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Jeff Maurer's Soccer Blog
Sunday, 7 January 2007
Topic: Football (American)

  Observant readers will notice that this blog is not actually about soccer - it's about the other football. But the BCS has bugged me for a long time now, so I figured I'd go ahead and put my thoughts in writing.

   Tonight is the college football National Championship Game, so now is also a good time to express my hatred of the Byzantine, arbitrary, completely moronic system known as the Bowl Championship Series.


  Here's the only iron-clad lock in sports: the college football champion will be controversial. Several teams will claim that they deserved to be in the BCS title game, and they will have a point. However, the teams who actually do play in the BCS title game (it's the Rose Bowl this year) will also have a legitimate claim to their spot in the game. There will be no satisfactory conclusion. This will lead to a level of whining and bitching that no other sport – figure skating included – would tolerate.


  This will happen because college football is organized by people too ignorant to recognize this obvious truth: any championship format that involves voting will be viewed by some as illegitimate. Let's review how things are presently done:


-         Each team plays between 11 and 14 games.

-         The quality of opponents varies considerably, with teams in the six "major" conferences playing significantly tougher schedules than teams in the five "minor" conferences.

-         Some conferences have title games, which pit the two top teams against each other. Others do not.

-         Teams schedule their own non-conference games. National championship contenders frequently schedule games against teams in the lower divisions of college football, which, for some reason, is allowed.

-         From this clusterfuck, the BCS rankings are determined. The BCS rankings consist of three factors:


1.      The Harris Interactive Poll. The Harris poll is compiled by sports writers and former players. All of these people have jobs and can't possibly watch every game in college football. Furthermore, practically all of them went to college, including many of the colleges involved in the poll.


2.      The Coaches Poll. This poll is compiled by coaches who were obviously coaching their own fucking game while the other teams in the poll were playing. These coaches have a greater incentive than anyone else in the world to cast self-interested votes. It is commonly known that athletic directors, assistant coaches, and, in some cases, equipment managers actually submit the "coach's" rankings.


3.      Computer poll average. Six computer polls are averaged out to create a single computer poll average. These rankings are completely objective and calculated according to pre-determined, result-oriented criteria, making them immune to skewed perceptions and sentimental factors. Nonetheless, after every season, meathead sports commentators will claim that the computers – and not the shit-for-brains coaches and reporters – got it wrong.


The BCS used to factor in strength of schedule and quality wins, but these criteria were dropped after the objective determinations of mathematics failed to reflect the subjective determinations of idiot football coaches. The system now is almost identical to the failed system that led to the creation of the BCS in the first place. The top two teams in the BCS poll at the end of the season play in the National Championship Game. This game rotes among the four BCS bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta), completely fucking up the sacred bowl traditions (i.e., the Rose Bowl has the Big Ten and Pac Ten champs) that are ostensibly one of the main reasons why we don't have a playoff. The winner of the National Championship Game is declared the National Champion, but this is almost always disputed, as nobody agreed on which teams should be in the game in the first place. Even in relatively non-controversial years (such as last year, when the only two undefeated teams in the country met in the title game), it is easy to argue that good teams were not given a fair shot at the title.


So, that's how it is now. Let's review the pros of this system:


-         It's better than the old system.


Okay, now the cons:


-         You're comparing apples and oranges. How can you compare two teams who quite possibly didn't have a single common opponent? And how do you compare the quality of various conferences when there are only a handful of inter-conference games? With that being true, how can you compare a 12-0 team to an 11-1 team from another conference? Maybe the 11-1 team had a much tougher schedule. But, you can't punish the 12-0 team, can you? Furthermore, how do you compare an 11-0 team to a 13-1 team? Isn't it possible that the 11-0 team would have lost if they had played those extra games? And given that there are only a handful of really tough games, how do you factor in home field advantage (or disadvantage) in those games? How does head-to-head competition factor in? Also, what are we actually voting on? Are we looking for the best team, or are we looking for the team that had the best season? If it's the first, then why even bother playing the games? But it can't be the second, because many teams have identical seasons. Also, are we looking for the best team now, or the best team over the course of the season? Which brings up the question: should we factor in margin of victory? It seems like we shouldn't, because that makes close victories into losses, and it rewards teams for running up the score. But, on the other hand, if you had teams with identical records and schedules, wouldn't margin of victory be the tie-breaker?


There are no answers to these questions, which is why any system that involves voting will never work.


-         It's ruined the bowl traditions. The biggest argument against a playoff used to be that the bowl traditions are sacred. The Pac 10 always played the Big 10 in the Rose Bowl, and it had been that way since the '30s. Anything that disrupted that system was a non-starter. Yet, in their infinite stupidity, the NCAA managed to institute a system that destroyed these traditions without solving the fundamental problem. This is why ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Oregon was denied a chance to win their first Rose Bowl in more than fifty years despite winning the PAC 10 in 1999.


-         The other bowls mean nothing. It used to be that Michigan would be thrilled to end up in the Rose Bowl. This year, however, they were pissed, because it meant that they were denied a chance of playing for the national title. Every game except for the title game is nothing more than an exhibition.


