Let’s replace the BCS system…using OR

I did not follow college football this year like I should have, mainly because my team had a very disappointing season.  I checked the college football rankings yesterday and was surprised to see that there were five undefeated teams this year.  Two of these teams (Alabama and Texas) will get to play for the national championship and the other three (Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State) basically get a consolation prize.

The reason for this is that the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was designed for picking out the best two teams.  It uses a complex algorithm based in part on national rankings, difficulty of schedule, and win-loss records.  It is tweaked periodically.  Almost everyone likes to beat up on the BCS system.  The BCS algorithm seems to work fine.  It ends up with rankings almost identical to the consensus of experts (with a few notable exceptions).  The problem is more in how it is used.  It is used to pick the top two teams, assuming that the rest should not have a chance at the national championship.  This year, it seems like at least three other teams deserve a shot at the national championship.

The announcement of the bowl games were announced last night signaled the start of the complaining-about-the-BCS system.  The most common proposal for reforming the BCS is starting an eight team playoff (even our President endorses this idea).  Can OR play a role in reforming the BCS?

Wayne Winston’s Huffington Post article analyzes the BCS issue from an OR point of view.  He weighs the pros and cons of the current BCS system (debunking the pros along the way).  The best part is when he describes what an eight-team playoff would look like. This is important, since we all know what the problem is, but we need to know what the new system would look like if we were to endorse it.

Using power ratings for each year we took the two BCS selected teams and the next 6 ranked teams and used the Palisade Excel Monte Carlo simulation add-in @RISK to play out an 8 team tournament 5000 times. We seeded the BCS selected teams 1 and 2 in the tournament, so they received the easiest possible road to the title game. We found that one of the BCS’ top two teams won only 50% of the time. Even in 2005 when nobody doubted that USC and Texas should have played for the title, there was a 23% chance that both these teams would have been knocked off in an 8 team tournament. So how can the BCS claim they are crowning a legitimate champion?

Link:  Read Wayne Winston’s article.

7 responses to “Let’s replace the BCS system…using OR

  • Alan Erera

    I follow college football closely, and while I understand Winston’s point of view, he does not address one important idea: an 8-team or 16-team tournament does not generate a “legitimate champion” either. All it does is determine the winner of a seeded tournament, and surely the best team need not always win this tournament either (that’s why they call them “upsets”). I have yet to hear compelling evidence that the winner of such a tournament is more deserving of the title “National Champion” than a title determined by any other method.

    I think we are a bit too enamored with playoff tournaments. Is the MLB champion now more “legitimate” given that 8 teams have a chance to win the World Series, rather than the two league winners who clearly performed better during the regular season?

  • Larry

    Great post. Being a mathematics geek and a college football fan (Go Hokies!) I love to talk about the BCS. But I’m more of a purist in college football. I think OR can be used, and currently OR is used, to pick the two teams to be play for the national championship.

    Argument #1: College football is like no other sport. Where else can you have all of this drama play out based upon algorithms. OR math geeks 1, traditional playoff system 0

    Argument #2: Remember how they used to determine the “mythical” national champion? It was based on sports writers rankings and their whim. Bowl committees would seemingly arbitrarily pick teams based on traditions, ticket sales, and TV ratings. The BCS has fixed a lot of that and no one seems to remember those days.

    Argument #3: So say a playoff system would be used and it even included OR to determine 4, 6, or 8 teams for a playoff. What about teams that almost but didn’t qualify? There is still going to be that controversy. I do have to admit this is a weak argument because it would have a “March Madness” drama to it which could be fun.

  • Peter Esbensen

    From a pure probability and statistics perspective, I’m not sure an 8 team playoff is necessarily more legitimate than the BCS. The BCS is one ad hoc method for picking the best team. An 8 team playoff is another. In the end you just have some data that can be used as probabilistic evidence. Let’s say we held the playoffs and Oregon won. Given Wayne Winston’s estimates, Oregon had an 8% chance of winning. Do we really mean to say that Oregon is the overall best team when they in fact would get knocked out at least 9 out of 10 times? No, we are just saying that Oregon has won within the parameters of the competition that we’ve devised. Playoffs are simply a more entertaining “game” than the BCS.

    So, let’s not claim that a playoff is an Operations Research methodology or is somehow more scientific than the BCS. Let’s just say it would be more fun and more exciting. That’s enough for me.

  • Dave Garrett

    Replace the BCS with the NFS

    This is my plan to solve the annual December debacle otherwise known as the BCS bowl system. The way I see it, is that the college presidents cannot hear us, even if they do listen, because they believe that the way it is now is the best possible way it could be. By that, they mean that they believe at least two things about the current system:

    1) They control where all the money goes
    2) The current system makes more money than any other way

    There is only one way they will every truly hear us and that would be if somehow there was a nation-wide boycott of the bowl games where we don’t even watch them on TV. If that were to ever happen they would be ASKING US for suggestions.

    If they even thought that could happen I imagine they would offer us a four, or if we were really lucky an eight, team playoff.

    While that would be a lot better and I would be very happy if that happened, I believe that entire system is flawed and should be scrapped in favor of the NFS – The NFL Farm System. (I know, it’s a horrible name, but it is true.)

    Not only is the post season flawed the makeup of the conferences are as well. Half the conferences have a title game and every school can pick their own games, thereby, stacking the deck, to a certain extent to steal a national championship.

    This is the way the NFS could work:

    A) Four leagues that are fashioned almost exactly like the NFL. Each league has 32 teams made up of two conferences and eight division of four teams each. I know there are a lot more that 96 division one teams, but this format could be duplicated many times.
    1) NFS South
    2) NFS North
    3) NFS West
    4) NFS East

    B) Each team would play 10 games that are exactly the same.
    1) Each team would play the other three teams in the division twice – one at home and one away
    2) Every team in a division would play the same two teams in the same conference, one home and one away (these would rotate each year until all teams the same conference were played at both locations)
    3) Every team in a division would play the same two teams in the other conference, one home and one away (these would rotate each year until all teams the other conference were played at both locations)

    C) The 10 games would be played from the beginning of September to the middle of November. The tie-breakers for the playoffs and seeding would be the same as the NFL and if they started Thanksgiving weekend there would be least 6 weeks by New Years. Most of the schools would be eliminated in time for finals and the rest could get a dispensation until their season was over.

    The irony of this is if the NCAA adopted this format they could still have all of the bowl games, or as I prefer to call them, post-season exposition games. The two final-four games could be the two current final bowl games and the normal bowl season could start with teams that were already eliminated.

    I have heard some people argue that if you did have a true playoff system you still wouldn’t necessary have the best team winning the national championship. That could be true, I doubt if the last wild-card team that won the Super Bowl was the best team and I think two years ago
    New England was the best team, but they failed to win the Super Bowl. But to win a championship in every other sport, beside professional wrestling, you have to get to the playoffs and then pass all of the tests are presented to you.

    I don’t know how each division would be decided, but I am not sure it matters in the long run. For one thing, if I lived in Texas or Florida I would want the four best teams in the state in the same division, because I believe the tougher the competition the tougher the teams. With the two wild cards three teams from the same division could make the playoffs. The SEC is very tough division and decade after the decade the competition hasn’t seemed to hurt them. The Big 12 is also a very tough division (at least usually), but when it was formed the north was dominant.

    Just think how exciting from the middle of November to the first week of February would be! I think it would be far more exciting than March Madness and it would be like practically having four whole months of Sports Madness.

    That may be too much fun for some people, but I think most people could handle it.

  • Laura

    Thanks for the excellent feedback. I have the best readers! I, too, am wary of the 8 team playoff, for the reasons articulated in the comments. With all of the unhappiness with the current BCS system, I am surprised that the 8 team playoff has emerged as the almost-uncontested alternative. Perhaps an opportunity for OR would be to propose more alternatives and compare them in terms of their abilities to choose a winner, impact on academics, logistics of moving teams and their marching bands around the country, scheduling issues, and added fun and excitement.

  • Laura

    And now Congress is entering the debate:

    “A House subcommittee approved legislation Wednesday aimed at forcing college football to switch to a playoff system to determine a national champion, over the objections of some lawmakers who said Congress had more pressing matters.

    The bill, which faces long odds of becoming law, would ban the promotion of a postseason NCAA Division I football game as a national championship unless that title contest is the result of a playoff.”

  • Larry (IEOR Tools)

    On a side note if you ever get a chance to hear Wayne Winston talk do it! He was in Dallas for the local INFORMS chapter talk and it was fascinating. I’m going to check out his book Mathletics.

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