In Defense of Statistics: Dear Mr. President

(note: it's been a while since I posted one of these - life's been pretty busy. Previous editions are here and here).

Better than a Playoff

I know several BSD readers saw President-elect Obama's statement that he'd like to see a playoff in college football, and I know that the vast majority of you would support it. Especially now, because, y'know, it'd benefit Penn State.

Or would it? Look at the BCS standings: We're #8. The only way we'd get into a playoff right now is in an 8-team playoff. Things are a bit weird in the BCS standings right now: the Harris/Coaches poll have us at #6. Our average statistical ranking is #7, but we're at #8 (barely) because the statistical rankings and the human polls disagree with the relative ranking of USC/Penn State and Texas Tech/Utah.

So would an 8-team playoff do everything we want? Hardly. You've got 3 contenders from the Big 12: Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas. Those three are linked in a circle of death, and between unbeatens, that essentially means that you can move all 3 as high as you want, so long as you move all three. You've got 1 contender from the PAC-10, two contenders from the SEC, one from the Big 10, and then three contenders from outside the BCS. One viable one (Utah) and two very poor ones (Ball State and Boise State) given their schedules. But they're all contenders. And we've essentially ignored the Big East and the ACC champs, because, y'know, they kinda suck. That's 10 contenders if you leave the Big East and ACC champs out entirely.

You can come up with more and more convoluted playoff scenarios - larger ones, ones that seem "more fair" (conference champs plus wild cards) - but when you go to implement them, you'll frequently get a situation where some team has a valid complaint that the system is arbitrary.

The thing is, we don't really want a playoff because we want teams to prove it on the field. We want a playoff because we want the possibility of Oklahoma facing Alabama, or watching Penn State smash Utah. We want more good football games. A playoff, depending on how it's seeded, could give us Georgia Tech vs. Ball State. Be still my heart. More good football games - that'd be better than a playoff.

All About the Connections

So what's really wrong with college football? After all, Division IAA doesn't have these problems. College basketball doesn't have these problems. What is it about Division IA? It's easy: Division IA college football is the worst connected major sport in the US. Basketball has more teams, but more games, and the games are better distributed. In addition, it is impossible to achieve major-league connectivity in Division IA football.

What do I mean by "connected" and "major league connectivity"? Think of it this way: Penn State is first-order connected to Oregon State. We played them, directly. Penn State is second-order connected to USC (twice over, in fact) - we played Oregon State (or Ohio State) who played USC. We're third-order connected to Bowling Green - we played OSU who played Minnesota who played Bowling Green (or Ohio State through Ohio). There are even 9 teams that Penn State is only fourth-order connected to.

I define "major-league connectivity" as "every team is at least second-order connected to every other team." The NFL is constructed to be this way. MLB is this way since interleague play and a crazy number of games. I don't know enough about the NBA, but given the number of games it's unlikely that it wouldn't be.

Why is this important? Easy: because with major-league connectivity, you're only ever talking about the play of each team. We can't say from direct experience on the field that Penn State is better than USC, but we can look at the way that both of them played Ohio State, and the way that both of them played Oregon State, and say "OK, this could be a tossup, but Penn State might have a slight advantage." Here, you're comparing a team's performances based on a common benchmark - how they did against common teams.

How can you tell if Penn State is better than, say, Texas Tech? Penn State is fourth-order connected to Texas Tech: Penn State lost to Iowa who beat Iowa State who lost to Texas A&M who lost to Texas Tech. How the heck am I supposed to figure out anything from that? You can't - not really. You can't really compare teams head-to-head in college football. There's not enough information.

Simple Suggestions, and why they're Not So Simple

So if I'm saying that we need something more than just a playoff, what do we need? Can't we just say "look, you can't keep scheduling cream puffs all the time"? Isn't that what everyone wants? There are sites that come up with an elaborate playoff system that looks completely feasible. Why can't we just do that?

