Friday, November 16

a history and analysis of bcs controversy

(post still in editing/progress...)

Almost every season, the BCS has brought with it some sort of controversy. Six of the nine championship game selections have been controversial, and at least two of the at large bid selections. By far the Pac 10 has gotten the worst of this deal. Ask a Pac 10 fan, and they'll tell you that their conference has repeatedly been screwed over by the BCS because the nation has an anti-west coast bias. They'd be half right...

1998 BCS Championship Game:
#1: Tennessee, SEC champ and unbeaten
#2: Six teams (!) with one loss apiece
* Florida State, #2 in both polls with one loss (24-7 to NC State)
* Ohio State, #3 in both polls with one loss (28-24 to Michigan State)
* Kansas State, #4 in both polls with one loss (36-33 to Texas A&M, B12CG)
* UCLA, #5.5 poll average with one loss (49-45 to Miami in their last game)
* Arizona, #5.5 poll average with one loss (52-28 to UCLA)
* Wisconsin, #8.5 poll average with one loss (27-10 to Michigan)

Florida State had the benefits of losing early and of defeating four teams with nine or more wins after that loss. Not only were they comfortably #2 in the polls, but the computers had them almost on par with Tennessee.

Considering the number of teams in contention, there was surprisingly little commotion about the actual selection. Of note, Ohio State and Wisconsin never faced each other and were conference co-champs, and this was the only season where the voters placed a Big 12 team over a Pac 10 team with the same record in their polls when both were vying for BCS spots.

2000 BCS Championship Game:
#1: Oklahoma, B12 champ and unbeaten
#2: Five teams with one loss apiece
* Miami, #2 in both polls with loss to Washington
* Florida State, #3 in both polls with loss to Miami
* Washington, #4 in both polls with loss to Oregon
* Oregon State, #5.5 poll average with loss to Washington
* Virginia Tech, #5.5 poll average with loss to Miami

Oregon State and Virginia Tech were without the marquee wins of Miami and Washington, and were thus eliminated in favor of the perceived best teams in their respective conferences. Miami lost the second game of the year at Washington by five points and won their final nine by devastating margins. Washington lost their fourth game of the year at Oregon by 7, and finished with six straight wins that for the most part were close games. Florida State lost in the first weekend of October at Miami by a field goal before winning six straight blowouts. The polls seemed to reward Miami for losing early and winning big, while punishing Washington for winning just two of their final seven games by more than a TD. From my vague recollection, this was a season where Washington's media coverage really paled in comparison to both FSU's and Miami's. The Pac 10 was very competitive that season, with an Oregon State team loaded with NFL talent on offense (they would crush Notre Dame 41-3 in the Fiesta Bowl) and Oregon having ten wins as well. Retrospectively, if the 2000 season was the start of the 2000-02 mini-dynasty, Miami was in fact the best choice, but of course nobody knew that at the time.

2001 BCS Championship Game:
#1: Miami, Big East champ and unbeaten
#2: Four teams with one loss apiece and a twice-beaten conference champion
* Oregon, #2 in both polls with loss to Stanford
* Colorado, #3 in both polls with losses to Fresno State and Texas
* Nebraska, #4 in both polls with loss to Colorado
* Maryland, #6 poll average with loss to Florida State
* Illinois, #7 poll average with loss to Michigan

Maryland and Illinois were hit for playing weak schedules and for being unheralded in previous seasons. Both those teams were fresh off a 5-6 season. Comparatively, Oregon had gone 10-2 with a bowl win over Texas in 2000 and Nebraska had finished 10-2 with a bowl massacre of Northwestern. The Huskers hadn't won fewer than 9 games since 1969. Our Big Ten and ACC champs simply weren't given the same consideration, whether they actually deserved a spot or not.

I have no idea how a two-loss team was even being considered. Colorado lost to a non-BCs team and got massacred 41-7 by Texas. I think what happened is that nobody really paid attention to this team until they got hot... we're talking about just a one time zone difference from the west coast, so similar "late night" issues for watching their games. People tuned in to watch them take on then-unbeaten Nebraska in their season finale rivalry game and witnessed by far the best four quarters of Colorado's season. The following week, they face Texas and Mack Brown's decision to play Chris Simms over Major Applewhite in that game is probably the root of why people doubt Brown as a coach. The stats were something like Colorado outscored Texas 36-0 with Simms in the game and were outscored 37-3 with Applewhite in. (yes it's probably a little less extreme than that) But if that's what people were basing their opinion of CU on, then they looked pretty good for six quarters there.

