Category Archives: BCS/Playoffs

Lesson from a collegiate athletic postseason, part two

Ultimately, this is what the people running college athletics really mean when they talk about broadening an audience for their product:

For the next three weeks, according to gaming industry estimates, nearly 40 million Americans will gamble more than $2 billion on the outcome of a tournament featuring the nation’s best unpaid basketball players.

The tradition starts Sunday evening, with the unveiling of the 68-team NCAA tournament field, and will continue this week in offices across the country. Come Thursday at noon Eastern, when games tip off in earnest, sports bars will fill and Internet streaming capabilities will strain as bettors keep track of their wagers on an event run by a nonprofit organization vehemently opposed to gambling.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket pool is an inimitably American tradition that encapsulates all that is complicated, contradictory and, some say, hypocritical about the cultural and financial heft of sports in our society.

Ask the casual fan about NCAA men’s basketball, and the response will involve brackets.  But there’s real money in those numbers, which is why the NCAA likes those broad numbers.  And chases those broad numbers in every way it can.  (96-team March Madness, anyone?)

Which is also why it has a hard time getting its story straight on gambling.

… Otteman credits the NCAA’s anti-gambling publicity and education campaigns, but he is still bothered every year when the organization, on its Web site, provides printable brackets that are inevitably used for gambling.

“That’s where it goes sideways to me,” Otteman said. “It’s a very hypocritical stance, in terms of fighting against legalization but still profiting from the popularity of the brackets.”

The stance likely won’t change. On Tuesday, in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia, attorneys for the NCAA will continue the fight to keep sports betting illegal. A hearing is scheduled that day in a case between the NCAA, professional sports leagues and the state of New Jersey, which has been trying to legalize sports betting for years.

Meantime, on Monday morning, many federal employees will be reminded that their standards of conduct prohibit them from participating in any gambling activity while on duty or on government property. And if they have ESPN, they can watch live later this week as President Obama fills out his bracket.

Hey, Obama!  No wonder he’s in favor of an expanded college football playoff.

The days of root, root, root for the home team seem to grow ever more quaint.

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Lesson from a collegiate athletic postseason, part one

What’s so pathetic about college football’s current concern about keeping asses in the seats in the new CFP era is that the suits have had a laboratory experiment running for decades now with men’s college basketball.  And it’s as if nobody learns anything from anything.

If the whole product of college basketball doesn’t intrigue, could attendance numbers continue to freefall?

“If the game doesn’t present a compelling product, I don’t think you can expect people to pay for it,” Bilas said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

Read the litany of options and issues expressed in the article.  Most of them are distressingly familiar.

And as for presenting a compelling product, how compelling can it truly be when the regular season is nothing more than a holding pattern for March Madness? What do I mean by that?  This is an example:

Fox’ team played a meaningless game yesterday; it’s already in the Tournament and nobody’s getting by Kentucky today, anyway.  So from his standpoint, it’s prudent to let one of his key players rest and heal.  But from a fan’s standpoint, what kind of message is being received from a decision like that?

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Back to the “One True Champion” board

After being humiliated last season, Bob Bowlsby’s group decides to go with the common sense route.

It is too late to help Baylor, but the Big 12 athletic directors want one true champion to be more than just a slogan next season.

The conference ADs said Thursday they are in favor of using a head-to-head tiebreaker to determine their College Football Playoff participant after co-champions TCU and Baylor were skipped over by the selection committee last season.

When that approach flops, maybe they can just outsource the naming of a conference champ directly to the CFP selection committee.

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Give the committee what it wants.

Bob Bowlsby said something to Heather Dinich about nonconference scheduling that bears repeating.

“I really do believe that nonconference scheduling should reside with the institution,” Bowlsby said. “They know best what they think it takes to get their team ready for the regular season. Having said that, we have talked about the very real circumstance of a situation where you have a weak schedule and you’ve got two teams that are about the same, and one played a good nonconference schedule and one played a poor nonconference schedule. I don’t think there’s any question the one with the good nonconference schedule is going to get in.”

