The BCS Redux Argument

There are three things most homo sapiens do really well without much training: breathing, dying, and arguing. And if it’s autumn in North America, then chances are these over-evolved apes (you and me) who are sports fans are arguing college football (unless you live in Canada where it’s already time for hockey). And we are probably arguing via every method possible (at the bar, over email, the text message, etc.). More often than not, you are comparing conferences and explaining to your buddy how the Pac-10 is totally inferior this year to say, the Big Ten. Or maybe you are trying to convince a friend that Tim Tebow should win the first of his three future Heisman Trophies this season, but your friend isn’t buying it because he says you haven’t seen Michael Hart play. And so it goes, and so it goes, with no end in sight. And I haven’t even mentioned the Bowl Championship Series (or better known by the acronym: the BCS).

NCAA Division I-A College Football does not recognize a champion. It never really has. Without a playoff system, the division leaves it to the reporters (the Associated Press poll) and the coaches (the USA Today Coaches poll) to pick their own. The major upgrade to these flawed, chop-full of conflicts-of-interest voting systems came when the BCS was introduced for the 1998 season. In the simplest terms, the BCS is a formula of formulas that pairs the best teams against each other in bowl games come January each season. The hope is that the BCS pits the two best teams against the other to determine the top team, aka the champion – although still the NCAA does not recognize a champion… this is still left to the AP. And while late October brings arguments on top of arguments concerning a variety of matters related to college football, no fan disagrees that the BCS is flawed. Many are even predicting that this (for lack of a better word) wacky 2007 season will fully break the BCS and might – might — bring real change.

Like a playoff-sort-of-change, you ask? No, silly. Logistically that would be impossible for student athletes and schools to add additional games. How Division II and III are able to accomplish their playoffs seems to mystify all presidents and athletic directors of DI universities alike. Surely it has nothing to do with the large corporate sponsorships of the DI bowl games. Seriously, maybe all that money going to universities is a good thing for education. Just look at the University of Louisville whose football team was selected by the BCS system to play in the Orange Bowl last year. The school estimated that it would receive $15 million. Try $2.4 million, nearly all of which was spent by the university on the event itself ($300 per hotel room for the team at the Trump Sonesta, a $43,686 receipt from Best Buy on Sony Playstation portables for the team since the flight from Louisville to Miami is a really dull 2 hours, of course you need to purchase flights for all those guys but don’t forget the band, and there was also a fan appreciation party at the Hard Rock Seminole Casino complete with open bar). Weekend on South Beach 1, education 0. So now you understand why a playoff is out of the question.

With a playoff off the table, what can be fixed about DI college football so that a true champion can be crowned? The problem may be best suited for a game designer – someone who can look at the system in an abstract manner, recognize what works, and tweak the mechanics of the BCS in the places where it fails. Now everyone has an opinion about how to fix the BCS and this certainly isn’t the first article proposing ways to improve it. My proposal might be, however, the first to take into account the meta game (yes, I just used the word meta) of college football and ask the world of college football to take a step away from both computer and human analysis. Yes, I am about to propose to get rid of the human voting AND the computer statistical based systems, and still have a BCS system in place without a playoff that would fairly award a championship. No I’m not a magician. Just a poor, malnourished game designer.

As promised: the meta game of college football – yes, there is more to the sport than 22 players colliding on a 120 yard field. By its nature (and history), college football invites the fan to argue with other fans since there is no tournament to determine a true champion. This perennial quarrelling has become homogeneous with the sport for the fan. If the universities want to maintain their influx of corporate dollars, then they must recognize that this money is really coming through the support for the game from the fans. Sadly, the sport of college football is nothing in this era without the game of college football – and the game includes the fan. My point is that in any proposed fix of the BCS system, you can forget the journalist and you can forget the computer – just don’t forget the fan.

I once taught journalism to high school upperclassmen and we spent about a third of the semester discussing journalistic integrity. Hopefully any one of the students that emerged from my class can tell you that the first responsibility of the journalist is to never cover a story where the subject matter could possibly present a conflict of interest. The second rule is for the journalist to never influence the outcome of a story. Any writer who votes in the Associated Press college football poll which effectively awards the faux-championship is breaking both of these rules. It is why ESPN actually decided to remove themselves from sponsoring the coaches poll a few years back. And speaking of the coaches poll, if you were the coach of a team wouldn’t it be in your best interest (speaking in gaming terms of course) to not vote favorably towards your rivals? When there are millions of dollars and coaching jobs on the line, we should expect coaches to behave honorably? The first step in fixing the BCS is to remove human voting altogether from the process.