This Oregon team (and perhaps 2003 USC, though their location in LA was also a huge factor) I think defines each side of the West Coast syndrome, aka "anti-west coast bias." Ask yourself this - how many Oregon games did you watch at least two full quarters of during the 2001 regular season? Zero, one... maybe two? And that's probably all of the Oregon games you saw. Strangely, I think this is an advantage for them in the age of modern media. What most people know of that Oregon team are SportsCenter highlights of Joey Harrington throwing TD after TD, the defense coming up with a key third down stop or forced turnover, and the like. Five of Oregon's ten wins going into the bowls came by one score or less, but that's not the visual impression you get from watching the highlights. But on the flip side, watching what looks like highlights from massacre games also makes the rest of the Pac 10 look weak. In reality, Stanford and Washington State both finished that season 9-2 before the bowls, but that same parade of Harrington highlights that made the Ducks look like the runaway #2 team also made it look like they played a bunch of patsies. Yes, the objectively calculated computer polls happened to agree with the idea that Nebraska and Colorado faced tougher schedules. But the discrepancy was greater in the only semi-objective SOS and Quality Wins factors, where what matters is how the human voters are ranking your competition. Colorado had gigantic quality wins points for victories over Nebraska and Texas, and both Big 12 teams SOS points combined added to less than Oregon's (low BCs point totals were good back then). It's somewhat paradoxical, because my feeling is still that if more people had watched the Pac 10 and Big 12 seasons closely, Nebraska would have been given the nod for having a more impressive season (though the lateness of their loss may have still lead to a #2 ranking for the Ducks who had rebounded from their loss to win four straight) but Oregon's schedule would have been given more respect.

This was the first of many times that, given a Pac 10 and Big 12 team with the same record and similar resumes, the voters went with the Pac 10 but the team who got the nod was from the Big 12.

2003 BCS Championship Game:
#1 and #2: three one-loss teams
* USC, #1 in both polls with a loss to Cal
* LSU, #2 in both polls with a loss to Florida
* Oklahoma, #3 in both polls with a loss to Kansas State (B12CG)

LSU was the least controversial here... as the voters, computers, and composite BCS standings all had the Tigers at #2. The Tigers had the #1 defense in the country and had just won the SEC to advance to the Sugar Bowl. Following a win over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, it was clear that LSU had indeed belonged in the title game.

Oklahoma was called the greatest team of all time for most of the season. They scored at least 50 points in four straight games, culminating that stretch with a 65-13 win over Texas. In mid November, they humiliated Texas A&M 77-0, begging the question of whether they could be beaten. But once again, the Big 12 foiled itself in the conference championship game, with a three-loss Kansas State team exposing OU's weakness against the option and harassing Jason White into multiple turnovers in a dominant victory. That was the Sooners' final game, and it dropped them to third.

This lead USC to become the #1-ranked team in the nation. The Trojans were supposed to struggle on offense without Carson Palmer, but newcomer Matt Leinart led an attack that scored at least 40 points in their final seven regular season games. The defense had some holes but did pitch two shutouts and was one of the top teams against the run with an outstanding front four. Receiver Mike Williams tied the NCAA TD record for a freshman.

This season and the following were really the most controversial, because prior to the game you couldn't say that one of these three teams was definitely less deserving than the other two. In fact, with the Sugar Bowl being a seven point game and the Rose Bowl being decided by 14, you couldn't even say that afterwards, nor did LSU or USC appear clearly better than the other. Perhaps the split decision was the most fitting for a season that really begged for one more game.

Again the West Coast Syndrome played a big role in this decision, and USC's location in the nation's second largest city did as well. On the media side, LSU and Oklahoma were two schools about as removed from a major media center as it gets. There was nowhere near the push for these schools that there was for SC, and the voters' overwhelming preference for the Trojans despite fairly similar resumes for all three schools seems to indicate that this was a factor. Playing in the SEC gave LSU enough of a schedule advantage over USC to claim the #2 spot in the computers, and by the human and computer polls alone we would have had LSU vs USC for the title. However the additional points swung heavily in OU's favor. The Sooners benefited from the Big 12 having themselves, KSU, Nebraska, and Texas all finishing with at least nine wins. OU's nonconference schedule included a pair of 9-win midmajors, UCLA, and Alabama. This led to big SOS and Quality Win points for the Sooners. While in 2001 a strong Pac 10 suffered from image problems, in 2003 the conference (aside from USC) was on a cyclical downswing. USC did have an impressive nonconference win on the road over Auburn, but BYU and Notre Dame were non-BCS conference teams with sub-.500 records. Underrating the west coast may have played a factor with Washington State who finished the regular season 9-3, I can't recall.

