Monday, December 01, 2008

The BCS Mess

Courtesy of this guy comes the heads up about a blistering Jason Whitlock column in which the Big sexy takes square aim at ESPN and fires repeatedly. Now Whitlock has more than his share of sour grapes about ESPN, and his hook into the column, the (he believes overlooked and dismissed) success of Ball State's football team comes with the caveat that Whitlock not only is an alum of Ball State, he played football for them. That said, many of his criticisms hold true.


Whitlock's column once again reminds us of the problematic nature of how the NCAA decides its postseason in college football. In every other sport, indeed in every other division of college football, championships are decided by players on the floor, field, track, pool, court, pitch, or what have you. But not big time college football, where these things are decided (the passive voice is intentional) by an unwieldy agglomeration of polls of journalists and coaches and a secretive computer program. And yet every week during the season the pollsters get it wrong, then blithely go back on tv or in their columns and explain why this time they have it right and how dare you question their judgment. the computers don't have a much better success rate.


And as we've seen this year, with three undefeated teams from non-BCS conferences, two of which are almost certain to be shut out of the BCS bowls, even an 8-team playoff would not do the trick. I still advocate, as I have in the past, a 16 team playoff whereby every conference winner gets a bid to the tournament, with remaining spots chosen at-large by a committee very much like the one that chooses the Big Dance for college basketball. One of the main arguments in favor of the current system is that every week there is a de facto playoff, and the regular season means so much. Which is hogwash. Otherwise the three undefeated teams from non-BCS schools would populate those top four spots with Alabama, Texas would rank ahead of Oklahoma, having beaten the Sooners when the two teams played on a neutral field, and USC and Penn State would have every opportunity to compete for the national championship with their one-loss teams, rather than almost certainly be relegated to also-ran status because people have decided that a one-loss team from the SEC or Big Twelve is better than other one-loss teams.


A (minimum) 16-team playoff is the only plausible and legitimate solution. Too bad we are years away from sanity prevailing.

8 comments:

Ken said...

But under your logic, surely, Texas Tech should be ranked ahead of Texas because they won in that game, and Oklahoma should be ranked ahead of Texas Tech because they won head-to-head (I doubt how far playing in Dallas is a 'neutral' field). The problem is that the split in the Big 12 doesn't accurately reflect the strength of the programs, so the conference championship is somewhat meaningless much of the time. I suspect Texas and Oklahoma are roughly the same quality, given their records this season, and are pretty inseparable by any measure. Yes, there was the head-to-head game, but that doesn't split a three-way tiebreaker.

Of course, a playoff would solve that. I have problems, however, with that on two grounds. One, I do buy the "every game matters" argument; top-5 or top-10 teams playing against top-40 teams are an interesting spectacle under the current system. In a 16-team playoff system they probably wouldn't be so exciting to watch.
Two, is it fair to ask college athletes to put their bodies on the line, unpaid, for the sake of a national championship being tidy? A career-ending injury and they lose the millions they could make in the NFL. I know that not every player makes it, but I imagine a higher percentage of playoff players would make it than on other teams. College footballers are already not receiving their due for the money they rake in for their universities; a playoff would make it worse yet.

dcat said...

Ken --
Thanks for your comments. You have a lot of good points, though I disagree with almost every one of them. I'll place your words in quotation marks and will preface my responses with ***:

"But under your logic, surely, Texas Tech should be ranked ahead of Texas because they won in that game, and Oklahoma should be ranked ahead of Texas Tech because they won head-to-head (I doubt how far playing in Dallas is a 'neutral' field)."

*** Given that Oklahoma-Texas is always played in Dallas, OU seems to see it as a perfectly suitable neutral site. But beyond that, pointing out the one-loss, round-robin nature of the Big 12 this year bolsters my point, not yours. That represents all the more reason why there ought to be a playoff system.

"The problem is that the split in the Big 12 doesn't accurately reflect the strength of the programs, so the conference championship is somewhat meaningless much of the time."

*** Though this is an issue professional and college sports deal with regularly.

"I suspect Texas and Oklahoma are roughly the same quality, given their records this season, and are pretty inseparable by any measure."

*** Actually, no -- they are easily separated by the one thing that matters most in sports: they played one another. And Texas won. That ought to be the first tiebreaker if all else is equal.

"Yes, there was the head-to-head game, but that doesn't split a three-way tiebreaker."


*** But it splits a two-way tiebreaker. How Texas Tech lost to Oklahoma may push them out of the equation. But the two teams have the same record, with Texas winning head-to-head.

"Of course, a playoff would solve that."

*** Yes it would. Surely no caveats can follow.

"I have problems, however, with that on two grounds."

*** Oh. I guess caveats can follow.

"One, I do buy the "every game matters" argument; top-5 or top-10 teams playing against top-40 teams are an interesting spectacle under the current system."

*** How can you buy it? At least three teams won every game and will have zero shot at winning a national championship. You apparently buy the idea that some games matter, based on personal preference.

"In a 16-team playoff system they probably wouldn't be so exciting to watch."

*** Yes, because in the most popular sports league in the US, the NFL, that whole playoff thing has ruined regular season games, which is why no one watches them any more. Oh, wait . . .

"Two, is it fair to ask college athletes to put their bodies on the line, unpaid, for the sake of a national championship being tidy?"

