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NCAA Football: The Flaws of the Bowl Championship Series System

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NCAA Football: The Flaws of the Bowl Championship Series System
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The NCAA administers 89 championships in 23 sports.  Ironically, they do not declare a national champion for their largest revenue sport, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).  If we look at the NCAA Champions website here, the first football champion listed is Eastern Washington University.  This is because every other sport and all other divisions of college football produce a champion via some form of a playoff system.

Although the BCS is not a playoff system, it is an improvement over the traditional bowl tie-ins.  For Penn State fans many wish this system was in place in 1994, which would have allowed Penn State and Nebraska to settle matters on the field. Yet there are flaws within the BCS system that can and should be corrected.

 

Flaw 1: Pre-Season Rankings

Some BCS supporters hailed the 2011 national championship game as an indicator that where a team ranks to start the season does not play a large factor in their rank at the end of the season.  Both Oregon and Auburn began the season ranked outside the top ten; Oregon was 11 and Auburn 22 in the USA/Coaches Preseason poll.  But let’s look further into the claim that preseason rank is not a critical factor in the BCS rankings.

Last year Oregon and Auburn were the only BCS conference teams to go undefeated, allowing them to jump those in front of them.  TCU also went through the entire season without a loss, and actually started with a better ranking of seven, but their disadvantage was being a member of a non-respected conference (the Mountain West, see Flaw 2).  TCU is the only team to start the season ranked in the top ten, go undefeated, and still NOT play in the championship game.

There have been three other years in which a team went undefeated but was left out of the BCS championship game.  Auburn (2004), Boise State (2004), Utah (2004), Boise State (2006), and Utah (2008) also finished undefeated (including bowl game) without having been invited to the national championship game.  In each case the teams were towards bottom of the Top 25 poll or unranked to start the season.

Using the available historical data, from the 2002 season through the 2010 BCS National Championship game, only twice did a team reach the championship game when starting outside the top ten of the USA Today Preseason poll.  Ohio State (2002) was ranked 12th to start the season and LSU (2003) was 15th. In 2002, Ohio State went undefeated and had all teams ranked in front of them lose at least once, except for Miami whom they played in the title game.  As for LSU, they finished the regular season with one less but all teams in front of them (except for two) lost at least twice, which allowed them to move up and get in the championship game. The exceptions were Oklahoma, whom LSU played in the title game, and USC, who similarly had only one loss but also had the disadvantage of not playing in a conference championship game (see Flaw 2).

In years where regular season records were identical, the team with the higher preseason rank was the one that ended up in the game.  For instance, the 2007 regular season ended with Hawaii at 12-0, Ohio State 11-1, and LSU, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, and Missouri all with 11-2 records. In order of preseason rank these teams were LSU (2), Oklahoma (8), Virginia Tech (9), Hawaii (24), and Missouri (unranked).  The championship game pitted the top two preseason teams, Ohio State and LSU.

 

Flaw 2: Conference Affiliation

In the thirteen seasons of the BCS, no team from outside of the six major “BCS” conferences has played in the national championship.  There have been multiple instances of undefeated teams from these non-BCS conferences, and with the recent emphasis on allowing these teams into BCS bowls we have been able to see how they might perform on a big stage against a quality opponent.  Some have failed (Hawaii in 2008), but others have flourished (Boise State in 2007, Utah in 2009, and TCU in 2010).  However, short of joining a new conference, these teams have no real hope of making the BCS National Championship.

Even within the six BCS conferences there is a clear bias. The SEC has produced the last five national champions.  This is certainly in large part due to having the best teams, but not to be overlooked is that these teams are able to get into the championship game.  One of the biggest reasons is the SEC Championship game.  The team that wins the conference championship makes a huge impression because they have a quality win late in the season which humans and computers alike will remember.

The Big 12 and the SEC are the only two conferences which have had conference championship games for each year the BCS system has been in place. Combined, these two conferences have produced half (13 of 26) of the teams who have played in the national championship game.

 

Flaw 3: Computer Error

Football fans in general understand the human polls, where participants cast their votes for different teams to be ranked.  However, nobody seems to talk about the computer methods which make up 1/3 of the BCS rankings.  We often take for granted that these computers have no bias, yet these computers are programmed by humans and therefore are subject to human error.

Given the millions of dollars being tossed around you would think/hope someone is checking these systems.  The public is not provided an opportunity to critically review the methods since the developers keep their algorithms in a vault.  However, by reading through some of the method descriptions provided by authors on their websites and conducting a quick check, some flaws are exposed.