Once again, the voters had chosen the Pac 10 team but it was the Big 12 team who played in New Orleans.

The 2004 season had a double dose of controversy.

2004 BCS Championship Game:
#1 and #2: three unbeaten teams
* USC, #1 in both polls
* Oklahoma, #2 in both polls
* Auburn, #3 in both polls

The Trojans followed their AP championship season with a perfect 2004. Though in many games they appeared to just squeak by, it was in fact an improved defense that finished the regular season #2 in scoring that allowed them to survive such close games. For most of the regular season, the offense struggled to produce the same output they had with Mike Williams as the go-to guy, but they gave up almost 6 ppg less than the season before and were always able to score when they needed to. The Trojans began the season with a road victory over Virginia Tech and gave Cal their only loss in a revenge game. The hype machine behind USc was huge, and as defending co-champ, there was really never any question that they would play in the NC game if they ran the table.

Oklahoma's weakness in 2003 was its lack of a running game, and freshman back Adrian Peterson appeared to be the answer to their offensive flaw. However, a depleted secondary was often exposed as the Sooners had several big halftime deficits in conference play. They finished the season with three absolutely dominating victories allowing a total of six points over that stretch, albiet against weak B12 North competition.

Auburn started off the season ranked well below both USC and OU. The Tigers had gone just 8-5 the season before, but with the nation's new #1 defense and an all senior backfield trio, the Tigers coasted though most of their season, being tested only by LSU and blowing out good teams like Tennessee and Georgia. Unfortunately, Auburn had a nonconference opponent drop out at the last second, and their replacement The Citadel destroyed the Tigers otherwise superior SOS. With a low preseason ranking and next to zero media hype, the Tigers finished #3 in the polls and with no big nonconference wins they finished #3 in the computers.

Though it wound up not mattering as it was the SEC champion who was relegated to watching from home, yet again the voters had picked the Pac 10 team while the computers had picked the Big 12 team. By the end of the night the voters had clearly made the correct choice and we were left wondering if Oklahoma even belonged in that game.

2004 BCS At Large Berth
#1: Utah automatically qualifies for winning non-BCS conference and finishing top 6
#2: two one-loss teams
* Cal, #4 in both polls, loss to USC
* Texas, #6 in AP and #5 in coaches, loss to Oklahoma

Cal began the season incredibly impressive on both sides of the ball; at one point they were in the top 6 for both scoring offense and scoring defense. In their lone loss to USC, the game was very competitive and in fact Cal outgained USC by nearly 200 yards and had four shots at the end zone with a minute left to win the game; despite completing 29 of his first 31 passes, Aaron Rodger's final four all fell incomplete. One was even dropped by an open receiver. Several turnovers negated the yardage advantage as overall it almost appeared that Cal was the better team.

Texas played inconsistently for most of their season but had the game's ultimate X-factor in Vince Young, who repeatedly brought them back for dramatic victories. Against Oklahoma, offensive coordinator Greg Davis went beyond conservative, and despite one of the Longhorns' better defensive efforts of the year to hold OU to 12 points, the watered-down offense was shut out in an embarrassing defeat. Texas would later need some huge 4th down conversions and a controversial call to defeat lowly Kansas and preserve their BCS hopes.

Going into the final week, Cal had the edge over Texas #4 to #6 in the AP Poll and #4 to #5 in the coaches. The AP was actually by about 1.25 spots and the coaches by .75... with Texas's solid two-spot lead in the computers, the two schools were in a virtual tie for 4th place in the BCS standings with Cal ahead by less than 13/10000 of a point. Texas had played their final game against Missouri, winning 26-13. The final week would see Cal's eleventh game, on the road vs a non-BCs team, Southern Miss. The Golden Bears outgained the Golden Eagles by over 200 yards, but a missed FG, turnover on downs, and an INT negated three drives totaling 169 yards. They also missed a PAT late in the 4th quarter when they had just bumped the lead to 10. For viewers, these squandered opportunities were reminiscent of the USC game, and Cal's close victory over a mediocre team probably cost them the decisive points.

