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In Defense of the BCS (Well, Sort Of...)

This article isn't going to win me any friends, I'm certain of that.  Why?  Because the other thing I'm certain of is that you hate the BCS.  This sentiment has never been as fever pitched in the great state of Texas as it is now.  Choruses of "we got screwed" ring out from every corner of Longhorn fandom.  I've had countless friends unsuccessfully try to console me by mentioning a playoff.  President Elect Obama went on Monday Night Football the day before the election and, while predictably behind the times McCain was rambling about steroids, made a brilliant political pitch to the South in advocating for an 8-team college football playoff.  He repeated this advocation on 60 Minutes after the election, showing that he's legitimately serious and wasn't just pandering to a constituency he coveted.

But I beseech you, Mr. Obama, if you are serious about this whole "Team of Rivals" business, bring someone into the fold who has thought endlessly about what the college football postseason should be and who, while agreeing with you on the fundamental issue that the BCS is flawed, does not agree with you on the best way to fix that flaw.  This is an incredibly nuanced issue and there should be an incredibly nuanced debate.  But to be honest, sir, for someone as enamored of nuance as yourself, you display a shocking lack of nuance in your college football playoff position. Bring someone into the fold who understands the nuance, knows the political angle of it all, and above all else who won't blindly agree with you. Someone like, say, me?

Kidding aside (NB to Obama transition team: not kidding; please call), this mess merits looking more closely at the BCS than most of us have been in our blind calls for a playoff.  So let's do that, shall we?

Let's start with the recitation of some facts and then go from there:

  • The BCS National Champion is decided on the field, not by a formula.  The BCS does not decide the national champion, it decides who plays in the national championship game.  Your beef is with how those 2 teams are selected, not how the national champion is selected.
  • The BCS is a playoff.  If a certain number of teams play each other on the field after the regular season and the last team remaining without a loss in that postseason is declared the champion of the sport, then it is a single elimination playoff.  Thus the BCS is a 2-team playoff.  Your beef is with how many teams are in that playoff, not with the fallacious "fact" that there is no playoff.
  • The BCS was meant to pit #1 vs. #2 at the end of the year to create a championship game in which the national champion was determined on the field rather than by a poll.  It was not meant to do anything else.  Your beef this year is not with the BCS, but rather with the Big 12 for foolishly tying its tiebreaker in with BCS rankings.

First of all, I want to address the third bullet point.  What happened to Texas this weekend is not the fault of the BCS and is absolutely no reason to abandon the BCS system.  Please stop blaming the BCS for this.  This is the fault of the Big 12 and the Big 12 alone.  The BCS is not a conference ranking system, it is a national ranking system.  A national ranking system takes into account factors that a conference ranking system should not, such as non-conference schedule.  The BCS is set up to do one thing and one thing only and the Big 12 decided to use it to do something completely different, and that's the fault of the Big 12, not the BCS.

Moving on to what the BCS was actually meant to do, it must be noted that the BCS was created to rectify the problem of the "mythical" national championship.  Teams like undefeated #1 Texas didn't play undefeated #2 Penn State in 1969 to determine the national champion so it was awarded to the team that was #1 in the polls (or, in some cases, by Richard Nixon in the locker room after the regular season), giving such national championship a "mythical" or somewhat illegitimate quality.

[Aside: In fairness, Penn State had the option to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl, but turned it down to go to their pre-assigned Sugar Bowl because, I don't know, they liked debauchery?  They were scared?  Nixon had already named Texas national champion on national television?  Who knows.  And for those of you who are curious, yes, Joe Paterno was the head coach in 1969.  In fact, JoePa's had 4 undefeated seasons in which Penn State was not named national champion, including BOTH 1968 and 1969 and most recently in 1994 with Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter and Bobby Engram.  The BCS was created so things like this didn't happen.]

The national championship is no longer mythical, irrational claims by bloggers notwithstanding.  There are rules set forth before the season regarding who gets into a playoff to determine the national champion and whoever wins that playoff is declared national champion of division 1 college football.  This is not mythical.  This is exactly how every major sport does it.  Your beef is simply with how many teams make that playoff and how we decide which teams make it, not with the legitimacy of the national champion named.

No doubt that for most of us (though not all), this system is superior to the previous system.  But of course that doesn't make it perfect anymore than it makes Mack Brown perfect for just happening to succeed John Mackovic as head coach.  And most people will agree, even those that don't consider themselves "playoff proponents" (considering the connotation that rides shotgun with that term), that there are flaws in the BCS system.  As I stated in the facts above, though, those flaws are confined really to merely two categories: how many teams are in the playoff and how such teams are selected.  Let's look at each.

