20.11.17

ARE YOU SURE THE OLD BOWLS WERE INCONCLUSIVE?

Slate's Ben Mathis-Liley doesn't like the football conference divisions and the algorithm-driven national championship.  "College football divisions dilute traditional rivalries and reward weak schedules."  To him, it's an outrage that Wisconsin's Badgers have an opportunity to win their way into the final four.
Michigan has not itself beaten a team with a winning record and got blown out by approximately 400 points in its only game against an elite competitor this year.

Michigan, the most formidable of the 12 regular-season opponents faced by an ostensible title contender, is an above-average Big Ten team, but seemingly not much more than that; it will probably end up in a second-tier bowl game sponsored by an appetizer-oriented restaurant chain. But if the Badgers beat the Wolverines and defeat mediocre Minnesota the following weekend, they will enter the Big Ten title game, likely against Ohio State, with an undefeated record despite not having played anyone who’s any good. If Ohio State beats Wisconsin, there’s no guarantee it will make the playoff; having faced a tough schedule, OSU has a number of impressive wins but also two losses. But if Wisconsin wins, it will almost certainly be chosen for the four-team playoff despite playing a schedule that’s bereft of decent competition.
The divisional arrangement benefits Wisconsin this year, but that might not be the case if Nebraska or Iowa can restore normal operations, or if Minnesota and Northwestern get their rebuilding done.
The Big Ten West, like the Big Ten East, has seven teams, meaning the Big Ten as a whole is made up of 14 universities. (Please trust that you are not the first person to recognize that this is deeply stupid.) The West is currently weaker than the East because of both random fluctuation (Michigan State is on an upswing while Nebraska is cratering) and geographical circumstance (the traditional powerhouse East teams in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have denser local populations to draw talent from than West squads like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota). Each Big Ten team plays the other six teams in its division every year, but only three of the seven teams from the opposite division. This year, that arrangement has allowed the Badgers to dodge tough matchups against the Big Ten’s three highest-ranked non-Wisconsin teams: No. 9 Ohio State, No. 10 Penn State, and No. 17 Michigan State. Meanwhile, they’ve played all five Big Ten teams that will go into this weekend with conference records of 2-5 or worse.
I sometimes suspect that all this conference realignment is a way for four power conferences of sixteen teams each to bypass March Madness and be done with Davidson and George Mason and Marquette and the like for once and for all.

For now, let's stick to football.
Before the Bowl Championship Series and now the four-team playoff, we could very easily identify the best teams in the South and the Midwest and the Far West, because they all played each other. It was much more difficult to figure out the best team in the country. Now, it’s somehow easier to identify the best team in the country—it’s hard to fake your way through a four-team playoff—than it is to identify the best team in each region. We have no idea if Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten, because Wisconsin hasn’t played any of the other good teams in the Big Ten. This is an odd state of affairs.
No matter how you narrow the field, you're going to have this problem. But it's easier to argue the merits of say, Wisconsin beating UCLA in the Rose Bowl as a better claim to a title than whoever was playing for bragging rights in the Old Confederacy in the Orange Bowl, when there are no meaningful head-to-head records, then when you're griping about algorithms.

That the conferences are different sizes affects the ability of conference contenders to schedule cupcakes, too.
Wisconsin has done this egregiously, and its nonconference schedule this year was characteristically uninspiring: Utah State, Florida Atlantic University, and BYU, none a consistent top 25 program. If you’re going to ask national pundits and fans for RESPECT, your best nonconference opponent can’t be the FAU Owls. (For what it’s worth, nonconference schedules have generally been improving now that the four-team playoff allows more one-loss, and maybe sometimes two-loss, teams to have a shot at a national title.)
These schedules get set many years in advance, although the power teams sometimes chicken out (hence the occasional early bye in a Northern Illinois schedule, that even before this year's win in Lincoln).  But the Wisconsin sports broadcasters complain that in a fourteen-team B1G, teams play more conference games than, for example, the Southeastern Conference teams do, which gives Alabama, Auburn, and Louisiana State more opportunities to eat cupcakes in September.

It all makes a case for returning to the days of traditional bowls, and leaving the matter of a "national champion" as something to argue about over a few beers, or, these days, on social media.

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