The ‘Broken’ BCS
Many tears were shed this past weekend in Los Angeles, and the lachrymal mourning wasn’t over starving Africans or bleeding Afghanis. The crying – and the whining and the righteous indignation – was inspired by a college football ranking system that kept the USC Trojans out of the putative national championship game, the Sugar Bowl, and relegated them to the still-lucrative but less climactic Rose Bowl.
In two polls – one of football coaches; one of people who write about football – USC was thought to be the #1 college football team in the nation. But the system used to nominate the top team, the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, considers more than a dozen factors to determine college football supremacy, including a heavily weighted amalgam of computer-derived power rankings that analyze in Zeroes and Ones what callers to sports talk radio analyze in semi-literate grunts. The BCS system found that USC was in fact the third best team in the land behind Oklahoma and Louisiana State. The BCS, which critics and most of the student body at USC these days call “Broken Computer System,” considers the poll numbers but doesn’t weight them as heavily as it does strength-of-schedule, performance against common opponents, and other minutiae that people with more important things to worry about don’t understand.
Having formerly made a living betting on sports, I know empirically that computers “see” more clearly than human eyes when it comes to the real and imagined abilities of 11 behemoths clad in padding and tight culottes. Some of the best value in sports wagering comes in betting against public opinion, which is typically swayed by things like emotion, media hype, and the fallacy of small numbers. The public isn’t always wrong; but they’re “right” with far less accuracy than a computer program of sophisticated algorithms that can reduce every player and statistic to a thousandth of a point.
We have far more pressing matters to obsess about than the mercenary spectacle of college football. But before scrapping the BCS, which provides the admirable function of pitting top teams against each other in exciting end-of-the-season confrontations, critics should realize that handicapping the relative strength of sports teams isn’t a popularity contest legitimated by polls. I suggest the weeping Trojans put aside their emotions, media hype, and fallacy of small numbers and realize that the computers are probably right about USC.