*** You mean like they do in every other NCAA sport at every division? It's "unfair" to ask athletes to play the sport they love in the most competitive format possible?

"A career-ending injury and they lose the millions they could make in the NFL."

*** Yes, just like in regular season games. The NCAA should not be making policy based on whether or not a guy might get injured in a playoff system while still having bowl games in which -- news flash! -- injuries also can happen and still having playoffs at three other levels of football. I also understand that basketball players can get hurt too. Yet somehow they manage to have a tournament every year with far more games involved.

"I know that not every player makes it, but I imagine a higher percentage of playoff players would make it than on other teams."

*** Probably true. And absolutely irrelevant.

"College footballers are already not receiving their due for the money they rake in for their universities; a playoff would make it worse yet."

*** I have no idea how implementing a better system would make it worse for athletes who are not getting paid one way or the other anyway. Why does it work at the DIII level? Why does it work in basketball and hockey? Do you think the players themselves would not prefer a playoff system? I mean, as long as you are speaking for their interests, do you really think the majority of major college players would prefer not to have a playoff system?

Despite my disagreements, I appreciate you weighing in. Keep reading.

dcat

Thunderstick said...

This why the current system sucks. I think Texas and OU are both better than Texas Tech despite the way they knocked each other off. TT got UT at the end of four games against top 10 (I think) opposition and they got them at home and they barely won. I think if that game is played in Austin or it's played a week beforehand with Texas a bit better rested, UT wins.

So in my mind, if I have to choose between UT and OU, I'm taking UT because they won the neutral site game, but people are so influenced by what they just saw that now OU jumps UT after they walloo TT. TT was playing in that game under much the same circumstances that UT was playing vs. TT when they lost. Now I don't think TT is as good as OU, but I also don't think that score would have been what it was had that not been the last of four games for TT vs UT, Mizzou, OSU and then OU. But people see that score and say "wow, OU has righted the ship--UT didn't beat TT by that much" so now OU jumps UT despite the fact that they lost to them earlier in the year.

So now we get the Big 12 title game and if OU somehow geeks the game, we'll see UT get to the title game--something I now have problems with for two reasons. First, how can a team that doesn't win its conference play for the national title? And second, if you thought OU was better than UT to the point that they'd just over them and OU just lost to Mizzou then don't you think UT would as well and if that's the case, shouldn't you leapfrog USC or Penn State over them to play in the title game?

So there's three paragraphs of circular logic that many will use to decide who plays in the title game rather than settling it on the field.

Slicer said...

Just imagine if Penn State hadn't lost to Iowa.

dcat said...

I think Thunderstick hits the nail on the head. It's a convoluted system made all the worse by its arbitrary nature.
Of course Penn State winning would have thrown another wrench in these works. And if Florida wins this weekend no team in the championship game will have an absolute claim. Florida lost to Ole Miss, a good, but far from great team. USC, for example, lost to an Oregon State team that ended up being a lot better than anyone thought. And certainly better than, say, Ole Miss.
And if Florida wins, how the hell can we continue to deny Ball State, Utah, and Boise State any chance whatsoever? Because we presume they could not win? The problem with this entire system is that arrogant presumption preempts what happens on the field.

dcat

Jaime said...

No one read the article. The BCS fiasco was a side note.

dcat said...

Jaime --
Probably my fault -- I used the Whitlock article to springboard into the BCS talk. Oh well -- it's certainly a fight that exercises lots of folks.

dcat

Ken said...

dcat,

You make a number of very fair points in response to me, and I accept that in many ways my disagreement with a playoff is based on an enjoyment of traditions as opposed to competitive logic (which is strange, as I'd clearly benefit from a college playoff being a UK fan of college football, as it would make it far easier for me to see a number of high quality matches. Though I guess on the other hand, it means I don't have anywhere near the same personal investment in it when injustices occur).

Just to come back on a couple of points, though. You say "How Texas Tech lost to Oklahoma may push them out of the equation." That seems to me to be monstrously unfair to Oklahoma; what is basically being said here is they were way too good for a team that defeated Texas, therefore we should revert to a two-team tiebreaker that punishes Oklahoma. Would you have said the same thing if Oklahoma had won by, say, a touchdown? Then the argument would be right back in the three-way scenario, and it seems harsh to me to punish Oklahoma for doing too well. (As a side note, if it's a two-team tiebreaker, then I accept head-to-head record should win. But we're not in this situation here).

As far as the arguments about the NFL viewing figures for regular season go, I accept your point, but only to a certain extent. Because there's a greater talent disparity within NCAA football, matches where a championship team can't be derailed will lose some of their meaning. There'd be other benefits, of course - wanting to schedule stronger non-conference matchups, for example, to make it easier to make a case for entry into the playoff system. But I accept it's more than possible that I'm underestimating the pull of inter-conference non-rivalry matches because I'm more of an admirer than a participant in the culture.

As far as injuries go - and this is something I feel about in basketball and football, actually - I have a problem with the system in general, in that the athletes are being used to generate large amounts of money for their colleges and get no direct financial reward for what they are doing, and are often badly led astray when it comes to the other rewards they could gain, namely a college education. So yes, I accept injuries can happen at all times, and I've allowed a bugbear of mine to make a weakish argument, in that the same arguments apply to the regular season games too. But when the game is being used as a minor league system for the pros, with huge commercial benefits both to colleges and the NFL/NBA, it seems a somewhat exploitative system.