Does BCS Stand for 'Biased Cranial Stupidity'?

Despite the failure of analytics to determine a collegiate football champion, I love the college football season as much today as I did when I was a kid and Grandpa North was the laundry manager for the Athletics Department at Brigham Young University (BYU).

This was back in the days when players only got new uniforms every few seasons; when the players knew the laundry manager and he knew them -- after all, he was the one who made the uniforms spotless and the helmets shine on crisp autumn Saturday afternoons. Grandpa loved watching and listening to the Cougars, and so I come by my passion for college football honestly. On pleasant fall "away game" afternoons, we’d mow the grass and then perch lawn chairs under the willow tree, munching crackers, sipping Coke, and listening to Paul James call the action on the radio. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost, but we were always building lasting memories. As the 1970s gave way to the '80s, Grandpa retired, but we still kept up with the team, and, by then, the team was getting really good.

In 1984, BYU was the only Division I team in the nation to run through the season undefeated. On the strength of several consecutive successful seasons and an early win over a highly regarded Pitt team, the Cougars climbed high in the rankings, eventually reaching the top spot. After a thrilling victory over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, the Associated Press and other organizations crowned BYU the national champions. Sadly, Grandpa North had made his final run for the end zone in October of 1983, but I’m sure he watched that championship year from a comfy cloud, probably swigging from an icy-cold Coke.

Alas, several major college football programs cried foul! The universities of Washington, Nebraska, and Florida had only one loss each. They had much more storied programs, they played tougher schedules, and had they been given a crack at the Cougars -- surely they’d have beaten this lowly team from Utah. Something had to be done.

There was talk of creating a playoff, but this would threaten the relevance (and even the very existence) of bowl games -- games that were becoming increasingly lucrative. After several years, those who stood to gain the most by protecting the bowls eventually created the Bowl Coalition, then the Bowl Alliance, and finally, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which is the system we’re using until 2014. Not surprisingly, through each of these iterations, analytics served an increasingly focal role in determining which team would eventually play for a chance to be named the best. Ultimately, none of these systems have survived because they have failed to yield acceptable results, regardless of what the BCS’ own biased website says.

Respected sports author Dan Wetzel has penned numerous articles and an excellent book detailing the shortcomings of using analytics, especially hopelessly flawed (even stupid?) analytics, to determine a champion. For example, the computer rankings have been criticized in one specific instance for erroneous data entry, and have consistently been scrutinized for a lack of openness.

In another head-scratcher, one computer ranked Arizona Western, a two-year junior college, as the 30th best team in the nation at one point last year. (They were good, but the Matadors still suffered one loss at the end of an all-junior-college slate of opponents, so a computer ranking ahead of the likes of Ohio State and Florida State was probably reflective of a flawed data model.) Even this year, Florida is ranked five hundredths of a percent higher than Alabama by the BCS computers, but the Gators never have a chance to prove their championship worthiness on the field.

Based on such examples, Wetzel quotes noted University of California-Irvine statistician Hal Stern in one of his articles: “I am advocating a boycott of the Bowl Championship Series by all quantitative analysts.”

That’s how bad the BCS’ analytics are. In 2014, the BCS will be the latest system to end as it yields to a four-team playoff system. Most experts remain leery of this system because the BCS brain trust designed it to still protect lucrative bowl games, and because the selected teams will still largely be determined by suspect analytics.

No so-called mid-major team since the ’84 BYU Cougars has achieved a national championship. Are there some problems in the world that analytics just can’t solve? Will we one day just settle it on the field?

Matthew North, Associate Professor of Computing & Information Studies, Washington & Jefferson College

Dr. Matthew North is associate professor of Computing and Information Studies at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. He has taught data management and data mining for more than a decade and previously worked in industry as a data miner, most recently at He continues to consult with various organizations on data mining projects as well. Dr. North holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Latin American History and Portuguese from Brigham Young University; a Master of Science in Business Information Systems from Utah State University; and a Doctorate in Technology Education from West Virginia University. In addition to Data Mining for the Masses, published in August 2012, he is the author of Life Lessons & Leadership (Agami Press, 2011), and numerous papers and articles on technology and pedagogy. His dissertation, on the topic of teaching models and learning styles in introductory data mining courses, earned him a New Faculty Fellows award from the Center for Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education; and in 2010, he was awarded the Ben Bauman Award for Excellence by the International Association for Computer Information Systems. He lives with his wife, Joanne, and their three daughters in southwestern Pennsylvania.

'Tis the Season of Timely Shipping

Thank analytics for the later and later shipping deadlines you see for online Christmas purchases.

Does BCS Stand for 'Biased Cranial Stupidity'?

The analytics used in pitting one collegiate team against another in post-season bowl games leaves a lot to be desired.

Re: Stupidity is a matter of perspective
  • 12/8/2012 10:21:56 PM

I feel the same way about naming rights on professional sports venues.  Is that really worth it?  I have to say no.  Even if the analysis say it's worth it, I have to question it.  But I suppose nobody wants to lose money for ever.  If the bowls end up not being worth money in long run, they'll shut them down.  But with universities having to guarantee a certain number of ticket sales in order to accept an invite, that probably won't happen any time soon.  The whole system is rigged.

