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The BCS Numbers Game Rises From the Dead

As most of you probably remember, last year I did a "Numbers Game" column that just devolved towards the end of the season into a BCS numbers analysis trying to figure out how Texas might be able to make the Big 12 Championship game and the National Championship game.  That was fun.  I thought I wouldn't have to do one of those again with the whole "win and you're in" mantra, but with everyone starting to worry about Iowa creeping up and dominating the computers, I thought I'd take a look at the numbers and the various scenarios and try to nip the widespread panic in the bud.  Click through the jump to get a painful reminder of last years heartbreak!

From one of last year's posts:

An Explanatory Prelude That Seems Simple But is Oh So Important:  It's important to realize that rankings in the BCS component polls (Harris, Coaches and Computers) mean very little.  It's the scores that establish those rankings that matter, not the rankings themselves.  In the Harris Poll, there are 114 voters, and for every #1 ranking a team gets 25 points, for every #2 ranking, a team gets 24 points, and so on.  Thus the greatest number of points a team can get if it gets all 114 first place votes is 2,850, which is 25 times 114.  Alabama has 2,808 out of a possible 2,850, which gives them their Harris poll score of .9853 (which is 2808 divided by 2850).  If Alabama had, say, only 2770 points out of 2850, they would still be ranked #1, but their Harris Poll score for BCS purposes would only be .9719, significantly lower than it is now.  Thus rank doesn't matter, only points.

And because of that, you can have a "strong" ranking or a "weak" ranking.  Therefore, if the #4 team is just 1 point behind the #3 team in the Harris poll (thus #3 is weak and #4 is strong), and then if the #4 team then passes the #3 team the next week and now leads by 1 point, that means virtually nothing for the BCS because even though the rankings changed, the points stayed almost exactly the same.  It's not absolute rankings that matter, it's the points.

That being established, let's take a look at the Harris and Coaches Polls, points-wise:


Note: just as happened last year, 1 Harris Poll voter occasionally decides not to vote, which no doubt inspires much confidence in the poll as a whole, so we only have 113 votes this week rather than 114.  The expected points were adjusted accordingly.

Harris Poll
Expected Pts Actual Pts % of Expected Team
2825 2765 -60 Florida
2712 2674 -36 Alabama
2599 2672 +73 Texas
2486 2316 -170 USC
2373 2273 -100 Boise St.
2260 2224 -36 Cincy
2147 2119 -28 TCU
2034 2086 +52 Iowa
USA Today Coaches Poll
Expected Pts Actual Pts % of Expected
1475 1459 -16 Florida
1416 1399 -17 Alabama
1357 1390 +33 Texas
1298 1244 -54 USC
1239 1152 -87 Boise St.
1180 1131 -49 TCU
1121 1126 +5 Cincy
1062 1086 +24 Iowa
Computers Poll
A&H Billingsley Colley Massey Sagarin Wolfe Average Diff. from Expected Team
25 22 25 25 25 25 1.000 -- Iowa
24 24 23 23 24 24 .950 -.010 Florida
23 25 24 24 23 23 .940 +.020 Alabama
22 21 21 21 18 22 .850 -.030 TCU
21 23 22 16 12 20 .790 -.050 Texas
20 18 19 18 20 21 .770 -.030 Cincinnati*
17 17 20 22 21 19 .770 -.030 Oregon*
16 20 15 20 22 18 .740 +.020 Boise St.
18 16 18 19 19 17 .720 +.040 USC

*Because Cincinnati and Oregon are in a tie for 6th place, both of their "expecteds" are the equivalent of a 6th place ranking while BSU's "expected" is for an 8th-ranked team and USC's is for a 9th-ranked team.

Fact 1 is heartening for now: Iowa is ranked #8 in both human polls.  That is absurdly low for an undefeated team from the Big 10 and likely has to do with a combination of poor preseason expectations, pollster inertia, and terrible on-the-field play that has miraculously not lost them a game yet.  If computers were allowed to take into margin of victory (up to a certain amount), then I would venture to say that Iowa would not be ranked #1 in that facet of the BCS.

Fact 2 is a side effect of Fact 1 but is in fact disheartening: Iowa has a lot of room to move up in the human polls and gain points in the BCS relative to Texas.  Iowa has been completely unimpressive thus far, but has a chance the rest of the season to turn it on.  And if they beat Ohio State in Columbus, human voters will likely move them up ahead of Boise State, Cincinnati, TCU and perhaps USC (all of these teams are quite weak for their positions in the rankings, while Iowa is high for its rankings; to me this means that there is a lot of confusion about how to rank these teams and voters looking for someone to put at the high end of this group might find something they like in an undefeated Big 10 team).  If that happens it's a very large jump that would make up a lot of the gap that currently exists between Texas and the Hawkeyes in the BCS standings.  However, it must also be noted that a 1-loss Alabama or Florida may still be ranked ahead of Iowa (or, if not, will certainly be ranked ahead of them by some voters, taking away points from the Hawkeyes), but virtually no one will rank a 1-loss SEC team ahead of Texas.

