The BCS just won’t go away. Since the majority of this post will be about conflict of interest, let me give full disclosure. I hate the BCS. I think it’s a big marketing device designed to generate a bunch of empty discussion without giving fans an exciting post season.
This year we get a rematch of LSU and Alabama for the national championship. This makes me pretty angry, since my Michigan Wolverines could have been given another chance against Ohio State in 2006 after losing 42-39 in a one versus two match up. I think Michigan was penalized more because it was the last game of the season and it was a shootout. No one wanted to see them play twice in a row (except me of course).
And big surprise, there’s controversy surrounding the rematch. This year is worse than usual BCS arguments about who is better than who; part of the controversy is about Nick Saban rigging the standings with his coaches poll vote. While most are vilifying Saban for putting Oklahoma State fourth instead of third, Timothy Burke at Deadspin takes the opposite opinion: Why don’t coaches vote with even more self-interest? Saban’s optimal strategy would have been to rank Alabama #1, and put a bunch of crappy teams in spots 2 to 25 (giving no points to Alabama’s competition for #2).
Burke argues that the most likely explanation is coaches’ ignorance of their influence. That’s crazy. It’s not complicated stuff here — if you vote a team lower, they get fewer points, and the two teams with the most points face off. A commenter reinforces the more likely explanation (which Burke dismisses): coaches want to avoid the backlash from playing this strategy. Saban is getting bent over the railing just for moving Ok State one spot! If he left them and other competitors out of his ranking, he would have news crews on his lawn. The powers that be might intervene and exclude his vote. Alabama could be forced into firing him to avoid looking like selfish assholes. Coaches may also feel duty-bound to vote honestly, but I can’t believe they are just ignorant.
Regardless, Saban is not the first coach to shade his voting in his favor. Matthew Kotchen (Yale University) and Matthew Potoski (Iowa State University) find that coaches tend to vote themselves, conference buddies, and past opponents slightly higher. All of these moves help the coaches’ own schools, due to revenue sharing and perception of strength of schedule. It seems that coaches are indeed voting in their self interest, but only at a level that escapes a vicious response.
Burke also notes that only 59 coaches are included on the ballots. The membership changes somewhat randomly year to year (Burke’s probability critique of the randomness is flawed — it’s probably random among interested coaches — but that’s a separate topic). He suggests that all coaches should be included, which would help balance out any shading. My preference would be to eliminate the coaches poll completely. The AP poll has problems too, unfortunately. Growing up, I remember Jack Moss, the sports editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette, sneaking hometown Western Michigan into his top 25 every time they started well.
I propose something more radical: the College Football Premier League. The CFPL would put the top 30 or 40 teams in college football in their own league with pro-style divisions/conferences. As in European soccer, teams could drop out of the CFPL or move up through a relegation/promotion system. Playoffs would look like the NFL (in other words, they would be really exciting), and we would never again have to read about BCS controversies and biased polls.
Detractors will say this is not feasible. I say, why can’t all the good teams band together and opt out of the FBS by only scheduling games against each other? Teams are opting out of conferences left and right, and the NCAA doesn’t seem to care. Imagine the improvement in revenues for big schools if they played marquee teams every week and only shared among themselves. The minnows will suffer, but they are living on subsidies right now anyway.
A related topic is whether playoffs anoint the best team champion more often than the BCS. If BCS standings are reasonably accurate, a simple one versus two could do better than extended playoffs, since playoff games are partly decided by randomness that lets teams of worse quality advance. Fans who want a “true champion” probably still clamor for playoffs because they don’t trust the BCS standings. I’ll be honest — I just want playoffs because they are fun. I’ll try to address this quantitatively in a later post.