Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Fundamental Problem with the BCS

Editor's Note:  A version of this post appeared on the PlayoffPAC blog here

There are many problems with the BCS. The unequal distribution of revenues to participating teams. Unfair access, guaranteed to certain conferences and not to others, regardless of recent performance in BCS bowl games. Computer formulas used to determine rankings which are secret and unaudited. Lack of a "winner moves on" buzz associated with each game except for one. Horrible PR decisions. Repeatedly using straw man arguments. But the fundamental problem with the BCS, examined at the simplest level, is the fact that during many years, the #1 and #2 teams in the country are not clear and obvious.

The BCS has stated repeatedly that "the BCS has delivered a matchup between the two top teams every year." This is factually correct. The teams who finished #1 and #2 in the BCS standings have played for the BCS National Championship every year since 1998. However, the basic problem with this line of thinking is that these aren't necessarily the 2 best or most deserving teams. They were simply the 2 teams that had the highest BCS rankings based on human input and complex computer formulas. One needs look no further than a certain Wikipedia page for numerous examples of this flawed thinking.

In 2000, FSU played for the national title as the #2 BCS team ahead of both Miami & Washington, who each also ended the regular season with one loss. However, FSU had lost to Miami during the regular season and was ranked behind them in both human polls, yet the computer formulas determined that they were "better" than Miami and thus, finished ahead of them. Washington had beaten Miami and also had a claim to be chosen ahead of them.

*In 2001, Nebraska lost its final game of the regular season by 26 pts to Colorado (so much for the whole "every week is a playoff during the regular season" argument) and additionally, didn't even win its own conference. Yet, they still managed to find themselves in the BCS title game as the #2 team due in large part to the computer rankings. Also note that they were ranked #4 in the end of regular season ranking in the AP poll behind both Colorado (who trounced them) and an Oregon team who also finished with 1 loss.

*In 2003, the top 3 teams in the final BCS standings (Oklahoma, LSU, USC) all had 1 loss. USC was ranked #1 in both human polls with LSU #2 and Oklahoma #3. Oklahoma was lower primarily due to the fact that it lost the Big-12 championship game to Kansas State by 28 points. So, naturally, they were chosen to play for the BCS title. Apparently, losing in your own conference championship game by more than 20 points appeals to the computer rankings.

*In 2004, 5 teams (USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Boise State) ended the regular season undefeated. Of course only 2 could play for the BCS title and USC emerged victorious against Oklahoma. Auburn and Utah each won their bowl games so the year ended with 3 undefeated teams.

*In 2008, Oklahoma played for the BCS national title as the #2 team despite having an identical regular season record to Texas and having lost to Texas during the regular season--by now you should be noticing a pattern. Also, how did Oklahoma get ranked ahead of Texas in the BCS standings? You guessed it, the computer rankings. Additionally, Utah finished the season undefeated after destroying an AQ school (Alabama) in a BCS bowl to improve the record of non-AQ schools in BCS games to 2-1.

*Not a whole lot more needs to be said about 2009 since everyone knows 5 teams (3AQ, 2 non-AQ) finished the regular season undefeated (hmm...does that sounds familiar?). After the bowls, there were 2 undefeated teams left (Alabama & Boise State). It's worth noting that Texas was the #2 team despite not beating a single team that finished in the top-25 during the regular season (they beat Nebraska in the Big-12 championship) whereas Boise State, Cincinnati, and TCU all did have regular season victories over top-25 teams. It's also worth noting that Boise State was the lowest ranked of the 5 undefeated teams despite the fact that they had beaten a team (Oregon) who finished ranked higher than any that Texas, Cincinnati, or TCU had beaten.

By now you're probably noticed a few things. First and most importantly, very rarely are there clear-cut #1 and #2 teams (2002 would be one example when both Miami & Ohio State were the only 2 undefeated teams). Second, the various computer rankings/polls (whose methodology have never been published) have routinely placed certain teams ahead of others despite the fact that these chosen teams lost their last game of the season by substantial margins and/or lost to teams ranked behind them who had an identical # of losses. Third, many of the problems with the BCS that happen each year aren't new or unexpected; the regular season has now ended with 5 undefeated teams 2 times in 6 seasons. Finally, the BCS even admits that its championship game doesn't always feature the 2 best teams according to the AP Poll, on its own website: "..since the conferences agreed to the BCS format 12 years ago,.....according to the AP poll, numbers one and two have met nine times."