How I Would Explain the BCS to Mack Brown

February 27, 2009

Texas head coach Mack Brown is bringing in some BCS experts to explain the system to him and his players. Since the BCS poll was used as the Big 12 divisional tiebreaker (and that system has yet to be overthrown), it makes sense that he’d want to understand it better.

Coaches in general make a lot of flippant remarks about how they don’t understand the BCS, so I give Brown a lot of credit for wanting to know more. He’s going about it in a logical way by bringing in experts.

He’s also going about it in an expensive way. Just taking an afternoon and reading some old posts by the BCS Guru would probably be enough. Or, he could just read this guide that breaks it down within its component sections.

The Coaches’ Poll

The Coaches’ Poll should be very familiar to Brown. He was a voter in it last year.

It’s the oldest component of the formula and carries the most tradition. On the surface, it makes sense to poll the coaches. Most are getting paid millions of dollars to teach the game to the fine collegiate athletes of this nation, so wouldn’t it make sense to ask the experts for their opinions?

It’s all great until you take a peek at the coaches’ schedules. I personally have not, but Brown can look at his. I’d be willing to bet that everything on it during the season is in some way related to helping the Texas Longhorns win football games.

In short, the Coaches’ Poll is getting the opinion of people who don’t actually watch many college football games. They know their team and they study their opponents. They have no way of making an informed opinion on all 119 teams, or even just the 66 BCS conference teams, because they don’t have the time to do so.

When pondering what kept his team out of the Big 12 title game Coach Brown asked, “[i]s it margin of victory? Was it not scoring more because if it doesn’t matter to the computers it does to the human vote?”

Well, I know he didn’t watch the Alabama vs. Georgia or Florida vs. Georgia games because Texas was playing Arkansas and Texas Tech, respectively, on those days. Which do you think he probably thinks was more impressive, Alabama’s 41-30 win or Florida’s 49-10 win? I’d bet he’d say Florida’s victory, but really each was about equally as dominant. Alabama just allowed window dressing points while Florida did not.

That’s the problem with the Coaches’ Poll. The coaches don’t watch many games other than their own, which makes their ballots mostly guesswork. They’re also prone to lazy voting where guys move teams around solely on one week’s results instead of stepping back and doing thorough evaluations.

The solution, as Texas found out, is to go Oklahoma’s route and run up huge scores to impress those people who have no idea what really went on in the games.

The Harris Poll

The Harris Interactive Poll replaced the traditional AP Poll, something Brown is probably also very familiar with. It’s not quite so simple to figure out as its predecessor, which simply consisted of sportswriters. Harris Interactive, a polling agency, describes its poll as follows:

“This year, the BCS has again commissioned Harris Interactive to construct a panel of former players, coaches, administrators and current and former media who are committed to ranking the college teams each week during the 2008 college football season. Panelists have been randomly selected from among more than 300 nominations submitted by the conference offices and the independent institutions. The panel has been designed to be a statistically valid representation of all 11 Division I-A conferences and institutions participating in the Bowl Championship Series.”

Basically, every conference and independent in Division I-A gets to nominate some people with ties to the game. Harris then selects a group of them to give everyone proportionate representation. Sounds good, right?

The first problem is that there’s no quality control on the nominations. The conferences can put up anyone they want and Harris doesn’t screen them after that. They could put up a former player who’s been selling insurance for the last 30 years, and that person would have a legit shot at voting.

The second problem is that no one keeps up with the voters to make sure they are actually following the sport. They could be watching even less football than the coaches do. We saw this with Pat Quinn, a 2008 Harris Poll voter who last December thought that Penn State was still undefeated.

The “Computer” Polls

People call the final element “computer” polls for convenience, but they are really just math formulas. They are included as a check against the human polls, which can be influenced by things like allegiances and tradition of schools.

They are supposed to be impartial, but they’re not. They emphasize what their creators believe to be important, reflecting the bias of the mathematician who put it together. That’s fine if the person is reasonable, but it’s bad if the person is not.

They also are limited because they are required to ignore margin of victory. Brown was right about that in his comment that I quoted above. However, that means that the people who put the polls together (most famously, Jeff Sagarin) don’t get to release what they feel is correct.

There are six formulas. Each team’s highest and lowest ranks are tossed out to get rid of any outliers, and the rest are added together to form the third part of the formula.

These formulas are not be able to account for who’s hot, see head-to-head results, or react to injuries. However, that’s exactly their point.

In All

One third of the system is people who know a lot about football but who watch almost no games.

One third of the system is people who may or may not know football that well anymore and who may or may not even pay attention to the scores and standings.

The final third is aggregated formula results that are crippled by the restriction against margin of victory and in at least one case, by its maker’s alarmingly incoherent methodology.

Makes perfect sense, huh?


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