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How to challenge the SEC

December 20, 2011

This is a guest post by Aaron Abrams and Zeph Landau.

No, not the Securities and Exchange Commission.  We are talking about the Southeastern Conference, a collection of 12 (or so) college football teams.

College football is a mess.  Depending on your point of view, you can take it to task for many reasons:  universities exploiting student athletes, student athletes not getting an education, student athletes getting special treatment, money corrupting everybody’s morals . . .

Putting those issues aside, however, there is virtually unanimous discontent with an aspect of the sport that is very quantitative, namely, how the season ends.  Fans hate it, coaches hate it, players hate it, and there is a substantial controversy almost every single year.  Only a few people who make lots of money off the current system seem to like it.  (Never mind that anyone with a brain thinks there should be a playoff … perhaps that’s the subject of another post.)

Here’s how it works.  There are roughly 120 major college football teams and each team plays 12 or 13 games in the fall.   Almost all the teams belong to one of eleven conferences — these are like regional leagues — and most of the games they play are against other teams in their conference.  (How they schedule their out-of-conference games is an interesting issue that we may write about another day.)  At the end of the season, teams are invited to play in bowl games:  games hosted at big stadiums with names like the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, etc., that have long traditions.  The problem centers around how teams are chosen to compete in these bowl games.

Basically, a cartel comprised of six of the eleven conferences (those that historically have been the strongest, including the SEC) created a system, called the BCS, that favors their own teams to get into the 5 most prestigious (and lucrative) bowl games, including the so called “national championship game” that claims to feature the top two teams in the country.  The prestige gained by the 10 teams that compete in these games is matched by large amounts of money, coming mainly from television contracts and ticket sales.  For each of these teams, we are talking about 10-20 million dollars that goes to a combination of the team and their conference.  This is not a paltry sum for schools facing major budget cuts.

The most blatant problem with this system is that is it literally unfair:  the rules of the system are written in such a way that at the beginning of the season, before any games are played and regardless of how good the teams are, the teams from the six “BCS conferences” have a better chance of getting into one of the major bowls than a team from a non-BCS conference.  (You can read the rules, but notably, each of the conference champions of the six BCS conferences automatically gets to play in a BCS bowl game; whereas the other conference champions only get to play in a BCS bowl game if various other conditions are met, like they’re highly ranked in the polls).

There are lots of other problems, too, but we’re not really going to talk about those.  For instance the method for choosing the top two teams (which is based on both human and computer polls) is deeply and fundamentally flawed.  These are the teams that play for the “BCS championship”, so it matters who the top two are.  But again, that’s the subject of a different post.

Back to the inherent unfairness.  Colleges in the non-BCS conferences are well aware of this situation.  Led by Tulane, they filed a lawsuit several years ago and essentially won; the rules used to be even worse before that.  But in the face of the continued lack of fairness, colleges from non-BCS conferences have lately taken to responding by trying to get into the BCS conferences, jockeying for opportunity at big money. It has gotten so bad that a BCS conference called the Big East now includes teams from Idaho and California.  Realignment has caused the Big 12 to have only 10 teams, while the Big 10 has 12.

But realignment takes a lot of work to pull off, and it only benefits the teams that get into the major conferences. The minor conferences themselves are still left behind. So here is a better idea. If you’re a non-BCS conference, do what any good red-blooded american corporation would do: find a loophole.

Here is one we thought of.

The current rules force the BCS to choose a team from one of the 5 non-BCS conferences if:

(a) a team has won its conference AND is ranked in the top 12, or

(b) a team has won its conference AND is ranked in the top 16 AND is ranked higher than the conference champion from one of the BCS conferences.

What they don’t say is what it means for a team to “win its conference.”  Some conferences determine their champion by overall record, and others have a championship game to decide the champion.  This is the chink in the armor.

This year two interesting things happened:  (1)  in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), Boise State ended up ranked #7, but did not win their conference.  The WAC doesn’t have its own championship game, and the conference winner was TCU by virtue of beating Boise State in a game in the middle of the season.  However, TCU also lost a game to a team outside their conference, and they ended up ranked only #18.  As a result, neither team satisfied condition (a) or (b) above.

