On Sunday morning, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly pulled out his weekly coaches’ poll ballot and did what few others in college football would.
“I voted Notre Dame first,” Kelly said.
Kelly was the only one of the 59 voting coaches to do so. Meanwhile, just one of the 115 voters in the Harris Poll picked the Irish for the top spot. So despite being No. 1 in the computers, Notre Dame is so hopelessly behind with humans that it ranks third in the BCS standings. With two games left, the 10-0 Irish will need either Oregon or Kansas State to lose to have even a chance to play for the national championship.
Who should be Nos. 1, 2 or 3 isn’t the point of this column. Go argue among yourselves. The question shouldn’t even be officially asked at this point of the season (more on that later). What can't be denied is that this juxtaposition is one of the most bizarre byproducts the lame duck BCS has ever created.
Notre Dame, of movies, books and generations of gushing prose, with its own network television contract, can’t get its message out to steal votes from two programs with limited histories and marginal media markets.
“We've played a tough schedule,” Kelly said Sunday, citing an Irish talking point.
The depths of this vortex are almost incomprehensible, of course, but we’re going to try to sort through most of the madness. Try to follow along:
It starts with the fact that this is a system where a participant – Kelly, among other coaches – is also a judge. Imagine boxing trying that one.
The computers that favor Notre Dame aren’t any better. Not only is it extremely challenging to design a formula to judge teams that play disparate schedules and share little commonality, but the BCS directors put restrictions on what data can be used (such as margin of victory).
The purveyors of the formulas abhor this. Jeff Sagarin, for one, also produces what he calls his “better numbers” in a separate calculation. In that one, Notre Dame is ranked fifth. In the worse one that the BCS prefers, they are No. 1.
There’s more. Five of the six formulas are so secret that not even the BCS knows what it is or if the math is being accurately computed. Seriously, no one knows. They just hope. In the past, the one public formula has been miscalculated on multiple occasions, including the final poll in 2010.
Then there is the absurdity of the BCS having the computers crank out weekly results in the first place, ignoring the fact (or not caring or understanding) that all of the data (a season’s worth of games) hasn’t been entered. It’s like trying to figure out if a science experiment will work half way through. The computer rankings then wind up impacting the human voters, who look to the numbers as unbiased guidance.
It’s bad to the second power.
“Nonsense math,” is what Bill James, the godfather of stats-based work in sports, describes it.
The polls themselves are an unquestioned mess. Through the years they’ve proven to be ripe with bias, confusion, groupthink and voters of weak credentials. Coaches regularly admit that media relations directors and secretaries fill out their ballots. Since no coach has the free time to watch any game not involving next week’s opponent, this may actually be a good thing.
The polls also lack a set list of criteria for voters to follow – is it more important how you win, who you beat, how you lose, where you win, etc.? It’s up to whatever each individual voter decides, which adds subjectivity to the subjectivity.
That’s where “style points” come in, which, much to Kelly’s chagrin, tends to be awarded to teams that put up big offensive numbers and sizable margins of victory.
"If you want style points, look at our defense," Kelly said. "Look at the schedule that we've played. I think it's pretty clear this team has been built around its defense and we've lived up to that each and every week … I think again if you look at national championship caliber-level football you have to look at a defense.”
[Pat Forde: Lane Kiffin and USC could save SEC's title streak]
The voters are not likely to be moved. In fact, one of the reasons the BCS polls don’t work is because they rarely move anyone. Poll stagnation is a problem because, again, the BCS asks for votes to be cast on an in-progress experiment.
The BCS’s stated goal is to match the two best teams at the end of the year in a championship game. So why tally up who are considered the two best in October and November? There is no scientific reason. It’s just a promotional tool. There should be only one vote, at the end of the year.
The problem Notre Dame faces is that once a pecking order is created, it isn’t easily reshuffled. And since the coaches’ poll begins in the preseason, speculation can play a significant role in determining an actual champion.
By far, the chief reason the Irish are No. 3 and not No. 2 is because they lost 18-14 to Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl. Expectations for the Seminoles’ 2012 season soared as a result of their come-from-behind win. Notre Dame’s dropped.
As such, FSU started the year ranked No. 7 in the coaches’ poll. Notre Dame was No. 24.