How Many Teams Make it to the College Football Playoff:  Currently the BCS restricts this to two teams.  Barack Obama wants eight.  I've heard calls for as many as 64 and I've heard calls that aren't patently ridiculous for as many as 16.  The number of teams that make it to a playoff depends on what you want that playoff to be, as I have discussed previously on this site.  Loyal and long-time readers know that I have been angling for a Flex Playoff system for over two years (see comments on this post and this post for the first primitive articulation of the system).  The general idea is: (a) the college football national champion should be the team that has had the best season overall, (b) the college football playoff should include only those teams that have a legitimate claim to have had the best season overall, (c) the number of teams with such a claim changes each year, and therefore (d) the number of teams in that playoff should change accordingly, under rules for determining who has a legitimate claim to have had the best season overall.

The ultimate articulation of this system was a lengthy two-part treatise I wrote in early 2007 outlining the theoretical basis for the Flex System and then the Flex System itself.  That's required reading for anyone who wants to fully understand what I'm talking about here, with the caveat that I will be slightly amending the rules of the Flex System itself this offseason as further thought has led me to slightly different conclusions about how to deal with certain situations.  Be advised that these revisions have nothing to do with Texas' exclusion from the Big 12 Championship game (and thus the revisions are not just sour grapes) because (a) that exclusion has nothing to do with the college football playoff, as I have mentioned previously, and (b) Texas would already be in the college football playoff under the current Flex System, no matter what happens this weekend.

At the very least, I think that just about everyone can agree that in at least some years, two teams are not enough to be let into the playoff, most notably in 2003 (no undefeated teams but three indistinguishable 1-loss teams: USC, OU, and LSU) and in 2004 (three undefeated BCS conference teams (USC, OU, and Auburn).  I personally believe that in some years, two teams is exactly the right number of teams that should be put into a playoff, most notably in 2005 when USC and Texas were the only two undefeated teams in the country and widely agreed to be the only two with a legitimate claim to have had the best year.  But, continuing with the Penn State theme, what if Chad Henne hadn't hit Mario Manningham for a game-winning touchdown at the last second to give the Nittany Lions their only loss of the season?  Penn State likely would have been an undefeated #3 and JoePa would have 5 undefeated seasons that didn't result in national championships rather than 4.  And that's not fair.  

So if there are some years in which two teams are simply not enough to put into a playoff, then you have two options: (1) adjust the number of teams who do get in depending on the circumstances of each year to only include teams with a legitimate claim to have had the best season overall (i.e. the Flex System) or (2) increase the number of teams that get in every year, and thereby let in teams that clearly do not have a claim to have had the best season and allow them the possibility of winning the national championship.  Option 2 is what just about every other sport does (though MLB held out against this for a long time and still tries to maintain some semblance of this idea) and it rewards teams who get hot at the end of the season but who may have lost a lot of games early over teams that have had better seasons.  Both are viable options and I have my obvious preference.  But something needs to be done.

How Teams that Make the College Football Playoff are Selected:  The determination of who gets into the playoff is a bone of contention as well.  This has to be done in some manner, whether it's by a committee at the end of the season (like college basketball) or it's by only letting in conference champions or it's by a ranking system of some sort.  Because very often some of the best teams in the country all come from the same conference, I think that you have to let in teams that did not win their conference if you really want to have a meaningful playoff.  So for me, it comes down to a committee or a ranking system.  Let's first look at a ranking system.

We're all familiar with the BCS ranking system after the massive amount of posts I've done over the past few weeks trying to figure out a possible way for Texas to make it to KC and Miami.  I actually think this is a fine system in theory, with three caveats: (1) there should be nothing that computers can't take into account except for perhaps margin of victory over a certain point (really, beating a team by 42 points isn't much different from beating them by 28 points), (2) there should be more computers to get a meaningful average, and (3) human voters shouldn't be idiots who don't follow college football or coaches who think a team they just voted ahead of Texas is undefeated when they actually lost to Texas or who just vote for the team that played better against their team rather than which had the better season.

