The Argument for Boycotting the BCS Championship Game

In November of 2006, the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes played the undefeated Michigan Wolverines in front of a raucous crowd in the Horseshoe.   For the first time in the glorious history of the two programs, the two teams occupied the top two spots in the polls, with the Buckeyes narrowly edging out the Wolverines in the BCS poll.   In what was dubbed as the game of the century (stop me if you have heard this since), the Buckeyes outlasted the Wolverines 42-39, spawning talk in college football amongst the fans and the pundits alike for a rematch for the BCS title.  At the time, Florida was 12-1 and had just survived a daunting SEC schedule, and predictably, the campaigning began.  Urban Meyer, then coach of the Florida Gators, suggested his squad deserved a shot in the BCS title game, noting “That other team (Michigan) had its shot,’’We belong in the game.’’  Then-Gators receiver Percy Harvin chimed in: “Michigan already had its chance. I think we deserve a chance.”  Florida president Bernie Machen, also a biased commentator, added: “If they don’t vote for us after tonight, we need a new system. We should be packing our bags for Glendale.”

Just five short years later, many are in fact calling for a new system, though it’s unlikely those cries hail from south of the Mason Dixon line, as this year the Broken Cash Scheme has indeed conjured up a rematch, not so affectionately dubbed Field Goal Fest II– a rematch between two SEC teams, Alabama and Louisiana State.  Whining about a broken computer system or penning an op ed piece in the local fish wrap about a utopian playoff system is not the way to get the attention of the BCS gatekeepers–what will is turning off the tv sets en mass, and here’s why you should do it.

First, let me clear up a few things.  This is not an anti-SEC hate piece.  Indeed, the main reason this author thinks one should avoid watching this farce of a game is because he is already convinced that we know that a specific SEC team is likely the best team in the country (and we already know which of these two teams is better than the other, since one of those teams beat the other in their own backyard).  In fact, the SEC is on such a run winning the last five of those crystal balls, that this guy is almost ready to concede that the winner of the SEC just might warrant automatic entry into the BCS championship game.  And this guy will also concede that it is entirely possible that Alabama and LSU are in fact the best two teams in the country, though not because Gary Danielson and the talking heads at the four letter network keep repeating such nonsense as if it were an accepted fact (we don’t actually know if Oklahoma State or Alabama is better because they haven’t played each other Gary.  Just thought I’d throw that out there).

The reason this game is a farce is because LSU would be the champ even if they lose this game, at least if one uses the “every game counts” and “every week is like a playoff” mantras that we have been force-fed over the years to justify the existence of the Bowl Conspiracy Series  (and given what I wrote above, one might think I am advocating cancelling the game and declaring LSU champs.  This is not true, as OSU has a sufficient resume that, if they beat LSU, would be championship worthy discussed below).  If you don’t believe me, here is what the resumes of the two teams will look like if Alabama wins that “exhibition game” on January 9th:

Alabama: 12-1, split with LSU (one win on neutral field, one loss on home field), 3 wins over teams ranked in the final top 25 of the BCS.

LSU: 13-1, split with Alabama (one loss on neutral field, one win in Alabama), 5 wins against teams ranked in final BCS top 25 (to include two conference winners), winner of SEC West & SEC conference.

Now, how can anyone in their right mind conclude that Alabama is the national champion under this set of operable facts?  Keep in mind, the BCS officially removed margin of victory from the formula, so according to that formula, extra weight should not be given for a blowout victory should Alabama take LSU apart.  So if that’s the case, other than clinging to the fictional belief that the winner of one so-called championship game is now somehow the best of the 122 teams for a whole season, why exactly are we suppose to accept such nonsense?

This is probably the most succinct explanation of how the BCS works that I found on the web.  With this as a backdrop, here is something interesting from BCS.org, which describes the purpose of the BCS:

“It is designed to ensure that the two top-rated teams in the country meet in the national championship game, and to create exciting and competitive match-ups among eight other highly regarded teams in four other bowl games.  It has been undeniably successful in achieving those goals. Thanks to the BCS, the top two teams have played each other 13 times in 13 years by BCS measurements and 10 times in the last 13 according to the AP poll.”

Notice a couple of things here.  First of all, the only thing BCS.org tells you about the BCS is that it is designed to pit the #1 versus the # 2 team in the final standings against each other in the BCS championship game (then curiously, goes on to pat itself on the back for making this happen 13 out of 13 times, as if somehow it would be possible one year to not have someone ranked # 1 or # 2 even though the formulas force such a result).  Notice what is missing here, the specifics as to what criteria should be utilized to determine which teams should fill those two top spots.  Should it be the teams perceived to be the best based loosely on the eyeball test, or should the teams at the top be those that have the best records and the best resumes (i.e. they achieved victories against generally stronger competition)?  Certainly Florida fans rightly argued in 2006 that their resume that included the tough grind of the SEC was better than that of Michigan’s when it came time to determine if a rematch was warranted that year, so what has changed in five short years?  And again, it was the same argument we heard in 2007 for inclusion of a two loss LSU team over a one loss Kansas team.  If resume was the deciding factor those years, then why is it not the final arbiter in 2011?

