Friday, July 27, 2007

There is No Perfect Solution

Lately, I've seen a lot of discussion about a +1 system of choosing the NCAA football national championship. The basic idea is that the NCAA, through some selection process will seed teams 1 through 4 at the end of the regular season. The traditional bowls will be used to match 1 against 4 and 2 against 3, with the winners playing in the "+1" game after the bowls are over. It's a traditional 4-team single-elimination seeded tournament, with the names Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, and Rose thrown in to name the first-round games.

Its advocates seem to believe it will solve All the Problems in Football. This is hyperbole, but its advocates seem to believe it will at least end the controversy over how to pick a champion. I am here to tell you they are dead wrong.

The current system is full of uncertainty mixed with a healthy dose of injustice. It seeks to narrow down all the teams in college football down to two early in December, with those two teams to play a single game to determine the National Champion. The first cut is made before the season starts, when teams outside the power conferences are eliminated from consideration. This narrows the field to less than half.

As the season progresses and teams lose games, they are provisionally eliminated. Teams with one loss are excluded from the process unless and until the landscape is reduced to 1-or-fewer undefeated teams. At that point, the teams with one loss are back in consideration. The key is not to win big games or defeat quality opponents. The key is to avoid losing, which one may do either by beating good teams or by avoiding playing them. If this method fails to produce a situation where it is clear to everyone who should play for the championship, as it last was in 2005 (USC vs. Texas) and previously was... never, the teams are selected seemingly at random from among the reasonable contenders. The winner of this game is then declared the "National Champion" by the NCAA, though the media may declare its own National Champion without reference to the "official" declaration.

It was not always thus. In the ancient past, there simply was no method of deciding a national champion, and various organizations were free to declare a national champion based entirely on their own criteria. Some organizations, like the AP and UPI" were considered a bit more authoritative than most, but there was nothing stopping, say, AAA Auto Club or NAMBLA from naming their own national champion, which I suppose would make for an interesting banner to hang in a stadium.

After most of a century of using this method, it was decided this was no longer good enough and NCAA put together the Bowl Championship Series Formula, which was changed year after year in such a way as to correct perceived injustices in the results of the previous year. After several years of complicated formulas that included "Quality Wins" and "Strength of Schedule", all of that is removed and the BCS results are now decided mostly by vote of the AP voters and the coaches.

A +1 system solves all of the problems alluded to above (and others) by changing the number of teams chosen from 2 to 4, and pitting those teams against each other in a tournament. Isn't it obvious that this will naturally short-circuit the current problems in the system, including:
  • The ongoing controversy over whether teams that fail to win their conference should be considered, the obvious answer under the new system is "yes", but perhaps "no" depending on your perspective;
  • The question of how to consider teams from outside the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-10, Big East, and ACC, like Boise St. (undefeated last year), Hawaii (with a real shot to go undefeated this year), and others. Until a couple years ago, Louisville fell into this category, and now that they're in a semi-power-conference they're routinely on the short list of pre-season favorites;
  • The question of how to consider strength of schedule, which is now more-or-less considered a tie-breaker to use after considering other factors like "Is the team in a power conference" and "how many losses did they have";
  • The question of how exactly the participants will be determined, which has been changed every year the NCAA has attempted to select participants in a championship game. Now there will simply be discussion of how to select participants in a championship tournament, if this idea is put to use.
The +1 format, if ever implemented, will not only fail to solve these problems, it will introduce new ones. What will happen when the team that gets in at #4 is controversial, such as when only 3 teams are generally considered worthy. What would they have done last year, for example? Without naming the teams, here is the situation they faced last year:
  • One undefeated team from a power conference, having faced a reasonably tough schedule; obviously also a conference champion;
  • One one-loss power conference champion;
  • One one-loss non-conference champion whose only loss was a close game against the undefeated team;
  • A two-loss conference champion from a power conference, who had lost the last game of their season to a lesser opponent;
  • A two-loss non-conference champion from a power conference who had lost two games on the road, both to top 10 ranked teams at the time, one of whom was the one-loss power-conference champion listed above;
  • An undefeated team from a non-power conference.
There's your landscape. Pick 4 teams you're going to give a shot at the national championship and pick two teams you will exclude.

Not easy is it? Only two are thoroughly uncontroversial picks in that environment, though many people last year, being allowed to pick only two, disagreed strongly over who the second team should have been. In picking 4, do you exclude the undefeated team from a weak conference? Do you exclude the conference champion who had lost the last game of the season to a team that was fighting to stay above .500? Do you exclude the two teams that didn't win their conference? Or just one of those teams?

Clearly, picking 4 teams out of those 6 would have been a matter of achieving great consensus free of controversy. And what will happen when a team many consider undeserving actually wins the whole thing?

What's the solution? There isn't one. There is no prospect of the NCAA putting together a 64-team tournament like they have in basketball. Any playoff that ever comes down the pipe is going to have 8 or fewer teams, and we're going to be faced with controversy year after year concerning how those teams are selected and seeded. We can't even come to a consensus that the system should only include conference champions, which seems like an obvious criterion to me. On two occasions in the last decade, a team that failed to win its conference nonetheless advanced to the national championship game, and last year many people wanted non-champion Michigan in the final game, despite the fact that Michigan not only was not the conference champion, but had ACTUALLY LOST to the other team in the game earlier in the year.

That's right. Some people actually wanted the National Championship Game to be a rematch between two intra-conference rivals that had already played each other that year. In an environment with this much disagreement over how to select teams, there is no chance of coming up with a solution that will please everyone.

What do I think they should do? Personally, if I had my druthers, I'd go back to the Stone Age method of simply not having an "official" champion. Let the AP and the ESPN and NAMBLA declare their own champions. At least that system doesn't have pretensions of being definitive.

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