Flaws in Bowl Rankings Analyzed

Florida beat Oklahoma Thursday night to win the College Football Championship, but in what seems like an annual event there is some dispute over whether the two best teams were the ones in the championship game. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks about the flaws in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To the world of college football now; Florida defeated Oklahoma 24 to 14 in Miami last night to win a crystal trophy and the title of national champ. But try telling that to fans at the Universities of Utah, Southern California and Texas. What we've got here is another imperfect ending to the college-football season. Joining us he does most Fridays is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Stefan, I am curious to know what you think. Who's actually the best team in the land? Is it really Florida?

STEFAN FATSIS: Beats me. I mean, they won last night. They had a strong second half from quarterback Tim Tebow. So, congratulations, happy times in Gainesville. Whether that makes them the best, I don't know. Given the current structure of college football, we'll never know, and it's almost irrelevant at this point. The issue here is that this remains the one sport that almost inevitably leaves you unsatisfied at the end of the season, and that's not only because there is no playoff in college football, as there is in virtually every other American sport - professional and collegiate; it's the flawed way that this current system is structured.

NORRIS: Stefan, I think I heard you say, the current structure of college football. It seems like there's not much of a structure at all.

FATSIS: Yeah, well, there is one that is controlled by the elite of the NCAA's top division, not by the NCAA itself, and that's a historical anomaly that has to do with the bowl games and the piles of money that the big conference schools generate at the expense, often, of the smaller schools in the NCAA. Now, we've got this system, human polls and computer polls that are used to determine who gets to play in the so-called BCS Championship game, Bowl Championship Series. The problem isn't that these polls exist. The AP Poll has been around since 1934. The problem is that for the last decade, they've been used to decide what to do prospectively on the field. And the methodology of the computer polls is deeply flawed.

NORRIS: And methodology is at least very curious, if you need two separate polls to figure this whole thing out. How do these computer polls work, Stefan? Or maybe I should say, how don't they work?

FATSIS: Well, baseball analyst Bill James examines that very question in a piece on Slate.com this week. The synopsis: One, the computer polls aren't programmed to have a clear goal for what they're trying to measure when they rank teams; there's no meaningful, empirically grounded guidelines. Two, there's been constant tinkering with the components of these polls when the results haven't jived with what the humans say. And three, the features that are included in the computer polling, they're simply bad; they're not at the cutting-edge of quantitative football analysis. Bill James called on everyone in his field to have nothing to do with the BCS.

NORRIS: Now, polls aside, Stefan, Utah, Southern Cal and Texas all say they should have had a chance to play for that title. What do you say?

FATSIS: Yeah, Utah didn't lose a single game; they thumped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama, which lost to Florida for a de facto berth in the championship game. Utah also beat the only team the beat Southern Cal, Oregon State, and Texas beat Oklahoma, and some people say whatever, arguing is part of the fun in college football, but every year, we come back to the question of a playoff. And here's what I say: play one last regular-season game; find ways to compensate schools for the lost revenue - and the TV money from a playoff would do that and then some - keep however many of the bowl games you want; just make four or eight of them part of a short playoff tournament spread over the six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year's. but this will take legal, political strong-arming of the big universities and the NCAA, to which I say don't hold your breath, go out and enjoy the NFL playoffs tomorrow and Sunday.

NORRIS: Finally if you are someone who watched a lot of bowl games over the holidays, it was hard not to notice that some of the sponsors were spending money they don't seem to have.

FATSIS: Yeah, the GMAC Bowl, and GMAC lost $8 billion in five quarters before they were bailed out by the federal government. And then you had the Rose Bowl, which was presented by Citi, and Citigroup in November got $360 billion of U.S. federal government guarantees for troubled mortgages. And finally my favorite is the Meineke Car Care Bowl because, you know, if you can't afford a car or gas, you've got to go to Meineke to get some car care.

NORRIS: Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That's sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. He talks to us most Fridays.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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