Monday, December 05, 2005

Inside the Coaches Poll | by Jeff

Amid all of the inanity involved in the BCS process, the Coaches Poll has to be the most problematic piece of the structural puzzle. The coaches have a personal, vested interest in the results of the BCS, which can have a huge impact on their careers, as well as the careers of their friends and associates. In addition, a BCS appearance can have a multi-million dollar impact on a coach's school and its conference.

For the Harris pollsters, any effort to rig the ballot is of tangential value; the coaches, however, can directly benefit from their own gamesmanship. It's a wonder that anyone believes a Coaches poll would result in an unbiased ranking of college football teams.

With USA Today releasing the voting breakdown of the coaches poll, we finally get the opportunity to evaluate the numerous biases inherent in the poll.

Conference Bias

On average, each coach rates every team in his own conference about one position higher than the rest of the voters. While this might be somewhat expected, it is not an objective way to determine a national champion, and certainly not an fair way to distribute the 4+ million dollars a conference will receive from an additional BCS bid.

Ranking Boost by Conference Voters
Big East +1.5
ACC +1.2
Big Ten +1.1
SEC +1.1
PAC 10 +0.9
CUSA +0.9
WAC +0.3
Big 12 +0.3
Independent * -2.2

* One note on the independents: Charlie Weis voted the Irish at #4 while the only other independent coach, Bobby Wallace of Temple, voted the Irish #13. This accounts for the -2.2 among independent schools voting.

Self Gratification

As conflicted as supporting a team from your own conference might be, the poll also allows coaches to vote on their own team. On average, a coach placed his own team 1.7 spots higher than the rest of the voters. Only seven of twenty-two coaches placed his team within one spot of their final ranking, with Bobby Bowden the only coach to drop his own team down a meaningful amount. The five coaches that likely twisted an arm while patting themselves on the back are:

Coach, School "Bump"
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina +4.67
Randy Walker, Northwestern +4.61
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma +4.27
Tommy Tuberville, Auburn +3.59
Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin +3.56

S.O.S. - Save Our Schedule

Actually competing against a team during the season also appears to have a positive impact on a ranking. In general, coaches ranked a team .7 positions higher if they actaully played the team during the regular season.

Excluding conference games, this increase drops to half a spot, but is still significant. Eleven teams got a boost of one place in the polls or more from their non-conference foes (see table), and only two teams (Clemson and Miami) suffered more than a one position drop.

Boost from Non-Conf Opponent Voters
LSU +2.83
West Virginia +2.63
Northwestern +2.61
Louisville +2.56
Boston College +2.11
UCLA +1.93
Auburn +1.59
Oregon +1.56
Virginia Tech +1.09
Boise State +1.08
Ohio State +1.01

Bubble Bias

The most crucial result of the Coaches Poll has to do with the teams on the 'bubble' of a BCS appareance, as an inclusion (or exclusion) results in a swing of millions of dollars for the team and its conference. As you might expect, the results for teams on the bubble for inclusion in the BCS are quite peculiar. Not only do you see coaches inflating the rankings of teams in their own conferences, but you also see the coaches penalizing teams competing for the same BCS spot.
    • Isn't it a little odd that eight out of twelve SEC and PAC-10 coaches had Notre Dame ranked 8th or worse? The actual rankings from the SEC and PAC-10 voters were 5th (twice), 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th x4, 10th, 12th and 14th.

    • How about the fact that over half the coaches had Ohio State at 4th, but 8 of the 12 SEC and PAC 10 coaches ranked them worse?

    • And what about Oregon? Half of the coaches that ranked them 8th or worse were from the Big Ten and SEC, and 8 of the 13 that ranked them 7th or worse were from these two conferences.

    • Auburn, the team furthest from the bubble, fared much better. Only four of the 21 rankings of 9th or worse came from the Big Ten or PAC 10. However, they were the biggest benefactor of inflation as their lone third place vote came from the SEC, as did two of their three fourth place votes (the other being from an in-state team, Troy). Auburn effectively became a pawn, as coaches inserted the Tigers into the rankings above teams they wished to downgrade.

    Voter's Conference

    Big Ten PAC 10 SEC
    Ohio State +0.87 +0.42 -0.56
    Oregon -1.22 +1.47 -0.51
    Notre Dame +0.48 -2.67 -1.95
    Auburn +0.45 +0.20 +2.31

    While every coach of a bubble team placed his own team at the top of the bubble list, I was most impressed with Coach Weis for placing the Irish, Ohio State, Oregon, and Auburn at 4-5-6-7 in the rankings, the only coach of the four to place the four teams in sequence. Belotti and Tuberville dropped the Irish to #9 behind Georgia & Miami, and Tressel did the same to Oregon. Perhaps Charlie fell victim to the old "you vote for me and I'll vote for you" scam that I used to become class president of the third grade.

    Bellotti Tressel Tuberville Weis
    Ohio State +0.02 +1.02 +0.02 +0.02
    Oregon +2.06 -2.94 +0.06 +0.06
    Notre Dame -2.66 +1.34 -2.66 +2.34
    Auburn +1.60 +1.60 +3.60 +0.60


    It comes as no surprise that the Coaches Poll is fraught with bias. However, since this is the first year we actually get to see the results, it's still somewhat shocking to see such blatant gamesmanship laid bare. The supposed advantage of the BCS polls, and the Coaches poll in particular, is that you have a body of "football experts" who are ranking the teams; their vast experience and acumen is supposed to lend the poll unquestioned authenticity.

    Unfortunately, with so much money at stake, with careers hanging in the balance, and with so much rampant conflict of interest, the Coaches Poll is anything but authentic and honestly considered. Perhaps by revealing the votes this year, egregious voters will check themselves a bit next year, but considering what's at stake (and the absence of censure), I tend to doubt it. As long as it's included in the calculus, the Coaches Poll will remain the most problematic component of the BCS.