October 27, 2009
The fundamental disconnect within the BCS from the beginning has been the supposed gulf between the cold, calculating computer polls and the blindly sentimental human voters. But never has the chasm been wider between the outlook of man and machine than in the current edition of the standings, where Iowa -- languishing at No. 8 in both the Harris and Coaches' polls, well behind one-loss USC and still far out of serious championship contention -- holds the No. 1 spot in the computer consensus, putting the Hawkeyes in the driver's seat for the time being if they keep winning and two of the "Big Three," Florida, Alabama and Texas, should stumble down the stretch.
And not only are the Hawkeyes No. 1 in the computer aggregate -- they're No. 1 in all but one of the six individual computer polls (the dissenting numbers belong to Richard Billingsley's poll, always an outlier among the computers because it's specifically designed to flout the notion of an objective poll in the first place) despite earning zero first-place votes in the AP or Coaches' polls, and only one in the Harris poll. How can that happen?
• The computers are way more impressed with Iowa's schedule. I'm not sure that very many human pollsters have a very deep appreciation of the Hawkeyes' non-conference victories over Arizona and Iowa State, and are perhaps less inclined to extend much goodwill toward the Big Ten in general. The computers, though, see things a little differently: Arizona is a favorite among the machines, ranking in the top 16 of every computer poll (again, except Billingsley's, where it's No. 31), and with Iowa State's upset of Nebraska Saturday to move to 5-3 on the year, four quality victims in the Big Ten is more than enough to push the Hawkeyes' schedules to the top. Among the four computer polls that publish strength of schedule rankings (Jeff Sagarin, Anderson and Hester, the Colley Matrix and Kenneth Massey), it's not that close:
To some extent, it's a matter of quantity over quality: Of the three polls that specify a "quality win" component, Iowa comes out the best in two of them. The Hawkeyes have more wins over top 25 teams (three: Penn State, Arizona and Wisconsin) than any other team according to both the Colley Matrix and Anderson and Hester, and also has the most top-50 wins (five) according to Colley. But in terms of quality, Florida and Alabama's headline wins over LSU and Virginia Tech don't rank as much better than Iowa's win over Penn State.
• The computers can't be 'unimpressed' by a win. Twice already, the Hawkeyes have had to pull relatively ignominious victory from defeat, with wildly improbable endings to beat both Northern Iowa and Michigan State on the final snap of the game:
Add to that the too-close-for-comfort escape against Arkansas State, which the Red Wolves had a chance to win on the final play, and the Hawkeyes' wins over the three non-winning teams on the schedule have come by a combined six points. For the season, Iowa is outscoring all opponents by less than nine points per game and has only hit 30 points twice; the other undefeated teams are all outscoring opponents by more than 20 points per game.
That's all irrelevant to the machines, which don't take margin of victory into account, and subsequently count a 24-21 win over Arkansas State as roughly the equivalent of a 59-20 win over Louisiana-Monroe; two-point wins over Michigan and Michigan State are approximately the same as double-digit wins over Texas Tech and Missouri. The computers acknowledge no "style points."
• It depends which computers you ask. Along the same lines, to say "Iowa is No. 1 according to the computers" is a little misleading, since it's more accurate to say that "Iowa is No. 1 according to the computers as manipulated by BCS politics," with the prohibition on margin of victory standing as Exhibit A. Computers can only make judgments based on the information humans choose to give them, and restricting a key piece of information totally changes the results -- for example, both Jeff Sagarin and Kenneth Massey publish their "real" rankings, the set they've developed and honed for years and prefer to use before adjusting the data to meet BCS stipulations, and Iowa isn't No. 1 in either of them. It's not even close, actually, coming at No. 4 in Sagarin's poll (and all the way down at No. 12 in his "Predictor" rating for gamblers) and a humble No. 7 in the estimation of Massey's numbers.
So if you're somewhat baffled by the digital love for the Hawkeyes, don't blame the computers -- blame the feeble human minds behind the system that doesn't trust the machines enough to let them use all the relevant information.