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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Ode to the BCS

We have but one year remaining in the BCS, and I thought it time to defend the undefendable:  the BCS is pretty good.  If the goal is to decide who the number 1 team is, the BCS serves its purpose.  Now, there's more to a post-season than just number 1, and it's all the other stuff (like NIU playing in the Orange Bowl) that tends to aggravate people.  But, for a moment, let's focus on the BCS's stated purpose of identifying the best team in college football.

Due to the fact that in a single season no football team plays more than 10% of the BCS teams, it's a difficult proposition to determine number 1.  Unlike other sports, because of the physical demands of the game, you can't dramatically increase the number of games to get a more accurate indication or create an extensive playoff system.  This is why Ken Massey has identified over 132 different ranking systems, each to varying degrees offering a unique portrayal of the state of college football.  However, the overwhelming majority of rankings had Notre Dame and Alabama in the top two, even if they differed on the team's ordering.  For the purposes of deciding who goes to the championship game, it doesn't matter who a ranking says is number one so long as it is in agreement on the top two.  The definitive number one determination is decided on the field as it should be.  While the BCS includes some of these rankings (though by no means the best ones) and two opinion polls, it is imperfect.  But so is every ranking, and the selection committee for the playoff in 2014-15 will be riddled with imperfections.  The BCS has performed admirably in determining the top two teams at the end of the regular season.

There have been rare occasions where the identification of the top two teams going into the bowl season was in dispute.  Undefeated Auburn, Utah, and Boise State in 2004 or undefeated Boise State in 2009 and 2006.  But the vast majority of methodologically rigorous rankings listed on Kenneth Massey's website agree that each of these teams didn't earn a national championship berth.  Even in the contentious years, the BCS was good enough, with most other approaches in agreement on the two teams that should compete for the Coach's trophy.  Below is a comparison of the BCS with my own Network Ranking, Kenneth Massey's, and Wesley Colley's in the highly contentious 2004 season.  Much to the dismay of War Eagle, there appears to be broad consensus on the top two.

Team       BCS  Network   Massey     Colley
USC 1 2 1 1
Oklahoma 2 1 2 2
Auburn 3 3 5 3
Texas 4 5 6 4
California 5 6 4 6
Utah 6 4 3 5
Georgia 7 10 11 8
Virginia Tech 8 18 8 12
Boise State 9 7 9 7
Louisville 10 9 7 13
LSU 11 8 12 11
Iowa 12 11 17 9
Michigan 13 21 20 14
Miami 14 17 10 16
Tennessee 15 13 21 15
Florida State 16 22 16 18
Wisconsin 17 16 22 20
Virginia 18 19 14 19
Arizona State 19 12 13 10
Texas A&M 20 14 15 17
Pittsburgh 21 42 38 29
Texas Tech 22 20 19 22
Florida 23 25 26 28
Oklahoma State 24 15 18 21
Ohio State 25 23 30 25
Oregon State 24 23 24
North Carolina 54 24 33
UCLA 44 25 39
Colorado 27 28 23

While I don't want to offend my friends from Auburn on the 2004 team (who even had "National Champion" rings made after their win in the Sugar Bowl), all four approaches are in agreement on the two teams that have earned the right to play in the national championship.  Auburn, Utah, and Boise State, while undefeated, lack the degree of impressive wins during their season to merit a national championship berth.

Interestingly, consensus is absent between these four approaches beyond the top two, which should cause concern for the mechanics of a post-BCS era.  In a four team playoff, do you still exclude undefeated Utah, as the BCS and Wes Colley would?  Can you really overlook Auburn, Kenneth Massey?  Is a selection committee going to allow more than one team per conference, as the BCS and Colley suggest both Oklahoma and Texas while Massey would recommend both USC and California?  If there had been a playoff in the 2011 season, the Network Ranking would have recommended that LSU and Florida join Alabama and Notre Dame in a playoff.  Unfortunately, it is unimaginable that a selection committee would grant 3 of 4 spots to the same conference, no matter how dominant the SEC may be.  Throughout its brief history, the BCS did a suitable job determining numbers 1 and 2.  But the problems of ranking college football teams only becomes more complex when you expand the number of teams the final ranking will effect. If you expand the pool of possible national champions from 2 to 4, you also expand the possibility for error, and the number of teams like Auburn, Utah, and Boise who will protest their exclusion.

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