Saturday, December 6, 2008

Life at the Top of the Big 12

The Big 12 football conference holds its championship game today. The game features 5-3 North champion Missouri against 7-1 Oklahoma from the South.

There has been much discussion in the college football world, though, as to whether Oklahoma "should" be the South representative. After all, Texas and Texas Tech are also 7-1.

The Big 12 uses tiebreakers to determine which team goes to the game, and Oklahoma had the edge on tiebreaker b-5: "The highest ranked team in the first Bowl Championship Series Poll following the completion of Big 12 regular season conference play shall be the representative."

First, note that the Big 12 has employed an outside entity* to determine its divisional champion. Second, the use of the 6th tiebreaker implies that these teams must be pretty even.

Indeed the accomplishment's of Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma, inside the Big 12, are remarkably similar. Texas beat Oklahoma; Oklahoma beat Texas Tech; Texas Tech beat Texas. Thus the 1st 3-team tiebreaker solves nothing.

In 4 of the other 6 games, both Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas have victories against Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas A&M.

Texas beat Missouri (5-3) while Oklahoma and Texas Tech both beat Nebraska (5-3) so those victories are of equal value; Texas beat Colorado (2-6) while Oklahoma and Texas Tech both beat Kansas State (2-6) so those victories are of equal value.

Based on these simple facts, the Big 12 has a predicament. Nothing sets any team apart from the other 2 and all meaningful tiebreakers have been exhausted. At this point, it is very difficult to find a fair way to choose a team. But the conference's problem is not one of fairness but of practicality. A game is scheduled and there must be exactly 2 teams to play in it. Fair or not, they need some way to distinctly choose 1 team to play Missouri.

For some reason, they chose BCS standings. The thing about the BCS standings is that it accounts for non-conference games as well as Big 12 games. Without going into detail, the BCS has a human opinion component, which favors Texas by a very slim margin, and a computer component, which favors Oklahoma by a larger margin. Thus the tiebreaker yields Oklahoma and they play today while Texas sits idle.

Almost all commentators that I have seen or read describe this as an injustice to Texas. Life At The Margin disagrees**.

To come to their conclusion, these commentators rely on one piece of data, the Texas win over Oklahoma. But as Bob Stoops correctly points out, that logic runs into an intransitivity problem. That is, if you claim that Texas deserves it over Oklahoma, you must then conclude that Texas Tech deserves it over Texas, and that Oklahoma deserves it over Texas Tech. We must get out of this infinite loop, and they use the BCS.

Many BCS voters seem to agree with the commentators. We think the evidence clearly favors Oklahoma. Quite simply, Oklahoma accomplished more in its non-conference games.

Texas Tech's non-conference schedule is so weak that even Notre Dame would likely beat all 4 teams (Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU, and Massachusetts). Texas beat one mediocre team (Rice) and three bad teams (Arkansas, UTEP, and Florida Atlantic); Oklahoma beat 2 really bad teams (Washington and Chattanooga), but also beat 2 really good teams (Cincinnati and TCU). TCU and Cincinnati are ranked as the 11th and 13th best teams in the country. Victories over those teams clearly set Oklahoma apart.

It is puzzling that voters and commentators ignore this comparison. they seem to ignore quite a few facts in favor of opinions that can be backed up by cherry-picking data points.

Last week, Oklahoma played Oklahoma State. This argument was in full swing even before that game, with most people assuming that Oklahoma would win. Again, those same people were dismissing Texas Tech. The interesting point here is that, since Oklahoma appears to be the nemesis of Texas, an Oklahoma loss should have been good for Texas. After all it would clearly move Texas ahead of Oklahoma. In fact, had that happened (it didn't) the argument would have been clearly resolved. Not in favor of Texas but in favor of Texas Tech. Texas Tech beat Texas head-to-head so an Oklahoma loss would have destroyed any claim that Texas thought it had.

Life At The Margin's national rankings:
1. Utah
2. Alabama (If Alabama beats Florida, Alabama would move to #1, Florida would drop out)
3. Oklahoma
4. Florida (If Florida beats Alabama, Florida would move to #2, Alabama would move to 8 or 9)
5. Penn State
6. USC
7. Texas
8. Boise State
9. Texas Tech

*Life At The Margin finds it distasteful that the Big 12 would allow their championship to be decided in this manner. They should only use criteria from inside the conference, even if it means drawing a name from a hat. The reliance on the BCS standings can create degenerate conditions. For example, in theory the Texas coach could vote (or convince other people to vote) his own team #1 and leave Oklahoma off his ballot in an attempt to influence the outcome. This did not happen, we know, but something like it can happen under this system. Indeed a less extreme version of this did happen last week: While Oklahoma easily defeated a quality team (Oklahoma State) and Texas easily beat a bad team (Texas A&M), Texas actually gained on Oklahoma in the human opinion polls. The only new piece of information clearly favored Oklahoma over Texas yet some voters switched their ranking in favor of Texas.

**Life At The Margin does not have a preference for either Oklahoma or Texas, but does prefer that the team that accomplishes more be rewarded for those accomplishments. We also find the behavior of voters and commentators more interesting than the football argument itself.

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