The problem for Brian Kelly was that Kansas State checked in at No. 21. Oregon was No. 5. The Irish were effectively boxed out before the season began – Death by Athlon, if you will. They’ve remained behind both the Ducks and Wildcats every single week.
Who's more deserving of No. 2 isn't the point here. Just know that if Notre Dame held off FSU last year, the Irish would have started the season well ahead of Kansas State in the preseason polls, and due to their computer strength would today have a clear path to play for the title this year.
Go ahead and re-read that paragraph while noting the irony of the Fighting Irish, the most storied and famous program of them all, losing the battle for preseason hype to Kansas State, which for most of its existence was arguably the lowliest and least thought of program in America.
Kelly can’t really complain about the voter tendency of not dropping a team until they lose though, even if it’s an illogical concept. He subscribes to it also.
“I had [Notre Dame] second last week to Alabama,” he said Sunday, explaining his vote. “Of course Alabama lost and I’ll typically move [a team] up the next slot.”
So, he’s part of his own problem.
And the vortex spins.
Of course, using a rank order voting system at all isn’t just strange. It’s a scientifically bankrupt way to solve the problem of selecting two teams from so many candidates.
The reason it’s used is “tradition.” Back in the 1930s some sports writers, looking to promote the growing game of college football, created the weekly Associated Press poll – considering there was no such thing as television to see other teams play, this was a dubious concept. The BCS loves it, of course.
The Florida Gators did not come out inspired last Saturday for their non-conference matchup with Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Gators had already completed their Southeastern Conference schedule and needed something of a miracle – a win by 2-7 Auburn over Georgia – to win the SEC East and advance to the conference championship game. The Ragin' Cajuns gave Florida everything it wanted on Saturday, and with 13 seconds left and the score tied at 20-20 it appeared the teams were headed to overtime.
Then lightning struck.
Louisiana-Lafayette lined up to punt, but Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy broke through the protection and got a paw on Brett Baer's kick. The ball careened off to the left of the Ragin' Cajuns' formation and Jelani Jenkins scooped it up for the Gators.
Some 36 yards later, Jenkins was in the end zone and the sideline and the stands at "The Swamp" erupted. Somehow, with just two seconds to go, the Gators had survived a major scare with a 27-20 victory.
For Louisiana-Lafayette, it was a heartbreaking ending to what had been a fantastic day. The little program from the Sun Belt Conference had gone toe-to-toe with one of the biggest, baddest of the SEC and played them even for 59:47.
– Phil Watson
Ken Arrow, who is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, disproved the entire concept of rank order voting in what is hailed globally as “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem” or “Arrow’s paradox.” He even wrote a book about it, “Social Choice and Individual Values.”
That was published in 1951. The BCS guys apparently haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Or they just prefer the intellectual might of 1930s sportswriters.
The BCS directors obviously aren’t much for book learning, but even they have come to the conclusion that this is completely illogical and the more you study it, the more your head hurts.
“We're not sure what's in the guts of the computer programs,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com in June. “We don't know why people rank teams where they rank them before they've ever played a game. It'd be nice to know how you can come up with a ranking without respect to a game. Maybe that's not an issue of transparency, but an issue of rationality.”
Delany, to his credit, helped do something about it. Not only does college football have a four-team playoff coming in 2014, there will be a selection committee of serious, educated participants using agreed-upon criteria and data to choose the field.
[Also: Celebrate new No. 1 standing? Not Kansas State]
Gone to the dustbin of lousy ideas are the polls and computers.
A selection committee isn't perfect, but it’s by far the best option to what will also be a difficult challenge. The BCS’s latest mistake was leaving the sport with this brain-dead formula for two more years.
At the very least, Brian Kelly, or any other coach, wouldn’t be in the spectacularly unusual position of knowing that his perfect team is hopeless without help because people who had no idea what they were doing in terms of math, science or logic set up a system so bad that they now acknowledge it was a mistake. Yet they didn’t immediately scrap it in favor of the superior selection committee to choose the top two teams.
“We'll just keep working on one win at a time and let other people figure out where that puts us,” Kelly said.
That’s a good strategy except there really isn’t anyone figuring out anything at this point.
Notre Dame may have sealed its fate this season when it lost last season and not even the formidable power of the Fighting Irish brand stands a chance against BCS logic.
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