championship, but the other bowls can serve the same function. Boise State’s classic Fiesta Bowl, for example, was as thrilling a game as I can remember (way more thrilling than whatever the championship of that year was), and hardly diminished by not being the title game (in fact, I think it would have been hurt much more if Boise State had later been eliminated in an unmemorable later round of the “postseason”).

    And with this in mind, turnarounds are much more common. Temple, for example, went 1-11 in 2006, and made a bowl in 2009.

    5) “How many times has the BCS given us, definitively, the nation’s two best teams? Three times! In 13 years!*”

    How many times has ANY championship given us a game between teams that were “definitively” the two best? It’s virtually impossible to answer any question like that “definitively,” so the mere fact that you concede three examples of the BCS doing it so is to the process’ credit. It may be impossible to determine definitively who is “the best,” but it’s not as difficult to determine which two teams had the best regular seasons, which is what the BCS does. And I think it’s done so rather well.

    You can ask questions like “What made 2008 Oklahoma more qualified than 2008 Texas? Or those Longhorns more qualified than 2008 Texas Tech?” and then conclude that, “It was impossible to create clear distinctions between those three teams.” But that’s not really true when you think about their regular seasons: Texas Tech had two losses. Oklahoma and Texas each had one. Therefore Texas & Oklahoma > Texas Tech. Oklahoma’s one loss came to a better team than Texas’ one loss (granted, it was Texas, which makes this reasoning very counterintuitive, but that’s kind of the point). Hence, Oklahoma > Texas.

    Does this mean that Oklahoma is “definitively” better than Texas? Or the Red Raiders? No, but it shows they had a better season and better deserved to be in the championship game.

    6) “Sure, you can say ‘Well, the Sooners demolished Texas Tech, so the Red Raiders are out.’ But that would be like saying the Jets should be barred from this year’s playoffs because they lost to the Patriots by 42 on Monday night.”

    This is EXACTLY the kind of playoff logic that corrupts thinking about the BCS. In a playoff system, obviously one blowout should not bar you from the playoff, but the BCS is evaluating the entire regular season. And if two regular seasons seem equal except for a head-to-head matchup, OF COURSE a 42-point win by the Patriots gives NE the edge. It would be utterly absurd to say that the Jets had a better regular season at that point.

    7) “It’s easy to say that Auburn has played a harder schedule this year than TCU. But how much harder? Would a 12-1 Auburn team be more impressive than 12-0 TCU? What if Auburn lost two games? How about Oregon vs. Ohio State? What if the Ducks dropped one game? Would their schedule within the Pac-10 be better than OSU’s in the Big Ten? What about Wisconsin’s Big Ten schedule, which was different even than Ohio State’s? What if Oklahoma went 13-0 in the Big 12? How would that have compared to Auburn’s 13-0 and Oregon’s 12-0? And how would the comparison this year differ from the one made in 2004, when Oklahoma was 13-0, Auburn was 13-0, and Pac-10 USC was 12-0?”

    This is a peculiar kind of sophistry: It’s very easy to win arguments by proposing a litany of hypotheticals that are, admittedly, complex. This is how people argue against evolution: “So you’re saying we evolved from apes? Then why are there still apes? And what about inconsistencies in the fossil record? What about negative adaptations that seem to persist anyway? How does evolution account for the origin of life in the first place? What about the incredibly complex systems of immunity that seem irreducibly complex?”

    See, obviously there is an intelligent designer!

    The fact is that all of your questions are hard to answer (impossible, actually, since we have no way of knowing how people would vote if your hypotheticals were true), but that the BCS WOULD answer them. You might not be satisfied with all of the answers, but you can’t simply state that all of them are wrong because the questions are impossible to answer. It’s just as “impossible” to answer who was better last year, the Saints or the Colts (remember, your answer has to be DEFINITIVE!). The BCS is just like a playoff in that they are both ways of coming with AN answer to a question that has no single “definitive” answer.

    Reply

    • My responses to your responses to my responses (this feels like a David Mitchell novel):

      1. I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree on divisional alignments. I don’t think it’s a systemic problem if, every few years, one division is worse than the others. And even when these things do happen in the other sports, they don’t resonate to the same extent (i.e. the NFC West winner will knock out a 9-10 win NFC team, not the Falcons; alternatively, the Celtics may win more games because of the slight unbalance of the NBA schedule by playing in an easier division than, say, the Heat. Still, Boston will have to beat Miami in a seven-game series. It will not be placed in the title game ahead of the Heat based off this unbalanced setup).

      2. Once again, not many college football games are do-or-die. And fewer than all of them are potentially do-or-die.

      And for any astute NFL fan, the knowledge that one game can and often does make a huge difference in playoff positioning/qualification means they are all potentially significant, if not quite “do-or-die.”