Re: Stupidity is a matter of perspective
  • 12/8/2012 11:12:14 AM

@mnorth, you're right. As long as some corporation is willing to sponsor these craptastic bowls, then they will be held. My question is: Why would any company want their name associated with these junk games? No one cares to even attend, and the ratings can't all be that good. Seems like a big wasted marketing budget to me!

Re: Stupidity is a matter of perspective
  • 12/7/2012 10:43:03 PM

@Broadway: you raise a good point.  Last year, I decided that I was going to watch every single bowl game.  I wasn't able to watch each one in its entirety, but DVR is a wonderful thing and made it possible for me to watch a significant portion of every game without wasting a lot of time on commercials, talking heads, or even delays between plays.  You might think that is an indication that I'm slightly disturbed, and you'd probably be right. ;-)

Especially with the early bowl games -- the R+L Carriers Bowl, Gildan New Mexico, Beef O'Brady's, etc., I was amazed at the seas of empty seats I could see in the stadiums.  Even in the later bowls where more fans turned out for the games, it bothered me that because both teams entered the game with 6-6 records, one would end their season with a losing record.  In the case of UCLA last year, they had to get an exception just to get into a bowl, only to end up losing and finishing 6-8 -- ridiculous.  Georgia Tech could suffer the same fate this year.

But it comes back to the money -- if there are sponsors for the games, ad spots to be sold, and yes, wagers to be made in Vegas, then the game(s) must go on!

Re: Stupidity is a matter of perspective
  • 12/7/2012 10:30:40 PM

What amazes me about the whole bowl process is that there are so many of them. It's to the point now where teams that are nearly 500 teams are able to make it to a game, and a sponsor is willing to put their name on the game. Yet who is watching those games? No one. It's all for the betters and Vegas.

Re: Stupidity is a matter of perspective
  • 12/7/2012 3:34:26 PM

@Callmebob:  Excellent article.  The dollar figures are nothing short of mind-boggling, but I suppose those in the business know what they can sell the games for.  With those kinds of dollars flying around, one of my favorite BCS critics, Pat Forde, will have plenty of fodder for years to come.

Stupidity is a matter of perspective
  • 12/7/2012 1:35:35 PM

Ah, yes we are now entering the annual BCS is idiotic season. Setting analytics aside and arranging the Bowel Game teams according to some convoluted and mysterious algorithmic selection process. The underlying reason is the BCS governing body and its members have a vested interest it keeping things the way they are. And what might that interest be? Perhaps the ultimate sports authority, ESPN, can give us some clue.

Re: How 'bout that Orange Bowl match-up?
  • 12/6/2012 11:26:38 AM

GREAT video Beth.  I think it underscores my main points very well.  A couple of quotes from the video that I liked:

"I can't even believe we're having this discussion."

My reaction: Why not?  It's been this way every year since BYU's national championship upset the apple cart way back in '84.  You use a broken system, you end up with broken match ups!

"They (meaning NIU) went from 23rd to 12th in one of the computer rankings."

If that's not a red flag for a broken data model then I'm not sure what is.  And yet very rich, very powerful individuals have been relying on these very models for years now, and even defending them!  

The new "playoff" system coming in 2014 will not solve this year's dilemma.  It will still use polls and computer models (and the analytics behind them) to determine the *four* teams that make the playoffs.  Right off the top of his head, Herbstriet named four teams that he thought were deserving of playoff spots (aside from Alabama and Notre Dame that already have the two tops spots this year), so at least two of those in future years will still be left crying foul!

Most sane sports writers have called for a 16 team playoff, and with that, you'd probably be fine this year.  NIU would get in at #16, and would probably end up eliminated in their first or second game, but at least it would be settled on the field.  Until the powers that be admit that, the fun will continue.

I for one am glad to see NIU in the Orange bowl, and will offer hope for the Huskies despite long odds against Florida State.  I love the t-shirt.


Huskie Pride
  • 12/6/2012 9:50:55 AM

Matt, BCS's screwy analytics does make for some fun apparel, like this t-shirt from Smack Apparel, which refers to ESPN analyst who took issue with NIU's Orange Bowl berth (see my other comment for him on video): Smart Apparel Huskie Pride T-Shirt

How 'bout that Orange Bowl match-up?
  • 12/6/2012 9:42:40 AM

Matt, there's certainly a lot of BCS bashing around this year's Orange Bowl, in which the NIU Huskies (huh?!) will play against Florida State. Being from Illinois myself, I know NIU stands for Northern Illinois University -- but lots outside the state probably find this a real head scratcher. I know many sports analysts sure do; just listen to ESPN commentary (starting at about the 1:15 mark in the video below). But let's let the Huskies have their pride -- it's the first team form the Mid-American Conference to earn a spot in a prestigious bowl game. The analytics may be faulty, true enough, but the players themselves had nothing to do with that!