The Computers

Once upon a time

… From 1998 to 2013, college football determined which teams would play for the national championship by using a formula created by the Bowl Championship Series. This formula included rankings produced by mathematicians. The most accurate way to describe these ranking systems would be to say they were algorithms or formulas, but during the 16 seasons that they were part of the championship selection process, they were always referred to as “the computers.”

Just because it feels nostalgic to recall that doesn’t mean we’re in a better place.  Because we’re not, even if you’re a fan of expanding the field from the BCS’s two to the current field of four.

Under the new College Football Playoff format, the number of teams involved in the championship picture has doubled, from two to four. That change has been great: Two of the seven champions in the playoff era have been teams seeded fourth, and would have been excluded from competing for a title under the old two-team format. But the method of selecting playoff teams—having a committee of 13 people decide who belongs in the field—is worse than the BCS in every other way. It is less transparent, more prone to biases and conflicts of interest, and more prone to be affected by one person’s bad opinions.

What the powers that be have created isn’t rocket science.  Literally.  Instead, it’s the culmination of what college football’s people in charge always do:  put their collective thumb on the scale to make sure the wealth gets spread in a manner to their liking.

In other ways, however, the people in charge of the BCS couldn’t help themselves from meddling. Over the 16 years of this system’s existence, the coalition of conferences and bowl games behind the BCS repeatedly tweaked the formula—virtually any time a BCS decision came under fire, something had to change. First the BCS used three computer rankings; then it used six. The BCS required mathematicians to use certain elements and forbade them from using others. The most contentious request came when the BCS told the mathematicians to omit margin of victory from their calculations. It’s plainly obvious why this was a bad idea. You don’t need to be a genius to understand that a team that wins its games by an average of 30 points is better than a team that wins its games by an average of three points. Most of the mathematicians went along with the BCS requests, but a few refused to alter their formulas and were replaced. As Stanford head coach David Shaw said in 2011: “All I’ve heard this year is the computers don’t like Stanford. Well, the computers haven’t programmed themselves.”

“They changed the formula to what humans thought it should be,” Connelly says, “which kind of ruined the point.”

With all due respect to Bill, that depends on what the point is.

The same people who messed with the math remain in charge, only now the sport has a selection process that’s entirely dependent on the opinions of 13 biased people. “They feel like the football brain power in the room, the football knowledge, doesn’t need any formulas,” Connelly says.

What’s gone under the radar in the move from the BCS to the CFP is how much more concentrated the decision making became.

While the constant tweaks to the BCS process weren’t ideal, the system at least tried to draw from a large pool of participants and prevent one bad opinion from skewing the entire process. The two human polls that were part of the BCS formula—the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Interactive Poll—featured more than 170 respondents; some voters were affiliated with every FBS conference. And while the BCS used six computer rankings, it eliminated the most extreme results. If, say, four of the computer rankings had a team ranked between fifth and seventh, but one ranking had them first and another had them unranked, the two outliers were dropped.

… The move to a playoff promised a more open championship system, yet college football adopted a spectacularly undemocratic selection process. Thirteen hand-picked people were given absolute power to choose the four teams to compete for a given season’s championship.

That’s a feature for them, not a bug.  They’ve got the system that they want, which is a shame, because it doesn’t serve the sport well at all.  Not that they care.

What they should do is come up with some sort of amalgamation of computer analysis, combined with approval voting by a large pool of voters.  Instead, what they’ll do is stick with the selection committee and bask in the warmth of the reaction when they expand the playoff field to twelve.  It’s just a reminder that playoff expansion serves the interests of the sport’s owners first, last and always.


Filed under BCS/Playoffs

12 responses to “The Computers

  1. I’ve been saying this for a while now. If you just asked the AP and USA Today to hold off on the polls until October, I bet you would get the same results we got from the Mumme Poll. The large number of respondents removes the bias (which in the polls comes from the preseason expectations). Use the computer rankings the way they are programmed and drop the high and low (once again, to remove the bias). At the end of the season, provide a kicker for a conference championship. Take the top 4 and go play.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hogbody Spradlin

    So, who pray tell would the BCS formula have picked this year?


  3. Just be honest. Let a Disney executive decide who plays. Call it an Invitational that it is. Give the winner a trophy and accolades. Works for the Masters. There is no “playoff” in CFB because, thank God, no commonality. Cherish that instead of trying to eliminate it. There is no “need” to determine a champion via a playoff “like every other sport” because CFB is different and far superior to every other sport.



    I think they picked the correct 4, in the correct order. What’s the fuss?


  5. ASEF

    “The computers” have some issues, the key one being a lack of data points in between competitive silos. They can attenuate at the top end of the scale. However, that really impacts their predictive ability (looking forward) more than than their forensic capacity (looking backward). Georgia’s defense wasn’t a mirage.

    I love that the “two #4s won it twice!” citations always fail to note that both were blue bloods in years they couldn’t lock down their own conference title: Ohio State in ’14 and ‘Bama in ’17. It’s just amusing to me because the people who most often cite the seeds – and omit who those seeds were – tend to be people who always want more Cincinnati’s and fewer second SEC teams. Their end game for the sport seems to be a #16 UMBC upsetting a #1 Virginia.

    Which isn’t to say the committee’s doing swell. The mid-season ratings shows have permanently killed their credibility, and I have to wonder how the growing struggles between conferences impacts that room moving forward. I was genuinely surprised they didn’t rematch ‘Bama and Georgia in a semi. Lot of people in that room connected to a lot of disgruntled conference commissioners (at least publicly).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Down Island Way

      Mickey will rule who’s in and who’s out, they like the disgruntled conferences to get reved up about expansion, plus they feel like nd has to be involved somewhere, the bearcats are your cinderella and we won’t see another for quite a few years, if ever again (once that hc is gone, so are those dreams) should the usc bet/hire pay off, acc will be on the outside for a few years (the u just hired a new hc, to get to the cfp ya gotta’ have one undefeated team in the ccg, (i.e.seccg 2021) bcs was ok, Mickey had no say..


  6. The BCS would have chosen the exact 4 teams this year.

    BCS romanticism is absurd. The committee sucks but it is so much better than BCS.