Following the end to Texas's season, Mack Brown hit the campaign trail to stump for his team. Texas believed that they should have played in one or two BCS bowls from 2000-2003, but instead had repeatedly been sent to the Holiday Bowl and once to the Cotton Bowl. No way, Brown vowed, would the Longhorns be left out for their fourth consecutive 10-win season. Brown's stumping had almost no effect on voters between Nov 21 and Nov 28, but perhaps because he could devote all of his time to it following Texas's last game Nov 27, and perhaps because the points sounded more valid after Cal struggled than after they won via blowout, Texas gained enough votes to reverse the final lead to 13/1000 in their favor. A few ballots contained absurdities such as having Cal at #7, leading the AP to question the integrity of the BCS and pull their poll starting in 2005.

Cal fans blame Brown's "dishonorable" campaigning while Texas fans say Cal gets the blame for not making a strong statement to finish the season; in reality given the extreme closeness of the BCS standings on Nov 28, either Brown's campaigning for Texas or the unimpressive victory would have cost the Bears the #4 spot without the other. The combination of the two gave Texas the equivalent of about a .3 spot edge overall, still very close.

When people look back on this selection, Cal's apparent huge lead over Texas in the polls is somewhat misleading - this being the first year exact averages were used, Cal's numerical lead was less than 1 spot in the AP poll despite the appearance of a two-spot edge, and a virtual tie in the Coaches poll (5 votes separated the two). Nonetheless, they had been chosen over the Longhorns in both human polls, and it was the Longhorns who played in the Rose Bowl. This was now the third time the voters chose a Pac 10 school while the BCS formula awarded the spot to a Big 12 school, and the fourth time (counting USC>OU>Auburn) that the voters ranked the Pac 10 team higher while the computers favored the Big 12 team.

It is also noteworthy that by the standings, Texas and Cal should have gotten at large bids with Utah being left out. However as the Utes were unbeaten, their inclusion was not protested much.

2005 BCS At-Large Berth
#1 and #2:
* Ohio State, #4 in both polls, losses to Texas and Penn State
* Oregon, #6 Coaches' poll, #5 Harris poll, loss to USC
* Notre Dame, #5 Coaches' poll, #6 Harris poll, losses to USC and Michigan State

Despite having two losses, most people were content with Ohio State being ranked above one-loss Oregon. After all, Oregon's loss to #1 USC was at home by 32 points, while Ohio State's two losses totaled 10 points to the #2 and #3 teams in the nation. A popular argument was that Ohio State could have gone 10-1 with Oregon's schedule, but Oregon might not have been able to go 9-2 with Ohio State's.

Nonetheless, Ohio State alone couldn't cost Oregon a deserved BCS Berth. Notre Dame had finished 6-6 the year before, but now with Charlie Weiss, OMFG NORTE DAME WAS TEH BACK!!1 GG!!! Notre Dame did play one hell of a game to almost beat USC, but they also lost to a Michigan State team who finished the season 5-6. The Spartans started off 4-0 and beat ND during that span... one writer actually rationalized that defeating the Irish took everything MSU had and they just couldn't keep that energy up for the whole season. Right... two months later when Minnesota was burying their final chance to become bowl eligible, their wide receivers were still tired from running up and down against the field on the Irish. This was the ultimate bias meets bias, as the absurd hype machine that is Notre Dame met up with a Pac 10 team who many people had only seen in their loss to USC... and would see replays of over and over again thanks to the USC hype machine. Because Notre Dame led Oregon by .8 overall in the Coaches poll and trailed by just .24 in the Harris, the Irish had a slim edge before the computer polls were calculated. The computers gave Oregon a massive 5.5 spot advantage, propelling them to the equivalent of a 1.5 spot lead over the Irish in the composite BCs standings. They were the clear choice for #2 at large. But Notre Dame wouldn't be Notre Dame if they didn't have special clauses designed to fill their coffers, and indeed there was a rule allowing Notre Dame to be selected ahead of teams who ranked higher than them in the BCS standings assuming they were ranked in the top 6. I'll rarely be so definitive about a selection being wrong, but Oregon got absolutely shafted in 2005. Worst BCs selection gaffe ever, and Ohio State proved that by running up and down the field (which apparently didn't tire out their receivers for the 2006 season) against Notre Dame and winning comfortably despite having a turnover inside their own 10 and missing two FGs. Not that Oregon made much of a case for themselves by losing to Adrian Peterson (yes, 11 on 1) in the Holiday Bowl, but even on that afternoon they looked like they would have provided more of a challenge for Ohio State.

It's worth noting that, while there was absolutely no championship game controversy this season, once again the voters picked USC from the Pac 10 while the computers picked Texas from the Big 12. That made five times this trend has held since 2001, and five out of a possible six since 1998. Though Texas won the game, the close comeback win says that in reality it was a pretty even matchup.