Talk is cheap.  Control is real money.

Compare Bowlsby’s laissez faire attitude with Mike Slive’s on SEC nonconference basketball scheduling.

For as much as the SEC is seen as a football-driven conference, the people who run the conference have long felt strongly about their basketball reputation. So when things hit rock bottom two years ago, being called a glorified mid-major, they sprung to action.

The commissioner hired a basketball czar and also retained an outside expert. They sat down with their coaches and hammered away at the same message: Improve your scheduling to get those RPI numbers up.

It didn’t end there, though.

But lack of knowledge with what the NCAA tournament selection committee wants figured into it, too. Slive couldn’t quite get it through to his coaches, so he called on Whitworth and Shaheen to re-emphasize it.

One of the first things Shaheen did in 2013 was produce a 20-page document analyzing each team’s non-conference schedules during the 2012-13 season. The SEC also instituted a rule saying that every school had to send its non-conference schedule to Birmingham for approval.

That’s paid off, as this season the conference is widely expected to reverse an alarming trend.

Between 1999 and 2008, the SEC never had fewer than five teams receive NCAA bids. Then the drop-off began: Only three made it in 2009, followed by four apiece in 2010 and 2012, and three apiece the past two years.

As Shaheen puts it,

“These are institutions that are used to playing at a high level,” Shaheen said. “Sure, there’s an extraordinary amount to be proud of here. But the issue in response has to be: ‘What do we need to do to make sure the rest of America knows that?’ ”

Shaheen emphasized the need to “play anyone, anywhere, anytime.” And that led to what he called a “healthy dialogue,” with the coaches, and they proceeded to improve their schedules the last two years.

“The schools have done all the heavy lifting here,” Shaheen said.

Now SEC football has the luxury of banking on a reputation that SEC basketball doesn’t have.  That’s why it’s been able to get away with avoiding the hard choices of going to a nine-game conference schedule in football and doing away with games against FCS cupcakes without doing any damage to its reputation.  But nothing lasts forever.  A few more seasons of the SEC West falling flat on its face and other conferences whining about the SEC’s strength of schedule, and who knows what the selection committee will think of SEC schools’ nonconference scheduling?

If that day should come, I doubt we’ll see whoever’s running the SEC share Bowlsby’s attitude.  The question will be how stubborn the member schools will be in response.

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The human element and gaming the system

Something the MAC commissioner said in the Heather Dinich piece I linked to yesterday…

“In the case of the BCS, they started it from scratch, so they were building metrics as they went. To think that there wouldn’t be a time period of calibration, that’s just logical to think that’s going to occur. One of the big complaints about the BCS was the lack of the human element. Now we have a big dose of the human element. Some people like it, some people don’t. You don’t overreact. You let it play out a little bit to really get a sense of it.”

… is kind of amusing in light of last year’s big struggle over what to do with the Big 12’s two best teams.

If a team from the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 — or Notre Dame — finishes the regular season undefeated and wins its conference championship, it’s a lock for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff, right?

“I don’t think it’s automatic or should be automatic,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said, “but I think it would take some unusual circumstances for an undefeated Power 5 team not to be one of the top four.”

Makes sense.

But then why schedule aggressively? Why put an Oklahoma or a Clemson on the nonconference schedule if the only goal is to win every game? Because winning isn’t enough in the sport’s new postseason.

Teams must now answer the question, “But who did they beat?”

Well, that’s the story this week, anyway.  The problem with the human element is that it isn’t necessarily consistent.  Nor is it necessarily transparent, Jeff Long’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding.

