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Friday, December 17, 2010

One Win Away: The Perfect Compromise between Tournament and BCS

Should we BCS or should we Tournament? That is the question.

Beyond the Senator, the Presidents of universities and one large country, the billionaire NBA owner, the anti-trust lawsuit, the books and articles, what we really have are two competing logics. The debate is heated precisely because both sides are (mostly) right.

The BCS Supporters are Right
Tournaments, especially large tournaments, make the regular season less important. Look at it this way: when the selection show ends, the typical team in college basketball's NCAA tournament has a 1.6% chance of winning a national championship; the best team has a 20-25% chance. This means that, over the course of the tournament, the best team (if it wins) improves its chances from 25% to 100% over six games, an average of 15% per game. That best team entered the season with a 15% chance of winning the national championship based on talent alone. Over the course of a 30 game regular season it improves its chances by 10%, or about .33% per game. (With a tournament invite almost guaranteed, its chances improve as it earns a better seed). A typical team improves its chances from, say, .1% to 1.6% over 30 games, or .05% per game. I don’t think many coaches are going to motivate their guys by emphasizing that today they can win 1/300th, or 1/2000th, of a national championship. And the fans don’t get that excited about it either. They wait until March, when the games are 45 times (for the best team) or several thousand times (for a typical team) more important.*

And college basketball is not the worst case of meaningless regular season games. The best pro baseball teams have a 35% chance of taking home a World Series ring when the playoffs start and a 10% chance at the beginning of the season. That means each game, even for the best team, is worth about 1/663rd of a World Series title – and the most important thing they do in each regular season game is avoid season-ending injury. NBA regular season games are worth 1/280th of a world championship for the best team, and the best NFL team looks to earn 1/92nd of a Super Bowl in each regular season game.

In college football, the best team can earn 2.5% or 1/40th of a national championship per regular season game on average. Even if other leagues only played 12 regular season games, college football would still have the most important games. Literally, every game counts.

93-81 does not a champion make
Unimportant regular season games are a problem for a couple reasons. First, fans and players don’t care as much. Second, and more pertinent to this discussion, the championship poorly reflects a team's performance over the course of the season. That, to me, is a serious problem. The '87 Twins were actually outscored in their run to an 85-77 regular season record. They would have finished 5th in the AL East, but they won their pennant and the World Series. The definition of a champion is subjective, but if you are happy putting a ring on the '87 Twins because they won 8 of 12 games after being significantly outplayed by several teams over a 162 game season, you're crazy. I support Cinderellas, but a real Cinderella goes to work from day one, not moments before midnight.

Tournament Supporters are Right
With a 64, or 65, or 68 team tournament, everyone has a shot at winning the national championship. That regular season game may only be worth 1/2000th of a national championship, but for Auburn and Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006 and 2009, and TCU this year, every regular season game was worthless. I would rather crown the '87 Twins than completely dismiss half of a league from consideration.

This is not a touchdown
I was there when Kellen Moore led Boise State for a last minute score and win against Virginia Tech. Boise fans felt like they were a step closer to a national championship. I was not there when Brotzman missed a couple of field goals against Nevada, but I’m sure Boise fans felt like their national title hopes took a huge step back. In reality, the two games had the same effect on Boise State’s claim on a national championship: no effect whatsoever. As far as the race for the national championship is concerned, it never happened. An undefeated Boise team would have been passed over for a spot in the title game just the same as a two loss Boise team.

So, the solution is not as simple as a single national championship game or a tournament. You can leave out the ’04 Auburns and '08 Utahs, or you can crown the ’87 Twins, ’09 Fresno States, '85 Villanovas and ’95 Rockets.Good news? I have found a way to screen out the '87 Twins while letting in the '04 Auburns.

The One Win Away Approach 
Tournament logic asserts that because team A beat team B in a tournament game, team A is a more deserving champion. But that logic ignores a season of previous results. Georgetown beat Villanova twice during the season. A few days before the NCAA tournament, Georgetown won the Big East tournament and Villanova was eliminated in the semi-finals. Villanova (25-10), Georgetown (35-3); Georgetown won 2 of 3 head-to-head matchups. Villanova wasn't the better team and it didn't have the better season, but Villanova was two points better than Georgetown for 48 minutes (.042 points/minute), so they are your national champs.

