December 5, 2020

For Once, BCS Controversy Not the Computers' Fault

It’s that time of year again. You know, the time when sports pundits bad-mouth the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) for picking the wrong teams to play in college football’s championship game. The system is supposed to pick the two best teams. This year it picked Ohio State, clearly the best team, and Florida, a controversial choice given that Michigan arguably had better results.

Something like this happens every year. What makes this year different is that for once it’s not being blamed on computers.

BCS uses a numerical formula combining rankings from various sources, including human polls and computerized rankings. In past years, the polls and computers differed slightly. The problem generally was that the computers missed the important nuances that human voters see. Computers didn’t know that games at the beginning of the year count much less, or that last year’s ranking is supposed to influence this year’s, or that games count more if they’re nationally televised, or that there’s a special bonus for Notre Dame or a retiring coach. And so the computers and humans sometimes disagreed.

Human pundits sided unsurprisingly with the humans. The computer pundits all sided with the computers, but without an effective talk radio presence they were shouted down.

This year the computers cleverly ducked responsibility by rating Florida and Michigan exactly even, thereby forcing humans to take the heat for picking one or the other. The humans picked Florida. Problem was, the humans had previously rated Michigan above Florida but somehow flipped the two at the end, on the basis of not much new evidence (Florida performing as expected against a good opponent). The bottom line was simple: an Ohio State-Florida game would be cooler than an Ohio State-Michigan one – yet another factor the computers didn’t know about.

Since this year’s controversy is the humans’ fault, will the computers be given more weight next year? Don’t count on it.

Comments

  1. This year, the BCS really messed up. I ask, what more could Michigan have possibly done to come out #2? After all, they won all of their games, except their game against #1 ranked Ohio State. That was a very close game, that OSU won by 3 points. If Michigan had won that game, they would be #1, so I am wondering if there is any scenario in the world where OSU is undefeated and Michigan comes out ranked #2. Obviously not. Florida displayed a total lack of class by lobbying hard for the BCS championship game, while Michigan let the chips fall where they fell. Unfortunately, the “human element” that you describe was biased against a rematch of UM and OSU. I think it’s time to move to a playoff system. At the very least, there should be an ad hoc system where if two teams each have a legitimate claim to the title game, they can play a playoff. It would be great if Michigan and Florida could duke it out this weekend to see who plays against Ohio State. I think Michigan would prove that they are indeed the far better team. Florida doesn’t even know who their starting quarterback is.

  2. Avi,

    That was quick! I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist commenting.

    I don’t think a playoff is the answer. I know the other professional sports do it, but it doesn’t solve the ranking problem — you’ll still have to tell #N apart from #N+1.

    And worse yet a team that clearly isn’t the best can win. Have a playoff with the top eight BCS teams this year, and the third best team in the Big Ten (and we know who that is) could end up as National Champion. Rather like baseball, where the Cardinals won the World Series despite being the fifth best team in the National League.

  3. How do playoffs result in a team other than the best winning? I thought the general idea was that the best team will fail to get eliminated and end up at the top. The second best should end up eliminated by the best at some point or else end up in the final round. Worse teams should get eliminated as well. If there’s 2^n teams, the final round might pit the nth-worst team against the best time, mind you. (The worst is eliminated in the first round; the second-worst by the second round at the latest; and so forth.) And of course luck does play a factor.

    So playoffs by no means guarantee that the best plays the 2nd-best in the final round, but (barring extraordinarily bad luck for them) do guarantee that the best plays someone in it…

    At least if by “playoffs” we mean taking the 2^n best teams in the league (for some n) and pitting them against each other in pairs for odd-number-of-game rounds, eliminating half, and repeating until only one team is uneliminated. 🙂

  4. Here is what Michigan could have done; won their conference. How can you say that a team which is not even good enought to win a mediocre conference is better than the champion of the best football conference in the United States? If you can’t win your conference you can’t be a champion.

  5. Two key points made above:
    “You’ll still have to tell #N apart from #N+1.”
    “And of course luck does play a factor.”

    All the discussion seems to assume that there exists a total ordering on teams, and that somehow in a single game, the team that is higher in that ordering is bound to win. But it ain’t necessarily so. That’s why so many sports have the top-ranked teams play a “best n out of 2n-1” series. Too bad that for football, n=1.

  6. Ima hit it on the head – if you’re not the top team in your conference, then you aren’t the top team in the whole country. Michigan got hosed by being demoted, but the simple truth is that they shouldn’t have been #2 after losing to OSU. That game was for the Big Ten championship, an undefeated season, and a chance to play for the national championship. Everyone knew that – and Michigan lost, and lost (rightfully) all three of those possibilities that they were playing for.

    A playoff isn’t the answer – don’t make college football just like every other sport out there! The bowls are a part of the drama and the debates are a part of the fun. Yes, Michigan got jobbed, but the voters shouldn’t have had to move UF over them, because UM should have dropped out of contention after losing to OSU. Not to mention that a rematch doesn’t prove anything – OSU over UM again, and everyone agrees that UF should’ve been there to get a shot. UM over OSU and there’s no compelling reason why either team should be champion – splitting two back-to-back games doesn’t mean the second win should count more than the first.

  7. Yes, there were advantages to the system before the BCS was created–the “national championship” remained mythical, could be argued about endlessly, and voters in different polls could come to different results.