There are 12 people tasked with comparing teams with similar résumés, and one of the criteria that “must be considered” is strength of schedule. There’s no doubt the selection committee honored that mandate in its inaugural season. It’s the reason Marshall was locked out of the committee’s poll for weeks. It was a factor in all seven of the weekly rankings, as committee chairman Jeff Long consistently noted wins over the committee’s top 25 teams as justification for where teams were slotted. It was one big reason TCU was ranked ahead of Baylor all season. TCU had a win over Minnesota. Baylor had a win over Buffalo.

Bill Hancock explains.

“Clearly, teams that have faced tougher opposition are generally going to come out ahead,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. “There’s just no question that the committee compares those nonconference schedules. I know that the playoff will usher in a whole new era of scheduling and that teams who want to be in this playoff are going to have to prove themselves with their schedules.”

That’s exactly what Ohio State did.

Well, that was certainly convenient for the Big Ten.  But what happens to Ohio State when it’s in the mix next time and doesn’t have an advantage in strength of schedule?  If there’s one thing Urban Meyer has demonstrated in winning three national titles, he knows how to work the selection system to his advantage.  I’ll believe Hancock when his argument is used to keep a Ohio State or Alabama out of the semifinals.

Which is not to say that Baylor, between its insistence on playing a weak ass nonconference schedule and not getting a conference championship game bounce going into selection time – and don’t think Ohio State’s crushing of Wisconsin wasn’t a big, big factor there at the end – doesn’t face an uphill struggle.  But let’s not kid ourselves about how the human element can be influenced at a timely point.  Computers may have their flaws, but at least you know they’re using the same criteria at the end they were using at the start.

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On the day after, they rested.

There’s lots of backpatting in Heather Dinich’s piece about the Lords of the CFP resting on their laurels.

“We got it right,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said.

Of course, she spends most of the rest of the article discussing changes they’d like to see.  (Well played, ma’am, even if there’s a little shooting fish in a barrel element to it.)  The obvious one is postseason expansion, for which they’re currently opposed, but as nobody takes that seriously for the long term, we can just skip past that.

The real test coming of their collective manhood is fairly trivial, except for one thing.  See if you can guess.

The majority of commissioners said the only significant change in 2015 should be fewer than seven weekly rankings. When the rankings were initially discussed, it was proposed they would be released every other week.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he would ask the group to consider “a poll midseason, a poll at Week 9 and a poll at the end” to avoid “the abrupt fluctuations you sometimes had this year.”

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said he would suggest three or four rankings and releasing them every other week in November, before the final ranking in December.

“That’s really the only change I would hope we have a conversation about in April,” Thompson said. “We don’t need seven. I know ESPN likes seven. It’s great ratings, but there’s other ways you get around it. It’s good information because all week you can argue back and forth … so it’s all good for the sport. But they don’t mean anything, quite honestly.”  [Emphasis added.]

There’s the old eight hundred-pound gorilla in the room.  Hey, Craig, most people knew they didn’t mean anything last season and that didn’t stop the WWL then.

The reason they want a change is because of the one area of unease from last season – the debate over Baylor and TCU.

“The issue was with what happened with the TCU situation: winning 55-3 and going from three to six [in the Week 16 rankings],” Aresco said. “We can talk about whether there should be continuity week to week, as opposed to starting from scratch. It’s a debate. I don’t know how I feel, myself. It’s something that publicly was one of the criticisms of the committee’s process because is it fair to the kids who think, ‘OK, we’re No. 3, and we win 55-3. We’ve been very impressive, and we fall all the way to six’? That one is something we have to talk about.”

Here’s the thing:  if you’re really serious about this whole “they don’t mean anything” bit, why do you need any rankings at all before December?  I think we all know the answer to that.

In the meantime, I look forward to another interview with Thompson in which he explains how you can become a little bit pregnant.

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Because you can never settle it on the field enough.

Yes, I know college basketball is totally different from college football, except for that whole bit about the same greedy swine running both, but still, be prepared for this in the future of the CFP…

There’s no such thing as too much validation of a head coach’s success, you know.

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