November 24, 2008
Before we get started, a quick primer on James Madison, from the unlikely, dramatic finishes of its wins over Villanova and Richmond:
Now: On Sunday, I noted some of the indefensible results spit out by the BCS computers this week, most notably that they collectively rank Texas Tech and Utah ahead of Florida and USC, and two of them -- those run by Jeff Sagarin and Peter Wolfe -- still ranked Texas Tech ahead of Oklahoma a day after the Sooners' 44-point demolition left the Raiders' season lying in itty bitty pieces strewn across the heartland. I also explained why I don't think this is the computers' fault, as they're forced to throw out margin of victory by BCS rules, eliminating the difference the humans see in winning 65-21 and winning, say, 3-2. When there are so few games to compare, no win is really just a win, period, but them's the rules.
No, if you want to excoriate the machines, there's another source for you scorn: the inexplicable rise of JMU. The esteemed Jeff Sagarin's submission to the BCS this week ranks the Dukes No. 24, making the James Madison -- 31-7 loser to Duke in their only game against I-A competition -- the first ever I-AA/FCS team to earn BCS poll points of any kind.
This has been brewing for a while. Every Monday morning for the last few weeks, a JMU alum has messaged me on the Dukes' latest conquest in the Sagarin poll. Last week, they were ranked ahead of West Virginia. This week, they're ahead of not only the Mountaineers, but according to the ELO_CHESS rating (not Sagarin's "official" ranking, but the one actually submitted to the BCS, with margin of victory removed), they also trump LSU, Iowa, Michigan State, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Oregon, South Carolina, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Northwestern, UConn, Tulsa, South Florida, Western Michigan, Tulsa, Central Michigan and Rice, all of which are either in or received at least one vote for this week's Associated Press or Coaches polls.
Sagarin isn't alone, though there is a high degree of disagreement here: Of the two other BCS computer polls that include specific I-AA teams (the Colley Matrix shuffles I-AA into groups in some inscrutable way), Kenneth Massey ranks JMU No. 37, ahead of Northwestern, Iowa, UConn, Kansas, Vanderbilt, South Florida, Rutgers, Kentucky and Wisconsin, all BCS conference teams with winning records (and, yes, ahead of Duke, too). Peter Wolfe, on the other hand, ranks the Dukes 105th, alongside the likes of unabashed bottom dwellers New Mexico State, Ohio U. and UAB.
In its defense, James Madison is a solid team in its own right, with 10 straight wins, the No. 2 scoring offense in I-AA and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming playoffs. But the question here isn't, "How high can a I-AA team go?" It's "What is wrong with these computer formulas?" James Madison's best wins are over fellow playoff participants Appalachian State, Maine, Richmond and Villanova, each of which has had its head handed to it by a I-A/FBS team currently unranked in any of the mainstream polls. The Dukes' only foray into the top division was a beatdown at the hands of Duke, which is Duke, and which has subsequently lost six ACC games in a row.
In other words, there's no evidence JMU can compete in the I-A ranks at all, much less in the top 40. So if two different BCS algorithms are already making that kind of leap, what else might they be capable of?