      One more aside: The extent to which everyone assumes you can’t win a championship if you lose in college football bothers me. Ten of the 26 teams—a not insignificant percentage—to play for the championship have indeed done so after a loss in the BCS Era. Yes, this year an Oregon loss to Stanford would have done in the Ducks. But not everyone felt the same way about Alabama after its loss to South Carolina early in the season.

      3. It depends, as you said, on how teams fill out their schedule. Newton already did, in fact, spend time on the bench against some cupcake opposition earlier this season. If teams played those extra games against inferior non-AQ schools, Newton would rest in those games. If they played more conference games and some big non-conference tilts, then you would see years (not every year, but every once in a while) where a team would be 15-0 with no other undefeated team, knowing it would face no harm in losing the last game of the season.

      I also think you overstate how often this happens in the NFL. I agree it was egregious last year with the Colts laying down and the Jets getting a free ride to the playoffs. I can’t think of another instance off the top of my head where it was really an issue, though. I don’t know too many fans upset when the Bucs rested in 2007’s Week 17 tilt with the Carolina Panthers.

      4. Yes, it is very different from college basketball. You know who got to play for a championship? Thomas Jackson, Joel Cornette, and the 2000 Butler Bulldogs, who came a Mike Miller buzzer-beating floater from beating the eventual national runner-up in the first round. To me, there is a significant difference between having “literally no chance” to play for a championship and “almost no chance,” and that is the difference between college football and college basketball.

      Other bowls cannot serve the same function. Name me one non-Boise State team that used a bowl as a “coming-out party” (and who didn’t know Boise State by then?). I find your claim that the BSU-OU game was “hardly diminished by not being the title game” to be outlandish; I know we talk about that game as being great now (and really leading to a lot of misconceptions about how it was played*), but if that were the title game, it’s one of the two or three greatest college sporting events of all-time.

      *Namely, people forget that Boise State totally outplayed Oklahoma much of the night before choking down the stretch, that Oklahoma wasn’t very good, and that BSU didn’t need to use all those trick plays (they did need the hook-and-ladder) to win the game.

      And I don’t think it would have hurt much more had Boise State been eliminated later (if, indeed, the Broncos had been. How cool would it have been if they won another game in a playoff system or even went all the way?). Losing later didn’t take too much away from Northern Iowa last year or Hampton in 2001 or Gonzaga in 1999.
      Finally, I don’t understand your aside about turnarounds in the least. They’re not very common in college football: The BCS games are dominated by the same cadre of schools, and certain moribund programs have remained moribund for very long stretches of time. I don’t see the difference between Temple going from 1-11 to the EagleBank Bowl and Monmouth going from 5-21 in 1999 to 21-10 and a first-round date with Duke in 2001. Your claim requires a LOT more evidence than you provide.

      5. First, I want to thank you for taking into account Texas Tech’s two losses that season, the second of which came in the Cotton Bowl, well after the title-game decision was made (I guess you didn’t view that as Houston Nutt and Mississippi’s coming-out party). So all three teams were actually 11-1, which means it’s harder for you to say Oklahoma’s loss came to the better team. And this doesn’t even factor in that Oklahoma lost on a neutral field, while the others lost on the road. So I don’t think it shows in any way that Oklahoma had a better season than the other two. For every justification you can come up with for the Sooners, I can come back with one for one of the other teams.

      I was a bit loose with my wording in my original post. I meant to say that the BCS rarely even gives us championship games between the teams with the two best seasons because there is rarely enough data to make that decision. Three-for-13 isn’t even a good batting average.

      6. What if they’re tied, though, and they each have a win over the other? Shouldn’t the Patriots be just as punished for losing to the Browns by 20 (a team the Jets beat) as the Jets are for losing to New England by 42, considering the relative strength of the teams?

      7. Man, this is the second time this week I’ve been accused of sophistry. Sure, these are all complex hypotheticals. But these kinds of complex hypotheticals happen nearly every year in the sport. The BCS often bases decisions off complex hypotheticals: If Utah played in the SEC, it would not have gone undefeated, and thus Florida’s 11-1 is more impressive.

      You’re right: It WAS impossible to answer who was better last year between the Saints and the Colts; that’s why we had them play each other! Then it was an easy answer!

      And re: evolution, I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it.

      Reply

  3. Posted by John S on December 14, 2010 at 8:56 PM

    This probably should have been a symposium….

    Reply

  4. Posted by Douglas on December 15, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    A symposium? Why do you two need to face off in some kind of series? Can’t we make a decision as to whose argument is better based on the regular post record?

    Reply

  5. Posted by Weylin Ruetten on December 16, 2010 at 1:54 AM

    Sophistry’s Choice…

    Reply

  6. […] “What You Shouldn’t Like about the BCS” by Tim […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 110 other followers

%d bloggers like this: