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BCS Silly Season, Starring Charles Pierce and Dan Wetzel

One claims that the BCS will conspire to include Notre Dame for ratings. The other claims the BCS will exclude Notre Dame because they lost the Champs Sports Bowl. Both could have stood to be at the Georgia Dome this week to see what the BCS gets right.

Notre Dame: caught in between conspiracies
Notre Dame: caught in between conspiracies

We are coming to the conclusion of another college football season, which means that it's time for the politicking to start in earnest. It's time for SEC fans to dismiss one or more high-scoring teams from the Pac Twelve and Big XII as being products of a defense-free environment. It's time for Mark May to troll entire fan bases. It's time for Texas fans to wonder why they are not in the picture, yet again. It's time for the national media to fight over which star player from a top three team should win the Heisman. It's time for Big Ten fans to mutter about oversigning and "who won the Civil War, anyway!" (thus fulfilling their destiny as the English soccer fans of college football) as they spend another November on the outside looking in. And it is definitely time for national writers to gripe about the BCS in irrational, often contradictory fashion.

Let's start with Charles Pierce. If a writer from Boston is going to spill ink on college football, then which program is going to draw his attention? Would you be shocked if I said it was Notre Dame? Pierce, fresh from writing about various political conspiracies, believes that the BCS will put Notre Dame in the title game over Kansas State for commercial reasons:

Let us assume that Notre Dame manages to get by Southern Cal, and Kansas State manages to escape Texas, and Oregon beats Oregon State in the annual Wild Hemp Classic or whatever the hell it is, and then gets through a conference championship game in which the Ducks record 750 passing yards. This would leave us with three undefeated teams, and one of them would be Notre Dame. In that event, watching the purely objective, scientific BCS Brainiac 205 computer come up with a magic formula to screw Kansas State is going to be a wonder to behold.

Does any person smart enough to spoon his own oatmeal really believe that the powers that be in the BCS would set up Oregon and Kansas State if Notre Dame-Anybody were a live option? The game is still going to be televised, right? And what's that, you say? Maybe Oregon would get hosed? Yes, and maybe Phil Knight will join the Carthusians. There is a reason why nobody messes with Nike, and it's roughly the same reason that people don't play mumblety-peg with tactical nuclear weapons. Nope, sorry, in that scenario, it's Kansas State that doesn't have a chair when the music stops. Sucks to be you there, Bugtussle.

This is what happens when someone who knows nothing about college football writes about college football. First of all, there are no "powers that be in the BCS." Two-thirds of the BCS rankings are determined by the Harris Poll voters, who are a collection of hundreds who barely know what's going on in front of their own noses, and the coaches, who are spending the vast majority of their time over-managing their programs and cannot pay sufficient attention to their ballots. This collection couldn't conspire to order hash browns at Waffle House, let alone elevate a program that is the most disliked in college football - the only major power that is not in a conference and therefore doesn't share its largess with other schools - into a national title game.

Second, the "purely objective, scientific BCS Brainiac 205 computer" isn't going to come up with a way to put Notre Dame ahead of Kansas State; the computers already have Notre Dame as they best team in the country. This isn't the result of secret orders from the Vatican; it's the consequence of the mathematically bankrupt formulae that the computers are required to use that do not account for margin-of-victory. The BCS castrated their computers as a result of Nebraska making the 2001 national title game on the strength of margin-of-victory and then getting pummeled, just as Oregon or Colorado would have against an epic Miami team. Catholics, thank the Convicts.

Third, let's think of some other times in which the BCS rankings have picked one team over another. In 2008, the BCS picked Oklahoma over Texas to play Florida. The last time I checked, there are more TVs in Texas than there are in Oklahoma. In 2006, the BCS passed on the chance to match two of the most popular programs in college football and famous arch-rivals to boot. In 2003, the BCS nixed USC and the LA market for the title game. In 1999, the BCS rankings led to fledgling Virginia Tech playing in the national title game instead of Nebraska, an established power with a big fan base at the tail end of a seven-year period of dominance. Is this a pattern of picking teams based on commercial interests? Did Pierce bother to think about his assertion empirically before making it? Do Northeasterners make valuable commentary about college football? In the words of Flavor Flav at the end of "Burn Hollywood Burn," no, no, no.

Reaching a different conclusion on Notre Dame's prospects but using similarly weak reasoning is Dan Wetzel. Wetzel is like a lawyer who is smart enough to do research and fashion his findings into credible claims, but not smart enough to pick between good arguments and bad ones. In court, the technique leads to a counselor being punished by the fact-finder by losing his credibility. In the consequence-free zone of punditry, it just means being picked on by people like me. As opposed to taking the Pierce approach of inferring conspiracies against the Irish, Wetzel claims that Notre Dame is behind and will remain behind Kansas State because the Irish lost their bowl game against Florida State last year:

The problem Notre Dame faces is that once a pecking order is created, it isn't easily reshuffled. And since the coaches' poll begins in the preseason, speculation can play a significant role in determining an actual champion.
By far, the chief reason the Irish are No. 3 and not No. 2 is because they lost 18-14 to Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl. Expectations for the Seminoles' 2012 season soared as a result of their come-from-behind win. Notre Dame's dropped. As such, FSU started the year ranked No. 7 in the coaches' poll. Notre Dame was No. 24.

The problem for Brian Kelly was that Kansas State checked in at No. 21. Oregon was No. 5. The Irish were effectively boxed out before the season began - Death by Athlon, if you will. They've remained behind both the Ducks and Wildcats every single week.

Who's more deserving of No. 2 isn't the point here. Just know that if Notre Dame held off FSU last year, the Irish would have started the season well ahead of Kansas State in the preseason polls, and due to their computer strength would today have a clear path to play for the title this year.

You got that? Kansas State started the season at No. 21, Notre Dame started at No. 24, and therefore, there is no chance for the Irish to jump the Wildcats. Funny thing about that, but Notre Dame did in fact jump Kansas State in the AP poll - moving from No. 20 to No. 11 while K-State stayed at No. 15 - after the Irish beat Michigan State 20-3 in East Lansing. Kansas State then jumped back ahead after beating Oklahoma in Norman.

It's hardly uncommon for a team to get jumped even after winning a game. Alabama jumped USC after the first week of the season because of the Tide's manhandling of Michigan. Stanford skipped a passel of teams that won the prior week when the Cardinal upset USC. Georgia jumped Florida State, Clemson, and South Carolina in a week where the latter three all won because the Dawgs beat No. 3 Florida. One-loss Oklahoma jumped unbeaten Ohio State after a three-week stretch in which the Sooners blew out Texas Tech, Texas, and Kansas. In short, teams jump around in the rankings all the time (maybe not as much as they should, but the phenomenon does happen) and Wetzel is off the reservation when he claims that coaches and Harris Poll voters remember who the hell they had on their preseason ballots when they are ordering the national title contenders in November.

I will give Wetzel credit for one thing: in a confused piece (for instance, he criticizes the computer rankings for omitting margin-of-victory, then complains about style points when the two concepts are basically the same thing), he did manage to cite Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, thus leading me to Wikipedia to learn something new. Here is a short summary of the theorem:

In short, the theorem states that no rank-order voting system can be designed that satisfies these three "fairness" criteria:

  • If every voter prefers alternative X over alternative Y, then the group prefers X over Y.
  • If every voter's preference between X and Y remains unchanged, then the group's preference between X and Y will also remain unchanged (even if voters' preferences between other pairs like X and Z, Y and Z, or Z and W change).
  • There is no "dictator": no single voter possesses the power to always determine the group's preference.

The problem for Wetzel is that the Theorem, as my twelve-years-removed-from-academia brain understands it, presents a trio of challenges for Wetzel's worldview. First, Wetzel wants a small committee to make selection decisions for a college football playoff, but that runs counter to the final fairness criteria. He thinks that a dictatorship will produce better results than the confused mess that are the current BCS rankings, but in reality, it will just present different problems. Just wait until the Charles Pierce's of the world get to criticize a BCS politburo instead of an anarchic mess of voters and computer programs. Second, rank-order voting will be required regardless of whether we have a two-team, four-team, or sixteen-team playoff.

Third, the gist of the Theorem is that rank-order voting cannot satisfy several competing criteria. This broad framework - the idea that there are multiple principles to follow and it is hard to create a system that follows all of them - illustrates the problem of the college football postseason and indeed, of postseasons in general. Wetzel is completely hung up on the problems with the current system and in his defense, there are many good ways to criticize it. However, college football's structure has merits as well as flaws. For instance, it does a better job of preventing undeserving champions. The reigning Super Bowl champion went 9-7 in the regular season. Last month, we were one three-game hot streak from the San Francisco Giants away from a World Series pitting a pair of 88-win teams from the two weakest divisions in baseball. College football's system can screw teams like Auburn and Utah in 2004, but it's pretty damn good at ensuring that the team holding the crystal ball in the end has a legitimate claim to having been the best team over a large sample size.

College football's system also ensures the primacy of the regular season. The fact that we are still discussing what Notre Dame and Kansas State did in September is itself an illustration of that point. Compare the weight given to college football games in September with the attention that college basketball games are getting in November. Take it away, Jeff Schultz:

Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas. (Sounds great in any order, doesn't it?) It was sort of like a Final Four, except without the deciding third game and the fact that it's November, not April, and that probably not enough people in Atlanta were really paying attention.

Despite the marquee value of the teams, coaches and players, this "Champions Classic" didn't create significant buzz on the Atlanta sports landscape in the past few days, smothered by all things Bulldogs, Falcons and ... well, did you see that David Ross signed with the Red Sox?

If college football had an early September double-header involving LSU, Florida State, Michigan, and Clemson (the teams occupying the four same spots in the preseason college football poll that Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, and Kansas occupied in the preseason college basketball poll), do you think it would draw attention in Atlanta (or any major market)? College basketball is all about March. Teams like the four that played at the Georgia Dome on Tuesday night are going to be in the Tournament regardless, which makes their non-conference meetings glorified friendlies.

A postseason structure needs to strike the right balance between including the contenders and omitting the pretenders. It needs to be important, but not so important that it crowds out everything that comes before it. A polemicist like Wetzel either misses or ignores half of the equation; a polemicist like Pierce doesn't care and just writes whatever sounds good to his ear.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.