-         Reputations matter. When several teams end the season with identical records – as often happens in college football – tie-breakers are important. In practice, reputation is one of the most important tie-breakers in college football. Traditional powerhouses, such as Notre Dame, Penn State, and Florida State, are almost always overrated. Remember, people are making these rankings based on how good they think these teams are. And the inflated reputations of the perennial powerhouses mean that when you've got two teams with identical records, the powerhouse team will often be given the benefit of the doubt.


-         When you lose matters. You hear this logic a lot in college football: "they won, so they shouldn't move down." On one hand, this makes sense: a team shouldn't ever be punished for winning. However, it ignores the fact that the initial rankings were a guess based on no results, and therefore shouldn't mean anything at all. Furthermore, teams that lose late in the season are often pushed behind teams with identical records who lost early in the season (see, for example, the fact that Oklahoma are ranked above USC). People have started to get wise to this flaw in recent years, but it still matters.


-         Small teams have no chance. If you are not in a major conference, you will never win the national championship. Those aren't the formal rules, but that's the way it works in practice. If you're in one of the five "minor" conferences, your title dreams are gone before you stepped on the field. There are no Cinderellas in college football - no '06 George Mason, no '84 Villanova. This year, Boise State won every game on its schedule, including a thrilling 43-42 win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. For that they win…nothing at all. The best they'll get at the end of the season is a number three ranking, behind a couple of teams with one loss (including the potential national champion, if Florida wins tonight). They don't even get a chance to keep playing until someone beats them. Where's the excitement in that?


  Obviously, the current system is arbitrary and unfair. A playoff is required, as just about anyone who follows the sport will agree. All of the old arguments against a playoff – it will add too many games, it will destroy traditions, it will distract players from their academics – have been torpedoed by the NCAA's own expansion and distortion of regular season and bowl schedule. The last argument – that a playoff would distract student-athletes from their studies – doesn't even pass the laugh test, especially considering the fact that Division II, which includes the Ivy Leagues, has a playoff.


  Most proponents of a playoff advocate basically the same format as the NCAA basketball tournament, only with eight teams instead of 64. While this would be better than the current system, there is still a major problem: voting would still play a major role. Look at what would have happened this year: Boise State, one of only two undefeated teams in the country, would be out. 10-2 LSU, an SEC team, would be in, while 10-2 Auburn, also an SEC team who beat LSU, would be out. Two-loss teams Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Rutgers, and Wake Forest would be out in spite of the fact that three two-loss teams would be in. Also, there would have been no drama in the fourth quarter of the Michigan-Ohio State game, as both teams would have known that they at least made the game close enough to avoid dropping out of the top eight. My point is this: If we simply put the top eight teams into a playoff, we'll still have many of the same problems that we have now. We need to get rid of voting altogether.


  Here's how we do that: First, fold the five small conferences into four (this isn't so far-fetched due to the restructuring in the ACC and Big East in the past few years). Conference USA disappears (or the MAC disappears – it doesn't matter for these purposes). Notre Dame joins the Big 10; sorry, Notre Dame, we're not going to force a crappy system on all of college football so that you can have your undeserved BCS bowl payday (note: I am a lifelong Notre Dame fan. It is the last vestige of the days when my family was Catholic). Then the bowl games get structured like this:


-         WAC champ vs. Mountain West champ, winner goes to Fiesta Bowl

-         MAC champ vs. Sunbelt champ, winner goes to Fiesta Bowl


-         Fiesta Bowl: WAC/Mountain West champ vs. MAC/Sunbelt champ

-         Rose Bowl: PAC 10 Champ vs. Big 10 Champ

-         Orange Bowl: Big East Champ vs. ACC Champ

-         Sugar Bowl: SEC Champ vs. Big 12 Champ


  These games take place on January 1, as used to be the tradition. Then, there are two more rounds until there is a winner. The matchups would change every year (Sugar vs. Orange winner one year, Sugar vs. Fiesta winner the next) so that no one conference always ends up playing the Fiesta Bowl champ, which will arguably be the weakest team in the final four.


  The logic behind this system is the same logic that lies behind the playoff system in every pro sport: you play your way in. There's no voting, no subjectivity. The path is laid out, and if you keep winning, you will be the champ. Also, if you claim to be the best team in the country, then you have to at least prove that you're the best team in the division.


  The main drawback that I see in this system is that non-conference games don't mean as much as they do now. But non-conference games would still serve three purposes: 1) They'd be tie-breakers for teams with identical conference records (as they are now), 2) They'd be important for the non-playoff bowls (which would still exist, as they do now), and 3) A points system based entirely on non-conference games could be used to determine home-field advantage for the semi-final and final, which would provide an incentive to actually schedule games against tough teams. Also, I'd like to point out that it would be extremely difficult to make non-conference games more boring than they already are, as the big teams have taken to beating up on the Eastern Michigans of the world in order to avoid a potentially crippling loss.


  The advantages of this system are this:


-         There's no voting

-         It restores the bowl traditions and enhances inter-conference rivalries in those games

-         It doesn't add too many games

-         It intensifies in-conference rivalries

-         Teams get to actually play the teams competing with them for a playoff spot

-         It creates semi-final and final games with an actual home-field advantage, which will be much more exciting than bowl games at neutral sites (note: if they can play NFL games in Green Bay in January, then they can play college games in Michigan in January)

-         The small colleges have a chance to win it all


  That's it. I'm surprised you read this far.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:56 PM EST
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