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BCS Analysis ... The Process

Mr Pac Ten
Posted May 2, 2010


Collegefootballnews’ Matthew Smith Looks at the BCS, what’s wrong with it and how to fix it, part two: Coaches’ Poll

It seems like almost every year there is a controversy involving the BCS rankings, either in terms of who gets to go to the national title game, who gets the at-large berths, or sometimes both. Over the course of a few articles, I’ll be looking at the problems with the BCS system and suggesting some practical, reasonable ways to make it better. This isn’t about overhauling the system and turning it into a plus-one or playoff (whether that’s a better way to go is another debate entirely); this is about making the current system better.

The first section was about the computer ranking systems, what’s wrong with them and what needs to be done to fix them. The second section will be about the coaches’ poll.

The problem with the coaches’ poll is simple: it shouldn’t exist. It is, quite frankly, ridiculous to be giving these people an official voice in the rankings and the way that the postseason shakes out (for another perspective on the matter, see this article by CBS’s Dennis Dodd). There are a few reasons why it’s so bad:

1) The justification for having the coaches be a part of the system are false.
2) The coaches aren’t trustworthy.
3) The coaches’ poll is poorly run.

To take the issues in order:
1) The justification for having the coaches be a part of the system are false.
It’s worth asking: why exactly are these people essentially being given direct power over their own evaluations and the fates of their teams? It’s an obvious conflict of interest, so there must be some compelling reason to allow it. Basically, the idea is that these coaches are experts, well-informed about football in general, as well as all of the top teams in the country. There’s also an implicit assumption that they’d be ethical in their voting (which I’d also consider false), but I’ll get to that one later.

It is, of course, ridiculous to believe that head coaches, already swamped with the demands of talent development, scouting opponents, recruiting, booster management, staff management, player discipline, etc. can devote the necessary amount of time to develop an informed opinion on the many teams that are not on the schedule. It’s even more ridiculous to think that they can do it by mid-day Sunday (when their weekly votes are due). I’d be mildly surprised if more than 10% of the coaches voting did more than glance at the box scores on a regular basis before turning in their votes.

And that’s assuming they actually bother turning in their own votes. It’s worth asking: how many coaches delegate that task to a graduate assistant or someone in the athletic department? If it’s a substantial number (which I’d consider pretty likely), what exactly is the point of the vote? Is it really supposed to be the collective opinions of interns and assistants?

So ultimately, what’s the point? Either you’re getting the uninformed opinions of coaches who haven’t had the time to do their homework, or you’re getting the uninformed opinions of staff who don’t have the many years of football experience people expect out anyone who’s voting in the COACHES’ POLL. In what way is this productive or helpful? Or heck, in what way does it even make sense? Honestly, I have no idea.

2) The coaches aren’t trustworthy
I don’t want to start naming names here, but suffice to say that you really don’t have to try hard at all to think of head coaches who simply aren’t trustworthy in general. Whether it relates to recruiting practices, how they treat their own players, how easily they break contracts when anything better comes along, etc., suffice to say that plenty of these guys aren’t trustworthy. No, I’m not saying everyone, or necessarily even a majority, but still a fair number.

And remember, this is a situation which absolutely needs fair, ethical voters, because of how utterly easy it is for the voters to just do whatever is in their own interest, boosting their own teams, their own conferences, giving bonus points to anyone on their schedule to avoid “bulletin board material”, etc. Let me put it to you this way: would you trust Goldman Sachs and the other big banks to self-regulate the financial industry? Would you trust the automakers to write auto safety rules?

If not, then why would you trust the coaches to rank themselves? Maybe you think that the gamesmanship would largely cancel, that the guys screwing team X in favor of team Y would more or less cancel with the guys screwing team Y in favor of team X. And heck, maybe you’re right. But is that really the sort of system to embrace? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard than that? I think there should be.

3) The coaches’ poll is poorly run.
The main issue with the coaches’ poll is that is exists, for the reasons described above. That said, there are a few other problems that it faces:

The votes are due less than 24 hours after the games are played.
This ensures that none of the coaches would have the time needed to come up with an informed vote. A generous interpretation of this situation is that it’s an unfortunate rule imposed on the coaches to satisfy the public’s need to know NOW. My cynical interpretation is that the coaches went along with it, and that it actually helps them by providing a ready-made excuse for any weird or wacky results. No matter how you assign the blame for it, though, it’s a horrible rule and clearly needs to go.

There is no guarantee that any of the coaches are actually going to bother filling in their ballots themselves
As it stands now, it’s easy for a coach just to hand the ballot to an assistant, intern, family member, or dog. I’m not sure what the best way to enforce it is; maybe they should have to sign a statement when joining the poll that they’d fill it out themselves, maybe on every ballot there should be a space where they have to sign that they have reviewed and approve of the entirety of the ballot, or maybe there should be some other process here. Honestly, I don’t know. But clearly there has to be some process, because it’s nothing but a big joke if they’re allowed to delegate their ballots to other people and not have to be responsible.

There is little guarantee of the process being open
For a while, the coaches fought hard to keep their votes private, where there would be zero accountability (even if purely in the realm of public opinion) for any blatantly manipulative or ill-informed ballots. Thanks in part to an aggressive campaign by CNNSI (see here for one of their pieces, here for a piece by EDSBS, and here for a note about the resolution), the final ballots will stay public. But the whole situation makes it obvious that the coaches will continue pushing to make their ballots as private and opaque as humanly possible, and the next time they push to make their ballots secret again, they may well succeed. There needs to be a real guarantee that not just the final ballots, but ALL ballots are public for the world to see. Until then, there’s zero reason to trust these guys and their voting.

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Ultimately, the BCS suffers from an enormous credibility problem. Even if it can bypass any Congressional action, as long as the public doesn’t have faith in it, it will continue to suffer from protests, and it will continue to be a constant source of controversy. As noted in my first piece, the first step towards creating that faith is to fix the part of it which is understood the least, the computer rankings. The second step is to fix the coaches’ poll. The best way to fix it would be to get rid of it, and replace it with something better (which I’ll get to in a future piece). At the least, though, they need to make the process completely open, force the coaches to do the ballots themselves (or at least directly sign off on them, if they delegate a first draft to someone else), and give them enough time to actually do a decent job of it. Otherwise, the coaches’ poll will continue to be a never-ending source of controversy and criticism.

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