    However, this all suggests an interesting area for algorithm research:
    Design a sorting algorithm, to work as well as possible (and quantify that) when
    – each comparison (game) has some probability of being “wrong” (no one seriously argues that UCLA was a better team than USC this year),
    – there are some number of preliminary comparisons (the pre-scheduled games), and
    – then the algorithm gets to choose a small set of comparisons based on the preliminary results.

  8. conventional wisdom holds that the home field advantage is worth three points … and michigan lost at ohio state by three points.

    not that i want a rematch … really, i hate the BCS. i liked the old way of picking bowl matchups: go for interesting games. and i liked the annual big ten vs. pac eight game in the rose bowl. and i liked arguing over the “mythical national championship” way more than “what is wrong with BCS” or “why we do/don’t need a playoff.” most of all, i liked the idea that winning the conference title matters more than anything else.

    so even though a michigan vs. ohio state rematch on a neutral field would be a hell of a game, unlike the boring lopsided loss in store for an undeserving florida, i am fine with them taking their best shot. and i will wait ’til next year 😉

  9. Another alternative is described at [1] using the Swiss system tournament. It’s specifically designed for short tournaments with large number of participants and provides excellent games in each round and a robust system to determine the beat team.

    [1] http://onehundredyards.blogspot.com/2006/12/alternative-to-current-bcs-system.html

  10. This is not a problem unique to the BCS. Any method of aggregating the preferences of multiple individuals into a unified group preference will have a problem of fairness. Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Prize in economics for proving this.

    The BCS mess is just one example of Arrow’s Theorem at work. As Arrow proved, anything that replaces the BCS will also have a similar problem of unfairness.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow's_impossibility_theorem

  11. Big10 Overrated says:

    It looks like the polls and people got it right! The whole time I have been waiting for the USC game to be played… knowing that they would crush Michigan. Did people really think they would roll over USC in a bowl game?

  12. the BCS has failed from Day one (in finding a true champion) it will not work until it is decided on the field and not through polls and computers I will give you 5 reasons Marshall, Tulane, Utah, Auburn, and Boise State. ALL finished seasons undefeated. I don’t want to hear this Crap that they don’t play anybody, They play their schedules if the Bcs Wants to stop the controversy Put these schools in the big games and lets see what Happens, Boise State just showed the entire Country that who you play doesn’t matter They beat A supposed Giant in Oklahoma. Little School Utah beat Big School Pittsburgh (2004), So I don’t want to hear their not good enough

  13. The fact of the matter is that Michigan got to play OSU. Why should they get a rematch when Florida hasn’t even had a shot? Also, if Michigan DOES win, then why should they be the National Champion? OSU beat Michigan and Michigan beat OSU, why should Michigan get the championship just because OSU won the first game and Michigan won the second?

    I am an OSU fan and not biased, I could care less who we play, it’d be nice to see us beat Michigan again, sure, but they got their shot, and Florida didn’t.

  14. BCS is a joke says:

    Its absolutely idiotic that a 12-1 team will be “national champions” when a 13-0 team never got a shot at it. I don’t care who they play or what conference they are in. Until someone beats them they are clearly the best team. I don’t even have a team, but the system for determining the “champion” in college football is the biggest joke in all of sports.

  15. The controversy surrounding the BCS isn’t that the BCS computers pick the wrong teams, it is that the system is absolutely unfair to about half of Division I football.

    The so called power conferences are guaranteed six of the four spots, which leaves all other conferences to compete for the two remaining spots, IF Notre Dame doesn’t have a good season. So really, half of division one, and the other teams from the BCS conferences that weren’t champions are competing most years for one spot, and most likely never a national championship. That means that the majority of the bowl monies stays in the hands of the already powerful BCS conferences and the “lesser” conferences (which, by the way is where Boise State comes from) get almost nothing.

    So what about a solution? It is clear that the NCAA is only interested in representing the rich and powerful schools in football. suppose the non-BCS conferences said, “Since the NCAA isn’t interested in treating us fairly, maybe we should cut our losses and form the ACAA, an association that would represent the interests of all the members, not just the priveleged few.

    Of course, this would create havoc in some of the other sports, like basketball. Can you imagine March Madness with half of the NCAA not there? It would be like March Slightly Crazed. Not all the traditional basketball powers reside in a BCS conference. I wonder if the NCAA would suddenly decide the BCS is a liability if they were faced with a mass defection of half of Division I?

    Imagine what that would do to the television royalties in not only basketball but also football. Imagine being the chairman of the NCAA that presided over the defection of half of Division I?

    It is time for the NCAA to say NO to the BCS and develop a fair system that represents ALL their members, not just those born into the right conferences.

    The ACAA is looking better all the time.

  16. I meant to say they were guaranteed four of the six spots…

  17. I really meant they were guaranteed six of the eight spots, I wil get it right one day

  18. Its obvious that the Big Ten and the Pac 10 are the Giants in the BCS . . . Never be a playoff as long as they hold out. Why shouldn’t they; there is “big bucks in them there Roses.” Just follow the money!

    Lots of pretenders, but year in and year out, the programs in the two aforementioned Conferences reign supreme. And, the kids graduate, if they don’t go to the pros.

    Once in a while, along comes an SEC or Big Eight Team . . .
    but they don’t educate their kids . . . except maybe Vandy, and good ole’ Iowa State. Otherwise . . . mostly “junk,” education. I can see why some of these other conferences want to capture the national spotlight with their football program; they have nothing else much going for them. Tis a shame, really.

    But, a national playoff? Never happen! Enough pressure on Coaches and kids now. Can you imagine . . .

    Besides, what would we all have to complain and bitch about if we had a playoff? Don;t U just love it!!

    The Other Donald