The problem is that Penn State, like all Division IA teams, has to keep scheduling cream puffs. Because we have to have 7 home games. Otherwise we don't make enough money. Just that simple. Because we have to have 7 home games, we have to schedule a team that doesn't care if they get 7 home games. Which is a cream puff.

The Big East has problems because sometimes they need to schedule four out of conference home games. This breaks down how important home games are to Boise State (who's small enough that they can't always schedule 7 home games - but they have to schedule 6). Paterno's said  repeatedly that Penn State needs to schedule seven home games for financial reasons. I could include quotes from the LSU athletic director, from Texas Tech's, etc. - pretty much whomever you want. The answer's the same. You need 7 home games at least for the BCS conference level programs. Which means we need cream puffs.

But don't get me wrong - college football isn't doomed. There are ways things could be improved, and if President-elect Obama really has so much free time he can look into college football, this is what I think he should do. #1-2 are pretty much controversy-free and easy. #3-4 are less so.

  1. Don't allow Division IAA games (FCS) to count towards bowl eligibility. At all. There are plenty of cream puffs in Division IA. If you have to play an FCS school for financial reasons, you have to win 7 games. Period. The end.
  2. Don't allow Division IAA games to count at all in the BCS statistical rankings. Not at all. Not wins, not losses. If a team (Michigan!) loses to a IAA team, let the human polls strike the wrath of the heavens upon them. Statistically, Division IAA teams are too poorly connected: you can end up ranking James Madison #24 (Sagarin) or #105 (Wolfe) - yes, that's right. A team that 4-7 Duke beat 31-7 is ranked above LSU. This is why including IAA games is insane.
  3. Try to get rid of situations where interconference play is dominated by two conferences - i.e. the Big Ten playing 13 games (!!) against the MAC, and only 1 game against the ACC. This is far, far easier said than done - but the easiest method is probably to encourage conference-collective bargaining with major networks.
  4. As a return for that, encourage the major cable carriers to include the conference-only channels (i.e. the Big Ten network and friends) in the standard cable tier or a lesser alternative than the full "mega-package" that's usually required.

Like I said, #1 and #2 are straightforward: you have to get rid of any incentive to schedule a IAA team over a IA team. Period.

#3 and #4 are complicated. It's just not easy to force teams to schedule games where they won't make as much money. And that's the driving problem behind scheduling.

So, Mr. President, I really strongly suggest - if you're going to bother mucking around in college football, don't just come in and decree a playoff. A bad playoff can make things far worse than what we have now. What needs to happen in college football is that scheduling between Division IA teams needs to be fixed.

I think it's hard to argue that Penn State played a weak schedule this year. Oregon State is a Top 25 team right now, and playing a Top 25 team in your out of conference schedule is usually considered a strong team. The problem wasn't Penn State's schedule - it was every other team in the Big Ten's schedule (well, that and the fact that those teams couldn't, y'know, win those games).

The Lost Path to Victory

In the second In Defense of Statistics, back when Hell hadn't frozen over and Penn State was undefeated, I put forth a list of things that could happen that would cause Penn State to jump an undefeated Alabama. Obviously, this is all moot since Penn State lost to Iowa, but it turns out it still quite wouldn't've been enough. It would've been very very close, however.

The main point of that discussion, though, was to point out the fact that preseason expectations were really what was driving the viewpoint that the SEC is better than the Big Ten. That's really still there. We still don't know if the SEC is better than the Big Ten or not. Two of their biggest out-of-conference games are next week, versus Georgia Tech and Florida State. If they lose both of those, it's hard to argue that the SEC is better. Winning both is a solid statement that they're a good conference - but it hasn't happened yet.

LSU is really they poster child; for some insane reason, they stuck around in human rankings forever. Statistical rankings knew that LSU wasn't that good. If you look at the week-by-week graph of Colley's ranking for LSU, you'll see that by Week 7, they were basically where they are now. It didn't take people long to realize Auburn sucked. Why did it take so long to realize LSU was really not that good? I have no idea.

For those BlogPoll (or any other voters) who still have LSU on the ballot: you're insane. Iowa would be a better choice. They've at least beaten someone decent.

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