Or, am I even asking the right question?  Perhaps more poignantly, the real question should be, is the BCS even trying to select the two best teams in the first place?  And lest you think to yourself, what other possibility is there, think no further than Rece Davis’s recent comments on air that bowl positions are not necessarily related to performance (you read that correct.  For all the other bowl games, we just take whoever we want irrespective of performance limited only by very loose rules.  Hell, BCS.org says as much, by indicating the other four games should included “highly regarded” programs, which is nothing like saying “most deserving”).  Want proof of this, look at the Sugar Bowl, where a # 7 Boise State was passed over by lower ranked teams (but bigger traditional powers) like Michigan, who was selected to play in the Sugar Bowl over a Michigan State team that beat them, or Virginia Tech, Michigan’s opponent, who was put in the game even though they lost their conference by losing to Clemson twice (but don’t you worry Bronco fans, you get the MAACO Las Vegas bowl against the dumpster fire that is still burning known as Arizona State).

So why should the MNC game be any different (and if you don’t know what the “M’ stands for in the often used abbreviation by college football fans, think leprechauns and unicorns)?  Is it the case that many selected Alabama this time around because it was perceived that a rematch of the “Game of the Century” would move the ratings needle in a way that a cute little program from Stillwater never could?  Or maybe it’s a bit more subtle than this–perhaps many of the voters simply succumbed to the four letter network’s relentless promotional campaign for two of its $3.1 billion dollar race horses, finally culminating in this absurd and indefensible rematch.  Regardless of how we got here, it’s legitimate to ask, if resume was the basis by which we selected Florida and LSU in 2006 and 2007 from a bevy of potential contenders but is simply being ignored this time around, then self congratulatory praise aside, what is the BCS really accomplishing?   

If you read the explanation of the BCS I linked above, then you know that the BCS is a composition of Standings compiled from a three-part system: the Harris Poll, the USA Today Coaches Poll, and six computer rankings.  So let’s take a look at these various parts to see just how the sausage is made so to speak.  ‘Who are the Harris poll voters you ask?  They are a random collection of guys and girls granted the authority to rank the various college teams who pay very little attention to the actual results of the games (much like the Academy that votes for our best motion pictures each year, in an eerily similar process).  Examples abound, but just recently, one of the voters, George Fine, came under scrutiny when he voted Oklahoma State sixth on his final ballot, one spot behind Houston the week after the former drilled preseason number one Oklahoma while the latter was taken behind the woodshed by traditional powerhouse Southern Mississippi of Conference U.S.A.  He did this, despite the fact that the Cowboys had beaten 4 teams ranked in the final BCS top 25 compared to not one such win for the Cougars.  When asked about his ballot, Fine attempted to justify his vote with the following: ““I realize that voting is subjective and often arbitrary.  I probably don’t do as much research … but who the hell knows whether Oregon is better than Wisconsin?”  Though paid well for this job, here’s to guessing that Fine, in his eighties and retired somewhere in Iowa (I was once told by an Iowan that Iowa stands for “Idiots Out Wandering About”), probably watches but a few of the games before he finishes his early bird dinner, watches Wheel of Fortune, and calls it a night at late hour of 7:30 p.m.  If he doesn’t have an opinion as to who is better, Oregon or Wisconsin, then how in the hell is he filling out his bingo card ballot?  And he wasn’t alone.  Four others on the ballot had Oklahoma State fifth while two other joined Fine and put them sixth.  And then there was former Notre Dame player Derrick Mayes who had OSU behind Stanford, two-loss Arkansas and Boise State while former Hawaii coach Bob Wagner had the Cowboys behind Stanford, Boise State and two-loss Oregon.  Could it be any more obvious that these voters watch few games or conduct little if any research before hastily scribbling something down on a cocktail napkin during their Sunday afternoon benders?

And as bad as the Harris poll might be, the Coaches poll is worse.  First of all, the coaches don’t even portend to the follow the results of others schools.  And why should they, when review of game film, conducting practices, and recruiting is often an 80 hour a week job?  Nick Saban has one responsibility, helping Alabama win, and he could care less whether or not Oklahoma State pulls out a late night win over rival Oklahoma–that is, until he does.  A review of his final ballot had LSU at number one, Alabama at number two, and Oklahoma State at number four, a strategic vote that helped to drop the Cowboys down in the rankings just enough to ensure that Alabama held onto the coveted number two position in the rankings and its place in the January 9th mythical championship game.  And who can blame him really, once one considers that these ultra-competitive egomanics are paid millions based on the results obtained on the field?   And he was hardly alone–Gary Pinkell, who coaches a Missouri team who is leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, voted Oklahoma State fourth, an act that might seem born only out of spite until one considers that conference bowl payouts are directly related to what bowls schools play in during bowl season (so why not send a few extra coins to the conference you are headed to rather than leaving behind that pot of gold?).   One voter in the coaches’ poll, Air Force‘s Troy Calhoun, voted the Cowboys fifth despite the thorough decimating of Oklahoma in the Cowboys final game.  How in the world can college football allow a multi-billion dollar business to determine its champion based on three stooges type shenanigans?  Keep in mind that Alabama bested Oklahoma State by 0.0086, the smallest margin in BCS history (and when you consider that the computers actually picked Oklahoma State, then it was the human voters who essentially picked Alabama for the number two spot).  In other words, the voters cast the computer results aside and picked the match-up they wanted (weren’t we told that the computers were added to remove much of the subjective polling effort?  I guess not).