Fact 3 gives some hope to those scared of Fact 2: While Texas, unlike Iowa, has very little room to move up because we are already a high #3, virtually identical to low #2 Alabama, the top 3 are essentially a consensus, with any vote shifts occurring by movement almost entirely within the top 3.  This benefits Texas somewhat because it prevents teams from outside of the top 3 from breaking into the top 3 and it is a result of voters being willing to shift their votes around between the top 3.  That is, the inertia exists as to the top 3 versus everyone else, rather than as #1 versus #2 and #2 versus #3.  Because Texas is lowest on the Top-3 totem pole, this gives us some room for potential upward movement without much room for downward movement. 

Fact 4 is the inverse of Fact 2: Texas is ranked so low by the computers and Iowa is ranked so high, that the difference between them cannot get any greater and will almost definitely get closer at the season goes on.  For one thing, Texas' schedule should improve as we play 6-1 Oklahoma State this weekend and OU looks to continue winning as well.  Perhaps more importantly, the SEC teams will overtake Iowa in the computers even if Texas cannot, meaning that Iowa's relative advantage over Texas will likely decrease.  And, even if Iowa does stay #1, when one of the SEC teams loses, Texas will move up, decreasing Iowa's relative advantage over Texas.

Fact 5 gives you a worst case scenario and a reason to ignore it (both of which are actually opinions and not facts): With respect to Iowa, the worst thing that can happen to an undefeated Texas team is Texas ranked a solid #2 in both human polls, Iowa ranked a solid #3, Iowa as a unanimous #1 in the computer polls and Texas as a solid #3. In that absolute worst-case scenario, Texas would be tied with Iowa in the BCS and it would be a tossup based on a few points here and there. Which is cause for a little bit of worry.  But of course that's not going happen.  Texas will likely get a few #1 votes in addition to the SEC champion and will get virtually no votes lower than #2.  Iowa will get virtually no votes higher than #3, but will get plenty of votes lower than #3 as voters try to figure out what to do with USC, the 1-loss SEC runner-up, Boise State, TCU, Cincinnati. It's virtually assured that Texas will be at least a solid #2, and that Iowa will be something less than a solid #3.  I mean, they're currently ranked #8!  They'd have to jump 4 teams who may not lose the rest of the season PLUS a 1-loss Florida/Alabama.   As far as the computers go, Iowa got lucky (strength of schedule-wise) that they don't have to play bottom-dwellers Purdue and Illinois this year (though their OOC foe Iowa State does look to be poised to lose 3 more games, while Arizona still has to play Cal, Oregon, USC and ASU).   Regardless, Iowa will almost certainly not be a consensus #1 in the computers at the end of the season.  Whichever SEC team wins the conference will (if undefeated) take at least some of the #1 rankings, making Iowa at best a weak #1, if not #2.  Texas, on the other hand will likely pass TCU (whose schedule gets much easier) and whichever SEC team loses.  They may get some competition for points from a 1-loss team, but will likely reach a reasonably solid #3 in the computers.  Essentially, it's called a worst-case scenario for a reason.  Everything would have to go wrong for Iowa to come close to even tying Texas in the BCS.  If one thing doesn't go wrong, Iowa can't catch us.  I like the odds.

Fact 6 is a truism as old as time (or at least as old as the Warren G. Harding administration): Iowa always loses. They haven't finished a regular season undefeated since 1922 (the height of the teapot dome scandal!).  They needed two blocked field goals in the last 5 seconds to beat D-1AA Northern Iowa by one point at home.  They needed to recover an onside kick in the 4th quarter to hold on to a 3-point victory over Arkansas State at home.  As a point of reference, ASU is 2-4, with its only victories being against a 1-AA team and Florida International, which itself is 1-6, with their only victory coming against 0-7 Western Kentucky.  Iowa Hawkeye football: feel the excitement!  The point is not to just denigrate Iowa's football team (though it's no doubt fun, the voters have done that enough by voting an undefeated Big 10 team #8 this late in the season...), but rather to say that it's not worth worrying about yet. If Iowa beats Ohio State in the Horseshoe, then we can talk again.  But even if that happens, I still wouldn't be too worried.

[As an aside to you Pundit Roundup fans, apologies for my absence the last few weeks.  Many reasons, most of them uninteresting.  It'll be back this week sometime.]