Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Gaming the System

How the Big 12 is gaming the BCS

If we know anything about the current polling system, early season positioning is critical to eventual BCS Bowl allocations. And it appears the Big 12 has found a way to game it.

Consider the Big 12 in Coaches’ Poll after Week 5 –

1. Oklahoma 4-0
3. Missouri 4-0
5. Texas 4-0
8. Texas Tech 4-0
16. Kansas 3-1
22. Oklahoma State 4-0

Half the Big 12 was ranked in the top 25 after 5 weeks, with an incredible 23-1 record. Four of the teams were ranked in the top 10.

Did they get there by playing top flight opponents? Well, you decide –

Oklahoma beat –


Missouri beat –

Southeast Missouri State

Texas beat –


Texas Tech beat –

Eastern Washington

Oklahoma State beat –

Washington State
Missouri State

Kansas beat –

Louisiana Tech
Sam Houston State

And lost to –

South Florida

Of the 24 opponents played by the ranked Big 12 teams as of week 5, only 2 remain ranked teams – number 15 TCU and number 14 South Florida, who beat Kansas. In other words going into week 5, the Big 12 lost to half the ranked teams it played.

The Big 12’s ploy – don’t play conference games for the first 4 weeks. Build up a record for the majority of your teams. Create the “impression” that your conference is loaded with super teams.

Did it work? You bet it did. Compare the week 5 rankings to the preseason rankings of the same teams –

1. Oklahoma – preseason 4th
3. Missouri – preseason 7th
5. Texas – preseason 10th
8. Texas Tech – preseason 14th
16. Kansas – preseason 13th
22. Oklahoma State – preseason unranked.

The average Big 12 team ranked preseason improved by 4 slots to week 5 playing patsies. Oklahoma State became ranked, and Kansas fell but 3 spots.

By the 5th week of the year, the SEC was at least 2 games into their conference schedule. Teams like Georgia had lost to Alabama, Florida to Ole Miss, and Auburn (yes, blech) to LSU.

And I’m not making a statement about the relative conference strengths here, just that by week 5 the SEC and other conferences WERE playing conference opponents. Because in conference play, almost anyone can beat anyone. The Big 12 knew this, so they avoided it.

Moreover the Big 12 had a built in advantage by week 5 - the firm knowledge that in college football impressions linger. Even now, after week 8, most of the Big 12 teams listed have a solid image of strength in the minds of voters and fans, regardless of whether they deserve it.

This impression of strength has played to the Big 12’s advantage since it was mathematically certain someone from the conference would end up number one by now, the way the schedule was set up. To see how this worked, follow the odds. The 6 teams mentioned were virtual slam-dunks to be 4-0 by week 5 when they began conference play. Since a few of them would play each other, and there had to be a winner, that winner would be favorably disposed to be ranked 1st, based on the impression they had beaten a high-quality team.

Take Oklahoma and Texas who played to a near tie in the Red River Shootout. By that point both teams had a lower conference foe under their belt (Baylor and Colorado), and both were 5-0. Well, one of them was going to be 6-0, guaranteed. And in doing so, they would defeat another team that, on the record, had played really nobody. But the impression was already there, and the impressionable were apt to be …impressed.

So after week 7, we have 6-0 Texas at number 1, and 5-1 Oklahoma at number 4. All this with the only real opponent each having faced was each other. Further, with the way it was set up, it virtually HAD to be this way – one of them was coming out on top. The Big 12, as a whole, wins.

So we find ourselves heading into week 9, with the following rankings –

1. Texas 7-0
2. Alabama 7-0
3. Penn State 8-0
4. Oklahoma 6-1
5. Florida 5-1
6. USC 5-1
7. Oklahoma State 7-0
8. Texas Tech 7-0
9. Georgia 6-1
10. Ohio State 7-1
11. LSU 5-1
12. Utah 8-0
13. Boise State 6-0
14. South Florida 6-1
15. TCU 7-1
16. Missouri 5-2
17. Pittsburgh 5-1
18. Brigham Young 6-1
19. Kansas 5-2
20. Ball State 7-0
21. Georgia Tech 6-1
22. Tulsa 7-0
23. Boston College 5-1
24. Florida State 5-1
25. Minnesota 6-1

The Big 12 has 3 undefeated teams, with Oklahoma State having faced only Missouri as a challenge, and Texas Tech most challenged by an overtime win over Nebraska. But where the scheme is really working is for Missouri and Kansas, who both have 2 losses, and are the only 2-loss ranked teams in the Coaches Poll.

Impressions do indeed linger. And, when the other Big 12 teams take their first loss, they won’t fall very far. In fact, they will continue to bolster the reputations of the other Big 12 teams that beat them in a self-enhancing cycle.

When you look at the other conferences by this point they have mostly smashed themselves, with a single undefeated SEC team, one undefeated Big 10 team, and no undefeated Pac Ten teams.

Far be it from me to complain about where Florida is ranked now, but imagine if Florida and the other SEC teams had scheduled their 4 non-conference opponents up front? Kentucky, with the 2 losses just like Kansas or Missouri, has lost to Alabama by 3 and South Carolina by 6, but is nowhere near ranked. Vanderbilt also has 2 losses, to MSU and Georgia, and is likewise unranked. Four conference losses among them gets them both outside the top 25. There are similar situations in the Big 10 and Pac Ten.

Were I in charge of Florida or other SEC school's scheduling I would move the non-conference schedule immediately to the front. UF could have very well started the year 5-0 if Citadel and FSU got moved up, and the same with other SEC schools.

I think we will find out by the end of the season that not only were Kansas and Missouri not very good, neither will be Texas Tech nor Oklahoma State. Yet the early impressions will linger. And, it will matter.


Jams said...

I must say, this post is exactly on point. I've been thinking about this for weeks now, and you've precisely summed up what's going on in the Big 12.

Like you said, perceptions matter. And human voters are easily swayed by perceptions (and that 0 in the loss column, regardless of the teams played).

Thanks for putting it all into words so clearly.

AuditDawg said...

Wow. Well said. This is the first time I've seen this argument and all I can think is that the powers in the Big 12 are absolute geniuses.