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?


A Couple of Good Reads

January 12, 2009

Pete Fiutak of CFN and Matt Hinton of Dr. Saturday each make their case as to why Florida is rightfully the top team ahead of Utah, USC, and Texas. If you need some ammo against anyone trying to claim that UF is not the rightful champion, here you go.

Also, the International Herald Tribune takes a look at the similarities between Florida and USC.

Meanwhile, recently-name offensive coordinator Steve Addazio is in the running for the BC job despite being hospitalized for a knee infection. It’s great that he gets a shot at it, but I’d be shocked if anyone by BC defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani gets it. Also, TEs coach John Hevesy has left for a title and pay upgrade of some sort with Dan Mullen at Mississippi State.

National Champions

January 9, 2009

You don’t gotta win pretty, you just gotta win. National champions, twice in three years.

It’s like the 2008 team was magically transported to 2006 where they beat the Buckeyes like they did all season, and the 2006 team showed up tonight to win a tough, gritty, and close game.

Yes, Urban Meyer can win with his own players.

Yes, Percy Harvin is the best skill position player in the nation.

Yes, Tim Tebow was the best quarterback on the field tonight.

And yes, Florida is rightfully named national champions.

BCS Title Game: 7-7 at the Half

January 8, 2009

My brother texted me not long ago to say that we’re lucky it’s not 21-7 at the half. I don’t fully agree with that because letting teams gain yards but then stiffening up in the red zone is what the defense has done all year. Nothing new there.

Tebow is not having a good game on his handoff/keep reads though. On a couple of the 4-9 yard losses, Tebow should have kept it instead of handing it off. The two INTs don’t help his cause much either,  but he’s been pretty sharp throwing the ball except for those.

In short, the Florida offense is not executing very well. The Oklahoma offense is executing very well, but the Florida defense is stopping them when it counts.

If Florida’s offense can step up the execution and the defense can keep it up, we should be in good shape. We’ll see.

A Preview of the Game

January 8, 2009

I volunteered to write a few bowl previews for Bleacher Report, and the final one for tonight’s game is here.

Did the Fiesta Bowl Tell Us Anything About Thursday?

January 6, 2009

Once again, a Big 12 offense has underperformed its expected value based on its and its opposing defenses’ play all year. Texas projected to score 36.5 points, but ended up with only 24.

Kansas is still the only Big 12 offense to exceed its expected point value, and again, it was against a cratering Minnesota team. Oklahoma projects to get about 38 points, and I wouldn’t call it a stretch to think that Florida could hold the Sooners under that if they show up ready to play as a D.

Run defense was an early talking point in the game, as someone on Fox’s research staff pulled out the gem that the Longhorns had seen the fewest rushes of any defense. This tidbit was to point out how pass-heavy the Big 12 was this season.

I looked it up, and the NCAA stats that are currently available include all games through the Sugar Bowl. Even with everyone getting their bowls counted and Texas not, UT did indeed face the fewest rushes. They saw 317 runs against them, with second place being TCU who saw 355 rushes.

What about percentage though? Maybe Texas just didn’t see that many plays run against it thanks to its great offense being on the field a lot.

Well, Texas saw the lowest rush percentage too with opponents running just 40.5% of the time against them. The strong Texas D-line combined with a really young secondary was probably the reason behind this. The pass-happy Big 12 did help some, but it’s not the whole story.

Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Missouri all ended up in the bottom ten of opponents rush percentage along with Texas, and five teams in the bottom ten is a trend, not an outlier. Even so, Alabama and Iowa from the quarterback-challenged SEC and Big Ten were also in the bottom ten. Florida clocked in at 21st-lowest opposing run percentage.

The conference doesn’t explain it all. The fact these teams (Iowa excepted) got up big early and often meant that opponents were forced to pass more often. That’s a main reason why who finishes a game with the most passing yards is generally a poor predictor of who won the game, while the team that rushes for more yards is a much better one.

The fact that Texas’ players didn’t see a power rushing attack all season had more to do with Beanie Wells’ early success than a flat lack of running plays in general. Will Muschamp has seen plenty in his day, and he knows what to do against them, but it’s different when you experience it in a live game. Besides, the fact that Wells is simply a gifted back had something to do with it too.

