Sports Nut

Let the Machines Decide

Everyone knows college football’s Bowl Championship Series is broken. The BCS fails because it’s a shoddy compromise between people who like the tradition of the old bowl system and those who want the clarity of a postseason playoff tournament.

The question is, how to fix it? Most BCS critics clamor for a playoff. That way, computer rankings won’t prevent teams like the Miami Hurricanes from playing in the national championship game. The best team will be determined on the field, or so the theory goes. But the computers that kept the Hurricanes out of Wednesday’s Orange Bowl aren’t the problem. It’s the humans who run the show—the NCAA administrators, the TV network executives, the coaches, and the sportswriters—who make the BCS an unsatisfying season-ender. A playoff would only increase their meddlesome influence. The machines should stay. The people, and their irrational desire for a national championship game, should go.

People are physiologically incapable of picking the national champion fairly. Sportswriters and coaches can view no more than a handful of Division I-A games each week, and their votes are skewed by highly publicized victories. Look at the much-discussed dilemma over whether to choose Miami or Florida State for the Orange Bowl. Both the writers’ and coaches’ polls rank the Hurricanes second, because they beat the Seminoles head-to-head in October. But the polls rank the Rose Bowl champion Washington Huskies behind both teams, even though the Huskies beat Miami earlier this season. By the voters’ own syllogism, Washington should be ranked second. Yet few people suggest the Huskies should be in the title game.

A postseason football tournament would not help matters much. Sure, it would give Miami, Florida State, and Washington an equal shot at the championship. But no matter how large the field, some worthy teams would be forced to stay home. Worse, a cabal of college football and TV executives would rig the tournament to favor the traditional powerhouses. Schools like Tulane and Marshall—which have been shafted in recent years after undefeated seasons—would still be left out

Don’t believe me? Just look at the BCS. Six of the eight BCS invitations automatically go to the major conference winners, leaving only two at-large bids. This year, the BCS used one of those to send Notre Dame to the Fiesta Bowl, overlooking Virginia Tech, Kansas State, and Oregon. They even skipped Nebraska—a team that beat Notre Dame in South Bend and finished three notches ahead of the Irish in the BCS rankings. Why? Simple: Notre Dame gets better TV ratings. Notre Dame rewarded football fans by getting pounded 41-9 in last night’s Fiesta Bowl. By contrast, Nebraska slaughtered Big Ten co-champ Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl, 66-17. If the folks who run college football are willing to screw Nebraska, just think what they’d do to Tulane.

None of this would happen if the NCAA used machines to pick the national champ. Granted, humans would still have to devise the formulas for calculating a winner. But doing that before the season starts is far better than letting a bunch of reporters or TV execs arbitrarily pick the best teams after the season is over. A computer system treats every team equally, without regard for gate receipts or TV ratings.

Best of all, a computer system would save the bowl games. The Rose Bowl used to always pit the Pac-10’s best against the Big Ten’s best, and the Sugar Bowl always took the winner of the Southeastern Conference. Traditions like these added to the bowls’ appeal, and they fostered rivalries among the nation’s top teams. The last of these traditions among the major bowls will be ended next year, when the Rose Bowl hosts the BCS championship game. As a result, it’s possible that neither the Pac-10 champ nor the Big Ten champ will be invited to Pasadena. There is an easy way to avert this tragedy: Scrap the BCS, reinstate the old bowl system, and let computers, rather than coaches and sportswriters, pick the national champion.

Cynics will ask why we should bother with a season at all, if machines can decide the winner. Well, computers and algorithms don’t work without data. Teams will have to play 12 or 13 games to give us the input. College football’s championship can be decided on the field. But only if we stop letting people get involved.