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Nebraska and Wisconsin: Everything Wrong with 2011 BCS Standings

The first BCS Standings of the 2011 season were released this week.  It wouldn’t be the BCS if there weren’t crippling mistakes resulting from the asinine formula, and sure enough, these latest rankings don’t disappoint in that regard.  For the most part, the teams within spitting distance of potential BCS berths are deserving, and looking at the overall composition of the standings, complaints are minor.

But looking closer can and will boggle the mind.

Any rational fan of college football can take one look at the individual rankings that collectively form the BCS standings and immediately understand why the BCS itself is system doomed to continued failure.  Let’s begin with Wisconsin as an example.

The Badgers are undefeated at 6-0.  They lead the nation in scoring with than 50 points per game while having allowed, on average, fewer than 10.  One could take issue with the team’s overall strength of schedule, though it’s hard to find a team that hasn’t played at least a couple of soft opponents.

Yet the Kenneth Massey computer ratings have Wisconsin at #17.

That in itself is bad enough; there’s simply no way that there are 16 better teams.  But consider also that Massey has Texas A&M at #10.   Texas A&M, which blew leads of 17 and 18 points against Oklahoma State and Arkansas before narrowly beating Texas Tech in a shootout.  Texas A&M, which can’t play defense to save its life.

Other teams in front of the Badgers according to Massey?  How about Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Auburn, Penn State, and Nebraska.

Yes, the same Nebraska that lost to Wisconsin 48-17.

The ‘Huskers are at #16 in the Massey rankings, a decision that no amount of properly programmed computer code could possibly justify.

To be fair to the Massey Ratings, the BCS takes an adaptation of the raw numbers that does not consider margin of victory.  Left to its own devices, Massey’s meta-analysis would be unlikely to shake the Badgers out at #17.  Even so, the official BCS result speaks for itself.  If what would have been good rankings are bastardized for BCS purposes then what good are they?  Refusing to consider margin of victory is perplexing and problematic, though hardly the only problem withe the BCS process.

According the composite computer rankings, the best team in the country is Oklahoma State.  With due respect to the Cowboys, that’s patently absurd.  Worse, OSU ranks #1 in four of the six computer columns, with the Billingsley and Sagarin rankings the only exceptions (the Cowboys were #4 in both).

Both Massey and Sagarin ranked Clemson 3rd despite the Tigers needing 825 all-purpose yards to beat Maryland in week 7.  Clemson has a  nice offense, but 3rd in the nation?

At the same time, the computers loathe Oregon, which ranked outside the Top 10 in five of six columns.  Billingsley had the Ducks at #7 while the other computer rankings had them as low as 18th.

Having computers analyze numbers and compare statistics is, at its heart, a good thing.  In principle, computers can’t be biased, can’t play the what-if game, can’t reward a team for what it might do in some imagined hypothetical.  Human polls are rife with error; voter judgment is often impaired by all manner of limitations.

Humans don’t get to see all the games.  Humans can’t assimilate the sheer volume of information produced by the entire FBS.  Humans are awful at breaking free from their tendencies, and therefore allow preseason bias to infect their assessments for weeks after the games actually begin.

However, computer rankings are only as good as their programming, and what these BCS Standings are telling us is that said programming has gone horribly awry.  Wisconsin remains the most egregious example and how the computer rankings fail in their attempt at accuracy, but the other teams discussed here all have some legitimate beef.

Rankings are meant to represent what has happened on the field, reflecting the relative talent and performance of their constituent teams.  A quick glance at the computer columns will tell anyone that that isn’t happening.  And it begs the question:

Why are we doing this?

Why are we pushing this system that is obviously no better, and quite possibly far worse, than the old-fashioned human selection process?  We are we as fans continuing to accept it?  Money is the catalyst behind the nonsense, and it makes its own powerful argument to those in charge.  But no one can deny that the BCS is preposterous.

The Badgers certainly won’t.


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