So what about Thursday? The fact that Oklahoma saw a relatively low number of rushing plays probably means nothing either. Florida has actually seen fewer, at 411 to the Sooners’ 425. OU also saw a power-oriented rush attack against TCU and did fine, holding the Frogs to 2.9 yards per rush. TCU doesn’t use option the way Florida does and certainly doesn’t have a power-running quarterback like Tim Tebow, but the Oklahoma defense does get to go up against the monstrous Oklahoma offensive line in practice.

It’s basically a non-issue, even if it is a nice bit of trivia.

As has been reported, Florida’s defense is much higher in the national rankings than Oklahoma’s is. It is also considerably higher than Texas’ defense too, and the ‘Horns tied for holding OU to its lowest point output of the year.

Florida’s defense is practically even with where Ohio State was going into this game, and we saw that the Buckeyes held Texas to 17 points for more than 59 minutes.

Florida’s offense is considerably better in just about every quantifiable way than Ohio State’s is. Yes, that even includes rushing as the Gators rush for more yards a game and at 5.96 to 4.59, they get almost a yard and a half more per rush.

Throw all those together and mix them around and it points to a Florida win. In reality though, will it blend? We’ll find out.

In the game of Will it Blend, Tom always wins.

Best or Most Deserving?

January 3, 2009

After eight years of practice of arguing over the BCS, the ninth season’s controversy finally boiled it down to two options. Do you vote for who is the best team by the eyeball test, or who is most deserving based on everyone’s resumes?

The ninth season was 2006, and Michigan represented the “best” team, while Florida was the “most deserving.” The Gators were helped out by two other factors, namely that voters didn’t want to see a rematch and wanted to honor the value of winning a conference championship. Anyway, that year the “most deserving” team barely won out and got to go to the national title game.

In 2007, LSU jumped from seventh to second in the final ballots because of the “most deserving” argument. However in 2004 undefeated Auburn was the “most deserving” team (having won the toughest conference), but the Tigers lost out to the two “best” teams in USC and Oklahoma.

Since human votes dominate the system, it should be no surprise that the choice of best or most deserving hasn’t been applied evenly. Oklahoma passed Texas in the second to last BCS rankings thanks to being the “best” of the two despite the “most deserving” Longhorns having beaten the Sooners in the regular season.

The fact that “best” won out over “most deserving” this year makes me feel better about the possibility of Florida winning the national title on Thursday. The reason? I have a hard time saying that Utah is not the most deserving.

By the BCS’s own criteria for determining which leagues get automatic bids, the Mountain West was the fifth-best conference, ahead of the sixth-place Big East and seventh-place Pac-10. Utah has defeated four teams that will finish the year ranked in Oregon State, TCU, BYU, and Alabama. Florida has defeated only two that will be for sure in Georgia and Alabama, and maybe a third in FSU (the third-highest in also receiving votes). However, the SEC rated as the second-best conference.

A lot of football is about timing, which is why season-long stats don’t predict the outcomes of bowl games precisely. If Alabama had played Utah the way it played Florida, the Sugar Bowl could have ended much differently. The Tide did not however, and here we sit with a 13-0 Utah team with probably the best resume of anyone.

If you’re going by the eyeball test, then I still say Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas are better. They have better players almost across the board, and on a neutral field I’d take them. There’s a reason all of them finished ahead of Alabama in the final poll, and right now I’d give USC an edge over the Utes as well. None of them had close scrapes with teams as bad as Michigan and New Mexico, two teams that Utah beat by a field goal or less.

We’ll never know, of course, who would win for sure since the university presidents and conference commissioners who run Div. I-A football think that a two-team playoff is adequate. The Coaches’ Poll has no choice about its national champion, but if the AP Poll was to vote Utah No. 1 at the end, I would have a hard time being upset with it. They’ve earned it.

I doubt it will happen, though, since people’s memories are increasingly short these days. Some people who were ready to give USC the national title after the Rose Bowl are ready to give it to Utah now, and they might give it to Texas after the Fiesta Bowl just before crowning either Florida or Oklahoma after the BCS Championship Game.

When history looks back at this year however, it will always remember this Utah team. When the system of determining the champion is such a joke, being remembered forever isn’t a bad consolation prize.