So remember the fan, remove human voting, and now my third point: removing the computers. Computer algorithms devised by a multitude of programmers figure largely into the BCS formula. This is why I call the BCS a “formula or formulas,” and I don’t mean that affectionately. The algorithms used are each unique obviously, but they sparse nearly identical information. It is how each computer weighs such information is where difference lies. Since there are five algorithms considered by the BCS, those five are averaged before being applied to overall formula where the computer rankings will match with the human rankings. Hopefully you are still following me. I haven’t even cracked the hood to show you the real math. Even if I did, we’d both be confused. And after using all these great equations, the BCS would still just give us a number like .725 for (The) Ohio State’s (apparently the school prefers a the in front of their name) football team and we’d all scratch are heads to wonder: does that mean (The) Ohio State is good?

Computers are great because they do not have an opinion. Computers are terrible at expressing information though – it takes a human to spice that up, also known as: interpreting the statistical output in plain English. This is the problem. A number like .725 means nothing to the fan. (The) Ohio State players have no idea if their next win will raise that number or hinder it somehow because there is not a player on that team majoring in computer science. The BCS tires to give some transparency to the formulas, but no one can see for the cluster of math. By averaging all these votes and algorithms in a highly complicated system, the fans and teams are left with a very average system indeed.

In game design as with most fields of design, less is often more. Stripping human and computer influence in the BCS process is a start but where does that leave us? Sort of without a system at all. Now it’s time to build it back up: my first proposal is that now that we have got it simple, let’s keep it simple. While we are at it, how about a system everyone can follow? And by follow I mean that teams and fans can actually know what their next win (or their next five wins) will mean in the context of their season long quest to reach the BCS championship. If only their was a major Division I sport that we could use as some sort of model… wait! I’ve got it: college basketball! No, I’m not bring up the idea to have a tournament, we know that’s not going to happen, remember? But like any great problem solving, let’s form a committee!

I’m serious. Let’s form a committee. Now if you haven’t just prematurely rejected my idea and thrown this paper to the ground, please consider: college basketball does an excellent job of putting together a committee of athletic directors in late March to spend about a week to construct the field of 64 teams for the Division I tournament, better known as March Madness… quite possibly the greatest sporting event in the world along with the FIFA (soccer) World Cup (perhaps the best model for running a tournament). I beleive the NCAA should get together a committee in mid-October and order them to craft a 64 team, four tier ranking system for the football season. By this I mean, have the committee put the best 16 teams into tier one, another 16 into tier two, and so on. This would leave four tiers of 16 teams and then “the rest.” Within each tier there is no ranking. Follow?

Now the committee has done their part, and fans get to argue their decisions just like old times (this is part of the game, remember?). Now the point system comes into place and it’s effective retroactively. Team A gets one point for every team they beat that was not placed in one of the four tiers (“the rest”). Team A gets two points for every team they beat in Tier Four (teams 49-64). Team A gets three points for wins over teams of the third tier (teams 33-48), four point over tier two teams (17-32), and five points for beating the best (1-16). For losses, just invert the system – so Team A loses two points for a loss to a team in Tier Two. Finally, if you win on the road you get a bonus point. If you lose at home you lose a point. That’s it. My proposal for the BCS is that simple. One note: if a team plays more than eleven games, only their eleven most difficult games count.

My proposed system takes into account schedule strength naturally. Fans and teams know exactly what is on the line and how it will affect postseason advancement. There is still something to argue. The BCS still exists. Fedex still gets to pay a lot of money to sponsor the Orange Bowl. There will be still be fun in the sun for teams in South Beach. And once the bowls have all been played, you can plug the twelfth game right into the simple formula and all will know who is the champion… like right after the last tick of the clock of the final game. Imagine that? But what do I know, I’m just a simple game designer. Time to get back to breathing, dying, and some college football arguing.

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