And (2) in Conference USA, Houston was undefeated and ranked #6 in the country before the final game of the season, when it lost its conference championship game to USM.  The loss dropped Houston to #19 in the rankings, whereas USM, the conference champion, finished with a  final ranking of #21.  Thus neither of these teams met (a) or (b), either.

Here is what we noticed:  if the Western Athletic Conference had a conference championship game, then either Boise St would have won it, been declared the champion, and qualified for a BCS bowl, or else TCU would have won it and would almost surely have ended up with a high enough rank to qualify for a BCS bowl.  (As it was, TCU finished the season at #18, but one more victory against a top ten team would very likely have gained them at least two spots.  This would have been good enough for (b) to apply, since the champion of the Big East (a BCS conference) was West Virginia, who finished ranked #23.)

On the other hand, if Conference USA hadn’t had a championship game, Houston would have been declared the conference champion (by virtue of being undefeated before the championship game) and they would easily have been ranked highly enough to get into a BCS bowl.  Indeed, it has been estimated that their loss to USM cost Conference USA $17 million.

So, what should these non-BCS conferences do?  Hold a conference championship game . . . if, and only if, it benefits them.  They can decide this during the last week of the season.  This year, with nothing to lose and plenty to gain, the WAC would clearly have chosen to have a championship game.  With nothing to gain and plenty to lose, Conference USA would have chosen not to.

Bingo.  Loophole.  17 million big ones.  Cha ching.

Categories: data science, guest post, news
  1. Dan L
    December 20, 2011 at 10:29 am

    There is actually a very good reason for NOT having a playoff system, which is this: Football is a physically punishing sport, and student-athletes should not be subjected to a grueling 16 game (or whatever) season. The reason why “everyone” (meaning coaches, players, fans, etc.) wants a playoff system is that “everyone” stopped thinking of college football players as anything resembling students a long long time ago.

    Another issue here is that you’re talking about fairness, but also about money. The reason why it’s harder for Boise State to play in the BCS is that Boise State does not have as many fans. So from an economic perspective, it’s “fair.” Which brings me back to my first point (which is also something you alluded to at the beginning of the post): When you are talking about a fundamentally corrupt enterprise, it seems silly to me to get worked up over things like who gets to play in which bowl.


    • Aaron
      December 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Thanks for your comments.

      Somehow it’s hard to believe that that’s a reason for not having a playoff. NCAA football runs playoffs in Division II, Division III, and even for the less rich half of Division I. Those kids really are students. (Only in Division I-A can teams give full scholarships to every single player just to play football.)

      Plus, there are many proposals for playoffs that don’t require teams to play more games. For instance they could do away with conference championship games and have an 8 team playoff bracket. Then (typically) the only teams who would have to play more games than in the current setup are the two teams that make the final, and they would only have one more game than they do now.

      I do think a good argument against a playoff is that determining a national champion isn’t that important and shouldn’t be the point of the season. But no one really makes that argument. (In fact the BCS was invented because of unhappiness with the potential for two teams to “share” the national championship. Who likes sharing?)

      Anyway, regarding your last point, we were just offering a suggestion for the little(ish) guy. We’re not worked up about it, but Houston and Boise St sure are.


  2. Dan L
    December 21, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Well, I didn’t say it was NCAA’s reason, just that it was a good reason. Also, I think it’s clear that any change in the system will result in more games played in total, for the simple reason that more games = more money.

    Personally, I don’t understand the obsession with crowning a single national champion (and declaring everyone else to be also-ran losers), and I liked the old system. But I thought I was the only person on earth who felt that way, so I usually keep it to myself. The mathematical fact is that you cannot have like 100+ teams playing 10 game seasons and hope to come up with an airtight linear ordering of these teams. Today people cry about who got shut out of the championship game. Tomorrow they will just cry about who got shut out of the playoffs. It’s a never-ending cycle of sports belly-aching.


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