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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bowl Update #3

Computer v. the Experts v. the Sports Proletariat
Popular consensus has been much revered these past ten years, popularized by Smart Mobs and The Wisdom of the Crowds.  It has even spilled over into our political discussions, bipartisanship being the resulting much sought holy grail. The idea is that you'll get a pretty accurate prediction or estimate on something if you just let a whole lot of people vote on it.  The same principle has been popularly applied to market theory (hey, they can't all be wrong, can they?)  I've always felt the concept was a lot of mush, nothing more than popular anti-elitist esteem building to push back against disciplined statistical analysis.  

College football, of course, has been way ahead of the curve, basing the process of selecting its national champions on polls. But there are polls and there are polls. There's the USA Today Coaches Poll, the AP Sportswriters poll and the various computer polls.  The results of the first two are suspect, as I pointed out in a previous post, subject to regional bias.  Are the computer polls any better?  Inquiring minds want to know.

I thought I'd do a quick check, picking the well-regarding Sagarin poll and comparing its bowl predictions to the AP, USA Today and point spreads (which are determined largely by the betting public).  Given that the computer poll can sometimes produce some eye-popping, seemingly preposterous conclusions (e.g. Stanford is rated #1 in Sagarin's "predictor" analysis), the results are enlightening.

On my sampling of a dozen bowls involving major conferences, the AP and Coaches poll both collected 7-5 records, wrongly picking winners in the same games: South Carolina, Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska and West Virginia.  Sagarin's computer poll and the point spread odds both went 9-3, correctly picking Florida State over South Carolina and Alabama over Michigan State (the latter is the poster child of how ridiculously biased the polls can be).

Based on this sampling, the computer bettered the "experts."  But so did the point spreads, determined as they are by the unwashed masses.  There's going to be separation in the next two major bowls, however.  The AP poll, USA Today poll and the mob all pick Auburn over Oregon and LSU over Texas A&M.  The computer has LSU and Texas A&M in a dead heat.  But only the computer picks Oregon.  We shall see...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bowl Update #2

Big Ten Carnage
Big Ten football is in the news, but not in the way they would prefer.  I just finished reading an ESPN interview of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. Among his comments about the Big 10's New Year's Day of losses are these bon mots:

I’ve always sought out ...the best competition.  [Y]ou test yourself against the best and you get measured. If you want to be .500 or if you want to win 70 percent of your games, you can schedule that. A lot of people do in September. What it really comes down to is how you play big games against great opponents...

Oh, really?

I did a bit of research into scheduling, comparing the Big Ten with the PAC 10 (Unfortunately, I don't have the time to crunch numbers on the other major conferences).  The results are revealing. They may help explain the Big Ten's Bowl difficulties.

First, let's look at regular season non-conference games against BCS conference teams or other (typically) good teams (such as Notre Dame, Boise State and TCU). It doesn't necessarily mean you played a quality team, since schedules are often formulated years in advance.  But it gives you an idea of the two conference's relative level of confidence on the national stage.

# of Quality Non-Conference Games
Average Per Team
Big Ten
PAC 10

Keeping in mind that the PAC 10 plays three non-conference games, that means just one is a "sure thing." The Big Ten typically schedules about three such gimmes.

Now let's turn to the number of home games.  It's a given that the home advantage is a huge factor in college football success.

Average # Home Games Per Team
Big Ten
PAC 10

So, do this little mind experiment: change a Big Ten home game to an away game.  Take away one of their patsy non-conference games and add a game versus a BCS conference.  Take away another patsy non-conference game and replace it with a league game (matching the PAC 10's full schedule). I would think its pretty safe to say that you're going to add an average of one loss per team. At least. What would you suppose that would do to their relative regard nationally?

So let's get back to Big Ten Commissioner Delany.  He contends that the Big Ten had a difficult time because they were underdogs in so many bowl contests.  But according to BCS rankings, they're not. Unless you accept the fact that the Big Ten gets undeserved ratings boosts.  You can't have it both ways.

A final observation:  the only teams from the Big Ten that did not make it to a bowl are those that couldn't win more than two conference games.  Two!

Wisconsin v. TCU
This was a thoroughly entertaining game.  In a classic match up of Wisconsin's brawn v. TCU's speed, TCU proved itself tough enough.  What was notable - and admirable - was Wisconsin's final drive for the potential tie.  I could just imagine the boys getting together before that possession saying, "this is it, our season rests on us getting to the end zone before the clock runs out."  Despite failing on the two point conversion, it was most impressive. Nicely done Badgers.

Stanford v. Virginia Tech
I think I'm going to avoid predictions in the future because it takes the fun out of watching games in which I want the other team to win.  But I already stuck my neck out on the Big Ten, and have been mostly right.  In tonight's Orange Bowl, I'm still thinking that Stanford is going to light it up offensively.  The only question is how well Stanford can contain Tech's QB.

I've never seen so many games in which the replay booth overturned ball possession calls without the requisite "incontrovertible visual evidence."  Toledo got jobbed by such a call.  So did Missouri.  So did a number of other teams.  I can't help feeling that any replay can isolate one frame that seems to show the ball touching the ground. But, taken in toto, ball possession/control is plainly demonstrated.  Please get rid of the instant replay and just play the game.