In the One Win Away approach, Villanova isn't invited to dance. An invitation is offered, instead, only to those teams that are One Win Away. One Win Away generally means that if team B beat team A, we would then say that team B had the better season. Using the One Win Away Approach, we start by inviting the #1 team in the country. We then invite only those teams that, if they were to beat the #1 team, could then claim to have had a stronger season then the team they just beat**. In a typical college football season, you would have between 3 and 6 teams that meet that criterion. We would also invite any undefeated teams. The invitees would then be organized in an 8 team tournament. If there are fewer than 8 teams with invitations, the top seeds get byes.

By inviting only One Win Away teams to our tournament, it logically follows that the team that wins the tournament is also the team that has had the strongest overall season. It is, therefore, the perfect compromise.

What would a One Win Away tournament look like? In 2004, USC, Oklahoma and Auburn would be the top 3 seeds. California, Utah and Texas would also get an invite. Louisville would probably be left to watch from the comfort of their own homes, already having 1 loss and a significantly weaker schedule than the top teams. USC and Oklahoma would get byes, Auburn would play Texas and California would play Utah. The winners would get Oklahoma and USC, respectively, in the semi-finals.

Why it works: Every team in the country has a shot. We get a tournament, and the winner of the tournament will also be the team that has had the most complete season-when team A beats team B, that really does mean it is the more deserving champion. This would make the regular season slightly less important for those two teams that control their own destiny, but it would be infinitely more important for everyone else - overall, regular season college football games would be more, not less, influential in awarding the national championship.

Why it might not work: We need some way of finding the “One Win Away” teams. This is relatively easy to find using the BPR, but rankings are, inherently, somewhat subjective – especially rankings that must account for hypothetical wins. Also, the “One Win Away” approach requires a flexible postseason which makes planning and marketing much more difficult. A lot of rich and powerful people are deeply invested financially, emotionally, and intellectual in the existing system.

The "One Win Away" approach is, at least logically, the perfect compromise between a single national championship game and a tournament. Unfortunately, I have never known the sports world to be motivated by logic.

* These are, admittedly, back of the envelope calculations, but the logic is sound and the estimates lean towards the conservative.
** This does not mean they would, themselves, become the #1 team in the country, but they would, at least, be One Win Away from the new #1.


Roy said...

The "almost" perfect compromise is terrific, and I'm very much behind this idea myself ... however:

1) This year we have 3 undefeated teams and 6 with one loss ...

2) It would seem clear by looking at most computer rankings that among the best 8 teams in the nation are two-loss teams such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and LSU ...

leading one to conclude, 3) In this eight-team bracket for this year, who gets left out?

Scott Albrecht said...

You're right, its a little tricky this year.
Here's what I have:
1 Auburn
2 Oregon
3 Stanford*
4 TCU*
*You can switch Stanford and TCU if you want

I would feel justified leaving everyone else out - if Wisconsin or Ohio State or Michigan State or Nevada or Boise beat Auburn, Auburn should still be ranked ahead because they would both have one loss and Auburn has faced a much tougher schedule. Those teams are more than One Win Away. And if you let one of the Big 10 teams in, you would have to take them all, and Nevada and Boise. The two-loss teams are definitely out.

Roy said...

Shoot, so much for that draft! Let me try this again ...
So, you know that it's dang near impossible to make all of the people happy all of the time. The first of which is going to be Gordon Gee, when he sees that there are two Pac-10 teams and no Ohio State! "We don't have a single patsy FCS team on our entire schedule, unlike those other four that are already in!" At which point, Boise State's president might say, "The same parameter applies to us, AND our lone loss came on the road, to another one-loss team, in OVERTIME by three measly points! Not double digits like you and your Big Ten brethren!" And then even the Sooner brass might chime in by saying, "Hey! We had to play an entire other game that wasn't even on our original schedule! We should get a little more leeway about getting into this tournament!"

Anyway, other than the teams that are in this tournament, everyone else can still go about making "bowl" plans, and we still allow some 30 or so teams to finish off the year on a winning note, right!?! Because I notice that on one example that you said Louisville could still watch from the comfort of their own homes, but I say, "Must they?" Can't they still enjoy going to the Liberty Bowl or Peach Bowl or what have you?

Scott Albrecht said...

Bowl it up! College football's NIT.

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