SPORTS: The Economic Case Against the Irrationality of College Football and the BCS

Written by Daniel Anderson on . Posted in Sports

You’ve taken part in this argument before. It’s everywhere. You can’t avoid it.

A decade ago, it was even somewhat enjoyable. We would analyze the stats like pundits, spout our opinions, and fantasize about the hypothetical. How would one of these non-BCS schools do against the big kids? Do non-BCS schools belong in the championship picture?

Since there exists no playoff in college football (although their basketball counterparts seem to pull it off just fine), fans of the game live and die by this kind of conjecture. This age of parity turns the heat up on these discussions to a full-blown boil. Competently run programs like Utah, TCU and Boise State (and until recently BYU) annually produce quality teams that stir the BCS pot. To complicate things further, the BCS has been around long enough to not only betray its own futility, but also render our arguments pointless.

To illustrate, let’s run through two generic conversations inspired by real life events. I’ve volunteered Jake Welch of PB&J Report fame to participate in these hypothetical conversations with me. Here we go.

Jake: “I think if TCU runs the table and finishes undefeated, they deserve to play for the national title.”

Me: “What about Boise State?”

Jake: “They’ve had a great couple of seasons, but they don’t play any quality opponents. Their schedule is so weak.”

Me: “They beat TCU last season.”

Jake: “True, but I think TCU was a little shell shocked by their first BCS bowl. It’s not like Boise State beat them by a lot, and I think TCU is a better team overall. They’ve beaten Oregon State more soundly than Boise State did this year, plus Boise State looked less than impressive in their last win against San Jose State.” (Side note, just to underscore the subjectivity of these types of arguments: Boise State beat San Jose State by 29 points. That’s more than four touchdowns.)

Me: “Ah. I see.”

Notice that Jake (representing all of us) uses the same logic of transitivity that has become the all-powerful measuring stick of college football rankings. In economics, we use the same logic to figure out which types of goods consumers will buy. Essentially, if a person prefers A over B and B over C, then that person must also prefer A over C. Notice further that Jake also takes into consideration margin of victory of common opponents and “style points” in order to determine which bundle/team was hypothetically preferred/better than the other.

While transitivity is a fine way to determine relatively stable consumer preferences, it turns out it is a really bad way to determine who would win a football game. (If you’re not buying this assertion, please refer the entire 2007-2008 college football season).

Next conversation:

Jake: “I think that if Alabama wins the rest of their games, they should go to the National Championship game over TCU or Boise State, even if either of those teams is undefeated.” 1

Me: “Why is that? Isn’t losing zero games better than losing one?”

Jake: “Well, Alabama plays a much tougher schedule. TCU or Boise State would get shredded in the SEC, or any other power conference.”

Me: “Yeah, but Utah beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago. And Boise State beat Oklahoma in 2007.”

Jake: “True, but I just don’t think Alabama cared about that game very much, having just lost the SEC title game and their shot at the national championship. They weren’t motivated to play, and after Utah went up big on them, they scored 17 straight points. Obviously they were the better team. And Boise State got lucky that Oklahoma wasn’t ready for their trick plays.”

Me: “Ah. Right.”

Nauseous yet? Some interesting points about this second conversation: First, this is just a minimal example of the conjectural firestorm that went on after both of those BCS bowl victories by Utah and Boise State. It was out of control — small conference fans demanding that their teams get respect and automatic bids; large conference fans playing damage control and diminishing their losses by saying it was bad luck and that the teams they were facing were so pathetic they underestimated them and didn’t try hard.

Second, the logic is entirely wrong. And it’s our friends at the Bowl Championship Series that deserve the blame. Because their subjective ranking system means everything, we (and the computers) must try to figure out who has the best team(s). We have to do this because the match-up in the championship game depends on figuring it out. Hence, the speculation.

But there is a major problem with this. As much as we try, the sport of football is not set up to divine who is the better team based on one single game alone. The sample size is insufficient. We draw a conclusion that Boise State is just as good or better than Oklahoma because they beat them in one game. But in reality, the only conclusion we are allowed to draw from that magical Fiesta Bowl is that Boise State scored more points than Oklahoma did by the time the game ended.

This is like those loudmouths that, the second there is a big snowstorm in April or May, start sarcastically saying “Wow, I guess we’re really going through this whole ‘global warming’ thing after all.” They simply come across as uneducated. Arguing that climate trends can be proven or disproven based on the weather for one day — for even one week or one month or one year — is the acme of foolishness. (The same goes for arguing that a very warm day in December or January means global warming, in fact, exists.)

Yet this is what college football forces us to do week in and week out — and I can’t take it anymore.

Last season, TCU played as perfect a regular season as you could play against as strong a schedule as you could ask for, excepting the SEC schedule. And instead of getting a shot at the national title, they got shafted to play Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Then, when they lost, everyone used it as proof that climate change was bogus — that they weren’t a good team after all. Their entire season must have been a fluke since they lost a game.

Using one game to draw valuations and conclusions about teams as a whole is (and this is important) so unbelievably pointless. But we have to. It’s college football. There’s no playoff. It’s unavoidable.

But that’s not entirely true. There is one way to avoid it. Watch football on Sunday.

In the blessed world of professional football, there are no subjective rankings. There are no “style points” and margin of victory analysis. There are no conclusions drawn about one team beating another aside from the winning team simply scored more points than the losing team. Every team has a one-in-four chance of winning their division and making the playoffs — and some are even invited in as a wild card in case they don’t. When the defending champion Saints lost at home to lowly Cleveland two weeks ago, their season was not over. They are still in the race for their division and firmly in control of their own destiny. Compare that with the crushing effects of BYU’s loss to Florida State last year, just two weeks after beating Oklahoma.

In the refreshing land of the NFL, a win is what it was meant to be — a reflection of who was the better team on that day. Not a means of building up your resume in order to make the case that you’re hypothetically better than everyone else, so you can play in a championship game decided by a computer that takes into account whether you beat your opponent by enough points and with enough flash. Being hypothetically better means nothing in the NFL. Just ask the hypothetically better Indianapolis Colts after the clock read all zeroes at last years’ Super Bowl. No one was up in arms claiming the Colts were unmotivated but were still the better team in actuality. All of that conjecture would have been comically pointless.

Yet, in college football, that kind of postulating is what fills much of what we discuss on a daily and weekly basis. It will form the foundation of the discussion this season as we await the computer results regarding whether yet another undefeated team from a small conference deserves to play for the national championship over a one-loss BCS conference team. And no matter what happens, some people will be unhappy and unfulfilled.

For those of us seeking a bit of rationality in our football experience, the NFL provides the objective breath of fresh air.

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1At the time of writing, Alabama was still a one-loss team. They have since lost to LSU, making this conversation a little outdated. But it is still an accurate representation of the logic involved in college football debates, so it stayed.

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