Take for example the Billingsley poll, whose website is here.  He explains, in part, that his system works as follows:

“My rankings are in effect, a “power rating” … however, I’m not as concerned about predicting future outcomes as I am honoring what transpired most recently on the field of play. Let me give you a general example. If #35 Texas Tech beats #10 Texas (regardless of the score as margin of victory is not a consideration), and both teams have an identical record of 5-1, then my philosophy dictates the Red Raiders should be ranked ahead of Texas in my next poll, regardless of whether the odds are they would win again if they played the next week. The results may not hold true for more than one week, but that’s OK because if a team EARNED that position, they deserve the ranking, regardless
of what happens in the next week of play.”

In short, if Team A beats Team B and following the game they have identical records (or we would assume if Team A has a better record), then Team A would be ranked in front of Team B in the subsequent Billingsley poll.  This would seem to follow a simple set of programming rules.  A quick history check, though, indicates an error in either programming or Mr. Billingsley’s description.

In Week 2 of 2009 the Billingsley poll had a 2-0 USC ranked #1 and a 1-1 Washington ranked #96 (see Week 2 rankings here).  These two played in Week 3 with Washington winning.  This brought both teams to 2-1 and, according to the ranking scheme, Washington should have been put in front of USC for Week 3. Instead USC was #16 and Washington was #69. (see Week 3 rankings here).

Another example occurred last year with Boise State and Nevada. On November 26, 2010 a 10-1 Nevada team beat 10-0 Boise State.  Prior to the game, Mr. Billingsley had Nevada ranked 21st and Boise State ranked 3rd. Following Nevada’s win the records were 11-1 for Nevada and 10-1 for Boise State.  By the method described, Nevada should be ranked in front of Boise State since Nevada won and actually sported a better overall record.  His rankings for the week following this game had Boise State at #5 and Nevada at #16.

 

Flaw 4: Margin of Victory

The BCS committee, above all else, preaches sportsmanship.  To support this they demand the computer ranking systems ignore margin of victory.  We assume they want the human pollsters to do the same, but this expectation is unreasonable due to human nature.  But the computers are a different matter, because they can be programmed to ignore it…directly.  However, indirectly is a different story.  The computers have shown a tendency to like teams directly with high scoring averages, which indirectly translates to liking team with higher margins of victory.

For example, in 2008 the Big 12 had three teams with prolific offenses: Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech. After 12 weeks each of these had one loss, each losing to one of the other teams.  Meanwhile, Alabama and Utah were undefeated.  Three of the six computer polls (Massey, Sagarin, and Wolfe) listed in varying order the three Big 12 schools ahead of the unbeatens.  A reasonable explanation could be that their modeling methods favor strong offensive teams.  However, encouraging and rewarding  strong offensive performances is no better than encouraging a wide margin of victory.  Almost by definition running up the score on a team translates to scoring more points against them.

 

Flaw 5: Picking the Championship Game versus Picking the Champion

On one hand, BCS directives explicitly state that no computer method can invoke margin of victory. However, no other constraints are given.  The methodology can include or not include head-to-head results, strength of schedule, etc.  At the end of the conference championships, two teams are scheduled to play in the BCS Championship.  Once that game is played, however, there is no final BCS poll; the champion is decided on the field.  This means the computers and humans who are “qualified” to determine who plays in the game are no longer qualified to choose the champion.

Up to December 5, 2010 when the final BCS poll was presented, head-to-head competition was not necessarily a factor used in the BCS rankings.  Yet the head-to-head national title game is the only factor in determining the overall champion.  Why is it that the computer and human polls are so vitally important in figuring which teams should play for championship, but not in deciding the champion?

There was no final computer poll for the BCS following the latest national championship game on January 11, 2011; just the final Coaches Poll based on the championship game.  Perhaps we can understand why from looking at the final results a few years ago in 2008.  After looking at each of the final computer rankings and using the BCS method of dropping the highest and lowest ranking for each team, we see that the 2008 BCS computer would have ranked Utah (the lone undefeated team) above USC, Texas, Oklahoma and BCS National Champion Florida!

 

Implications and Solutions

Some of these flaws are easy to fix while others may require a more intense revamping of the system.  For instance, the bias of preseason ranks could be easily removed by starting the traditional polls until a few weeks into the season.  Removing the effect of conference championship games would be more difficult due to the human polls, where people would clearly notice and account for the result of those games.  Regardless of whether the solution is one year away or many years away, the BCS should be aware of these flaws now and work towards improving their system.

Here is a look at what the current system and its flaws mean for the upcoming college football season.

Teams from the Big East and Big 12 are fighting an uphill battle without a conference championship.  If they want to play in the national championship they need to finish the season with strictly fewer losses than all but one other team.

Teams not in the preseason top ten and/or not in a BCS conference have a very slim chance of reaching the title game.  The only hope is to have one of the two best overall records and still possibly need some help.  Boise State and TCU would need to go undefeated and need every team to lose (and possibly some teams to lose twice).  Penn State would need to go undefeated, hope there is at most one other BCS conference team that is undefeated, and hope there aren’t many highly regarded one-loss teams who started the season ranked much higher.

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