College Football’s Problems

Watching some of the games this weekend, and the ever present BCS handwringing going on, a couple of things occured to me. First of all, part of the reason that the BCS picture is “confusing” is because everyone on ESPN is tossing out all these various, not really likely to happen scenarios in quick succession, and viewers are bound to get lost. Secondly, most of these same problems would occur if you tried to shift the system to a playoff. How many mid-major conferences have a chance to get in? How many at large bids can one conference get? Can you count on the voters in the Harris and Coaches’ polls to make logical decisions? And while this may seem pretty trivial in that it will decide the 8th seed instead of the 1st and 2nd, largely, I think it’s rather more important than that. College Football as a lot more teams than, say, the NBA, and a wider distribution of power/talent. The #8 team is likely to be the 2nd best team in a major conference, and could possibly beat the #1 team in a single game. At the moment, Penn State, the Big 10 Champion, is sitting at #8 in the BCS rankings, and while they migt be underdogs in the game, I think most people would agree they’d be perfectly capable of upsetting Alabama with a little luck. So it seems to me that we’re getting so caught up in watching the BCS so much, that we’re missing a lot of the contributing factors that really create the mess inthe first place and, presumably, won’t be erased by a playoff. And with that in mind, after the jump, I humbly offer some ideas to make the end of the college football season a little less murky.

1. Eliminate the human polls

This one is absolutely essential, because by and large it’s the strange and illogical variances in the human polls that create seemingly crazy BCS standings in the first place. But because the people who vote in the AP poll (albeit no longer a part of the BCS formula) long ago put it in our colletive minds that if there’s a discrepancy between the writers and the computers then it must be the computers who are wrong (even thought human polls are the majority of the input factors that go into the BCS), and because writers inevitably shifted the blame to outrageous standings to the computers, instead of on themselves, we don’t really fully understand the weight these polls have, and how a few stupid ballots can drastically alter outcomes in the computer.

But the larger problem with these polls are pretty simple; people are fickle. College football has cerain biases that are now considered “tradition” that ought to be honored instead of eliminated, and that’s not the computer’s fault. Something tells me a computer doesn’t care when you lose, which is arguably the biggest problem with human polls. There’s no reason a loss in November ought to hurt you more than a loss in September, especially if you’re playing a tougher team at the end of the year. Also you have a bias to the previous standings, which makes mistakes harder to correct, and often leads to a situation where the polls can’t be brought back into line with the new situation. For example, if Oklahoma loses to Oklahoma State today, Texas Tech wins the Big XII South. But odds are pretty good that Texas will still be ranked ahead of them, and might even end up as the #2 team after the SEC Championship game. There’s no reason a computer couldn’t be programmed to avoid a situation wherein a conference champion, or division winner, is ranked ahead of a team they not only finished ahead of, but beat in a head to head match up. And that brings me to…

2. Stop putting polls out every week

This is a really silly practice that ought to just seem crazy on the face of it. Is there really that much change week to week? Of course not, but you see a lot of crazy changes in the polls anyway. Mack Brown was on ESPN the other day, and I think he had one of the best observations of the whole year; voters are emotional, and they’re perpetually overreacting to wat they’ve just seen. So, for example, Oklahoma destroys Texas Tech and jumps up to #2 in the polls, ahead of Texas and Florida. Similarly, Texas Tech shot up the lists after an exciting last minute win against Texas, leaping Penn State in the process, Florida moved up markedly after blowing out a previously overrated Georgia team on national television, and Texas moved from #5 to #1, jumping Alabama, after a 45-35 win over Oklahoma. Now this isn’t always the biggest problem out there, but because voters invariably feel constrained by the rankings going in, at least to a certain degree, it makes it hard to correct them later on. If rankings didn’t come out until the end of the season, you could put together a more sober appraisal of the full season, and have many fewer “wrong” rankings.

3. Get rid of the conference championship games

It doesn’t always happen, but nothing screws up the BCS, and the bowl season in general, more than an upset by the winner of the weaker division in a major conference with a championship game. At the very least, get rid of the divisional splits and play the top 2 teams based on standings against one another. This isn’t one of the professional leagues, there’s no reason for this nonsense, and the conferences got by for a good long time without them. I understand that they want the money of the extra game, but the rest of the NCAA has an interest in keeping sanity to the system, so at the very least the BCS should refuse to acknowledge the validity of these games, and award their automatic bids to the regular season champion, as well as locking in the final rankings before these games. And finally…

4. Take away the Big East’s automatic bid

They’re a great basketball conference, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Big East is no longer a major football conference. Take away their automatic bid and replace it with another at large bid, and you could get Utah and Boise State into BCS bowls.

I know this isn’t goin to satisfy the playoff hounds, but ultimately you’d probably have to make these changes to make a playoff system sane as well. Otherwise you’ll have the same issues, the same debates, and the same silly standings no matter what system you use.