Tuesday, October 10, 2006

New Year, New Fun

Welcome back for another year. It's been a long summer without college basketball, but Midnight Madness is coming up in a few days. Regular Season games start in less than a month. It's not quite yet time for another BP65, but it's worth having some fresh discussions. With college football season in full force it's worth thinking about some of the differences between the sports.

While I love both sports, the biggest problem with college football is the lack of a reasonable sample size. We have to judge teams against other teams which they rarely (if ever) play. If two teams win every game, how do we pick one team over another? Polling is historically similar to the same archaic system used in Championship Boxing - the #1 team holds some title that they can only lose by actually losing a game. Teams almost never move down in the polls without a loss, and I can't think of an example of a #1 ranked team losing that spot without a loss. So, we end up with a system of social promotion. Every week the teams that win move up and the teams that lose move down, but the undefeated teams continue to be ranked in the order that they were preseason. If team A is ranked behind team B in preseason, there is practically nothing they can do to move ahead without a team B loss.

A perfect example is this year's battle between Ohio State and Florida. As far as the media and the poll voters are concerned, Ohio State is the undisputed #1. Undoubtedly they're a top team - they've had a tough schedule and blown through it - but can we really say that they're undisputed? Let's say that instead of starting the year at #1, the Buckeyes started at #5 with Florida starting at #1. Would Ohio State ever have moved ahead of Florida in the polls? Ohio State has two excellent wins at Iowa and Texas with a good win vs. Penn State, but Florida has two excellent wins as well (at Tennessee and vs LSU) as well as two other good wins (vs Alabama and Kentucky). According to the Sagarin Ratings, Florida has gone through a tougher schedule than Ohio State. Sagarin still gives the overall edge to Ohio State, but it's close. It's certainly not undisputed. And there's no way that Ohio State would be getting the majority of the #1 votes if they had started the season ranked behind Florida.

If Florida and Ohio State finish the year undefeated, Ohio State will end up #1 while Florida will be #2. All this despite the fact that Florida will end up with the much tougher schedule. Ohio State plays at MSU and at home vs Michigan, with 4 creampuffs in the middle. Florida still has to get through Georgia and South Carolina at home, while going to Auburn, Florida State and an SEC Title game. It's practically an impossible assignment, but even if Florida got through they'd be unjustifiably stuck at #2 because of arbitrary preseason rankings.

Atleast the BCS game would fix such a situation, by putting these two teams against each other in the Championship Game. Before the BCS, the Buckeyes & Gators would have gone to different bowls and Florida never would have a chance.

That's not to say that college basketball does a better job of picking a champion. The Tournament is in a style that is designed for the enjoyment of the tv viewer and college basketball fan. More often than not the best team doesn't win (Does anyone really think Florida was the best team in the country last year? Or LSU? UCLA? I'd have taken Duke over any of them in a 7-game series). Of course, that's the fun of the NCAA Tournament - it's boring if the best teams win every game. We love George Mason making the Final Four a lot more than Duke. But the sample sizes are so much larger during the year, we are able to get a much better sense of who the best teams are. The #1 team at the end of the year is not there because of their preseason ranking, but because they've really earned it by beating the other top teams.

Comments and thoughts are always welcome. The new BP65 will be out in a couple of weeks.