Honestly, I think the computers plus humans system is a good ranking tool.  Humans are able to detect nuance in a team's performance that computers are not, and computers are able to give objective treatment to the accomplishments of each team whereas humans are not.  The BCS can easily fix problem (1) above by executive fiat, and can fix problem (2) by not eliminating the high and low rankings and adding a few more reputable computers.  Those are easy.  The hard part comes in fixing problem (3).  First, the coaches poll has to be eliminated from the system.  If the coaches want to have a poll, that's fine.  But it should have no bearing on who goes to the playoff.  The ideal human poll is something like what the Harris Poll is supposed to be: a group of intelligent college football fans who know the sport through and through and who legitimately respect the job of ranking teams.

But the main problem with the notion of human voters at all is the recent dawning of their enlightenment about the place they hold in the BCS system.  One thing that I'm not particularly comfortable with is the fact that human voters are learning how to manipulate their votes in their individual polls to get the result they want from the BCS.  Maybe they're not actually doing this and it's just us speculating that they are, but all this talk of "voters won't allow a 1-loss SEC champion to be left out of the national championship game so they'll vote Florida #1 over OU just to make sure Florida goes over Texas" is extremely scary.  Voters should be voting on who they think has had the best season and on no other basis, particularly not one with a specific agenda.  In a sense, voters should not be sentient about their place in the system.  They should, just as the computers do with their unique abilities, use their unique human abilities to rank teams and not worry about the ultimate effect of those rankings.  This is a corollary to the stated reason for why the AP pulled out of the BCS: they want to report news, not make it.

Let's not forget that after all our politicking last week, large swaths of human voters moved Texas ahead of OU after Texas blew out a terrible team and OU won fairly convincingly over a good team.  Did these two results warrant this change?  Absolutely not.  Voters were responding to what they saw as an injustice that was about to happen.  Voters probably should have had Texas above by a lot to begin with and then considered the possibility of moving OU ahead after they beat OSU, but that's tangential to my point here.  My point is that voters can be swayed by politicking. Sometimes it's politicking to get them to actually focus on the results of the season, but sometimes it's not.  Sometimes it's to say "Hey, make sure you put Florida ahead of OU and Alabama ahead of Texas on your final ballot so we can make sure that the computers don't send Texas to the national championship game ahead of the Gators."

How do you get rid of that?  You don't release any BCS rankings before the last one!  You don't release the polls that are included in the BCS formula until late in the season!  And you make every single person's vote public every single week that the poll is released along with a minimum 500-word explanation of why they ranked the top 5 they way that they did!  These aren't going to cure everything, obviously.  But the more transparency there is and the fewer opportunities there are for blatant manipulation of the BCS standings, the better the system will be.  If you have read the Flex System proposal, you know that my preference is for taking these BCS rankings and applying certain rules to them for determining who gets into a playoff (i.e. if there are only 2 undefeated teams in the top 5 of the BCS standings and they are ranked 1-2, then there is a 2-team playoff between those 2 teams--like in 2005 with Texas and USC).  But however the BCS standings determine who makes the playoffs, that ranking system needs some tweaks.

I owe you a brief word on the committee system, and here it is.  It only works if you have a giant playoff where the last few teams in have approximately 0% chance of winning the playoff and where the teams in the playoff have to win a lot of games to win the whole thing.  The fewer games there are in the playoff, the more illegitimate the committee will seem.  Now, you will say that the same is true of a ranking system which means we should just have a big playoff, but that's not true.  For instance, in my Flex System, the rules for who gets into the playoff are set before the season starts, not after the season is over.  You may disagree with who gets in and who doesn't but it's not illegitimate because it's not biased against any specific teams.  If you decide who gets into a playoff after the season, the decisions are suspect for bias, and if it isn't a huge playoff, there isn't a reason to dismiss any alleged claims of bias.


I know there appears to be a rift between the title of this post and the content, in which I have criticized the BCS throughout.  But if you look closely, the criticisms aren't of the premise of the system, but rather of its methods.  It's an affirmation of the BCS, which is a playoff system in which the winner of that playoff is named national champion, and a refutation of numerous arguments against it.  But it's also a recognition that the system would be better if sometimes we let in more teams than two, and maybe we slightly reformed the system for determining who gets invited to the playoff.  At the least, it's a plea for everyone to make nuanced arguments for what we believe rather than blanket statements condemning  the BCS (and that means you too, Mr. Obama).

REAL Conclusion: Seriously though, Mr. President Elect.....shoot me an e-mail on your blackberry while you still can.  Team of Rivals!

[Note to everyone: This post is not an invitation to talk about politics in the comments.  Talk about politicians and politics only in the context of what it means for college football.  Nothing else.]