2006 BCS Championship Game
#1: Ohio State, Big Ten champ and unbeaten
#2: two one-loss teams
* Florida, #2 in both polls with a loss to Auburn
* Michigan, #3 in both polls with a loss to Ohio State

It is interesting that we almost saw this one coming. Starting with the preseason, people were looking at Florida's schedule and saying 'Good grief that's murderer's row! If there's a bunch of one-loss teams vying for a spot and they're one of them, Florida should get it before anyone else.' Ohio State was a runaway preseason #1. Following their annihilation of Notre Dame, Michigan quickly rose into the top five and by midseason people were wondering if the NC game would basically be played on Nov 18.

Michigan's loss to Ohio State dropped them to #3 in both polls, trailing USC by the slimmest of margins but still ahead of them in the BCS due to computer rankings. However USC was upset by UCLA and Florida defeated 10-win Arkansas by 10 points in the SECCG. What followed was a huge controversy.

Big Ten fans wanted to see a rematch between their conference's teams. With USC having lost earlier in the day, CBS openly campaigned for Florida - going through a game by game comparison of who each team had beaten. Following the game, Urban Meyer did the same and SEC commissioner Mike Slive backed him up, saying that if Florida was left out it was proof that the sport needed a playoff. Jim Tressel, who prior to their game in November had said that if Ohio State lost to Michigan his team wouldn't deserve a second chance, abstained from voting in the final poll. Between the conference championship win, campaigning, debate points made, and perhaps a desire to see a true national champion, both polls jumped Florida over Michigan. The computers awarded a tie - with Michigan gaining an advantage over Florida scheduling an additional game against a I-AA team and Florida gaining an advantage as margin of victory was no longer being used.

So 2006 joined 1998 and 2000 as seasons in which there were a few teams in contention for the #2 spot and it was awarded to a team from the state of Florida. Unlike the Seminoles, the Gators proved that they did in fact belong in that game, but also for the first time a major media station openly campaigned to voters for one team's inclusion over the other. It's impossible to say whether, without CBS's campaigning, Florida would have still jumped Michigan... but in fairness to the Gators, ESPN/ABC had all but openly campaigned for a Michigan/Ohio State rematch for several weeks before their game in November.

In summary?

I think there's a moderate regional bias in voting which places East Coast teams over West Coast team over "Flyover" teams. In effect, this would give the ACC and Big East teams the biggest advantage as their conferences are located entirely on the East Coast, as well as some teams from the Big Ten and eastern half of the SEC. The Pac 10 champion faces an uphill battle for respect in the polls and the Big 12 champion a still steeper uphill battle. This is even evident among midmajors, as schools like Marshall and Miami were able to get a pretty good amount of publicity for their strong runs on just a season's notice, Fresno State some but not quite as much, and Boise State and TCU had to prove themselves for a few seasons before being taken seriously.

Proximity to a major media center plays another role in creating bias. New York and California schools would have the edge here... although NY isn't really a football state. However, East Coast media tends to focus pretty heavily on the Florida schools when they're good - FSU, Miami, and UF. Consider that, despite being involved in numerous controversial seasons, the only time a Florida school has been left out of the title game was Miami in favor of another Florida school - FSU. While California schools have suffered three exclusions from either the title game (UCLA 98, USC 03) or the at large bid (Cal 04), in two of those instances they were the voters' top choice for that bid and in the other UCLA was left out in favor of a Florida school.

The highlight reel effect, in the absence of nationwide broadcasting of the actual games, simultaneously portrays the team in focus in a positive light and their opponents in a negative light. Specific to the Big 12 vs Pac 10 selection controversies, this can be seen in both the poll ranking and poll-based SOS trends. In general, the Big 12 ca 1998-03 (ie, up until the North's three season collapse) probably benefited in terms of total number of teams able to crack the top 10 or top 15 by having these teams put under less of a microscope. At the same time, their top team probably had a tougher time getting into the top 2 of the human polls for the same reason.

Past performance from the previous season/seasons is of course a huge factor. This affects both preseason ranking and how seriously the voters are willing to consider a team even late in the season vs how much they consider a good record to be a bit of a fluke. You could cite 98 Wisconsin, 00 Washington, 01 Illinois, 01 Maryland, 03 LSU and 04 Auburn as examples of this. (and note the difference in LSU's treatment in the polls four years later, after several successful seasons and moving back into the national spotlight) This season you could say that Kansas, Missouri, and Arizona State have suffered a similar fate, although the extreme rash of upsets has given each of these schools the opportunity to control their own destiny at some point during the season, and Missouri may have even gotten a second chance at that.