And what about those computers you ask?  The third component of the BCS is actually a composition of six separate computer polls.  One of the computer rankers for the B.C.S. is Richard Billingsley, a stress-management expert from Hugo, Okla.  He offers “I’m not a mathematician,” Billingsley said. “I’m not even a highly educated man, to tell you the truth. I don’t even have a degree.  I have a high school education. I never had calculus. I don’t even remember much about algebra.”  Is this really the best qualified individual to be one of six charged with the responsibility of deriving and orchestrating a complex mathematical formula with at least 122 moving parts?  I don’t know, call me an elitist if you want, but I might have opted for a guy or girl with a degree in mathematics and/or a computer sciene background for such a task.  But wait ladies and gentlemen, there is more.

Compounding the problem is that five of the six computer formulas are getting the Kentucky-fried chicken treatment–classified as proprietary, meaning that the formula is not released to the public and thus calculations are not subject to peer review.  That means, for five of the six computer polls, except for those few individuals in the know, we don’t even know what criteria they use to rank the Kentuckies from the Arkansas States of the world.  In 2010, Wes Colley, who conducts one of the six polls, erred by accidentally ranking Alabama ahead of South Carolina, despite the fact that South Carolina had just pulled off an upset and beaten Alabama (both teams had one loss, so in just about every other poll, South Carolina was ranked ahead of Alabama).  This might have gone completely undetected but for some inquisitive Xavier math student who was reviewing the work in his spare time (Colley’s is the one computer formula that is released).  This begs the question: how many times have errors occurred and gone undetected for the other five polls whose formulas and computations have never been released and whose work has never been checked?  According to Bill Hancock, director of the BCS, this is of no concern as these are dedicated professional who strive very hard to insure the accuracy of their work (nothing to see here, ignore the man behind the curtain Dorothy).  As they say, the truth is often stranger than fiction, but this bogus BCS hocus-pocus is beyond absurd, and it’s time that those of us that love college football tell them we aren’t going to play make believe any longer.

And this still isn’t all that is wrong with the computer formulas, as others such as Massey and Sagarin complain that their formulas are hampered by stringent BCS rules that do not allow them to consider such things like margin of victory, meaning that 70-7 and 10-7 final scores have the same impact in the formula.   “You’re asked to rank teams that don’t play each other, that don’t play long seasons, and you can’t include margin of victory” said Massey, who provides a “better version” on his Web site, masseyratings.com, a formula the BCS will not consider.   “It’s a very challenging problem from a data-analysis standpoint.  It does require sacrificing a bit of accuracy. It’s not the best way to do it.”   It is so bad, that U.C. Irvine professor Hal Stern called for a boycott of the BCS standings, a sentiment echoed by legendary Bill James, the statistician who helped usher in the money ball statistical analysis in major league baseball who eventually worked for the Boston Red Sox. “Stern’s analysis was clearly right,” James said. “This isn’t a sincere effort to use math to find the answer at all.  It’s clearly an effort to use math as a cover for whatever you want to do.  I don’t even know if the people who set up the system are aware of that.  It’s just nonsense math.”

Maybe it’s best to not know how the sausage is made.  Or better yet, maybe it’s time to stop eating sausage altogether.

I must admit, I have no idea if Oklahoma State is better than Alabama, or if they could beat LSU.   I know this–Oklahoma State has not lost to LSU.  Not counting the win against Stanford (since this information would not have been available to voters at the time of the decision, though it certainly offers further validation of the strength of the Cowboys), I know they won their conference, crushed the preseason number one team in the country and their rival, and beat five top 25 BCS teams to Alabama’s two (in fact, Alabama somehow managed to play only three FBS teams with winning records all season!).  Alabama will play in the BCS championship game solely because of the voters perception that they should, and nothing more, and they will do it not having won even their own division, let alone their conference, the first time this has happened in the BCS era.  While voters and fans and coaches will state as a matter of fact that they are better than Oklahoma State, there is no actual proof that an Alabama proponent can point to other than the quality of their loss (and in this guy’s book, a loss is still a loss).  And as I pointed out above, even should Alabama win on January 9, 2012, their complete body of work will be vastly inferior to that of LSU’s.  Perhaps it’s not even sausage at all that we are being force-fed.

As Bernie Machen disingenuously suggested, it’s time for a new system.  And since comments by the President of the United States, Congressional hearings, and the screams of tens of thousands of irate fans matter little to Hancock and the fat cats that hijacked college football about a dozen years ago with their wing nut computer system and fuzzy math, it’s time we send them the only message that will hit home by shutting the televisions off and telling them that we recognize this “championship” game for the farce that it is.

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