Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bowl Meritocracy!

I hinted at it a few weeks ago, so here comes a long post.

It is no surprise that I don't like the current system of selecting a champion in college football. I dislike the subjectivity of polls. I don't like the way teams are never in control of their own destinies. I dislike how a team can win every single game and not win a championship. I prefer objectivity.

Over the last few weeks a debate has arisen around college football blogs over whether there should be a playoff instead of the BCS. I hate the current system, but I still am not sure if I think I'd prefer a playoff. See, it'd still have some level of subjectivity involved in selecting the teams to compete in the playoff. Maybe it'd be better than the BCS, but it still wouldn't be perfect. And regardless, the current system isn't going anywhere. There are contracts in place that will be honored through the next decade. The NCAA and university presidents appreciate how the bowls provide them a useful excuse to lie about how they care about the athletes' academics in the face of the massive checks they cash from bowl sponsors. Simply said, the bowls ain't going anywhere.

So is there a way to make the bowl system fairer, more objective, even simpler? Yes, I say.

I'm not arguing that there are too many bowls. Well, there might be, but I don't think it matters all that much. I do think that bowls are too cheap to put on, though. 14 of the bowls, nearly half, have the minimum payout - $750,000. Three were added this year at the minimum, and (I think) at least 10 at the minimum in the last decade. The evidence suggests, to me at least, that these bowls are making money - lots of money. That's why Toronto, Birmingham and Albuquerque got in on the action. ESPN or other networks pay probably at least that in fees per bowl - and they get between 6 and 8 hours (or more) of TV airtime. ESPN shows each game twice, and if it's a classic, they might get more viewings on ESPN Classic. For each game, ESPN probably gets a half hour to an hour of commercial time. Split all that up, and ESPN is making money. Now, add in whatever other functions the bowl puts on and gets sponsors for (parades, luncheons, etc.). The cities, even at lesser bowls, make a lot of money from visitors. Everyone wins with bowls. Except the teams, in a way. My question is this - for all the money the bowl committees and cities make on bowls, why is it that the teams make the minimum (and few lower tier bowls have increased payouts over the last decade)?

I say the reason is competition. Automatic tie-ins to conferences and multiyear contracts that are negotiated every 5-10 years give no incentive for bowls to work harder. The Emerald Bowl could work their ass off, find a better stadium, up their payouts, put on a great show for the teams, but they'll still be stuck with the 7th place ACC team that doesn't want to trek all the way across the country.

So my suggestion: get rid of all tie-ins. All of them. Get rid of the BCS rules. Get rid of everything regarding bowl tie ins.

Here's how you do it.

Step one: take all the bowls and list them in order of bowl payouts. Start with the biggest payout, and order it down to the lowest.
Step two: slot teams according to their position in the purely objective rankings based on won-loss, schedule strength and head-to-head wins, the Lebowski Rankings on this website. #1 and #2 play in the biggest payout bowl, #3 and #4 play in the next, all the way down. Exception - if two teams paired up after slotting have already played during the season or are in the same conference, you skip one and pick up the next.

Result: the teams with the best seasons (maybe not the "best" in someone's particular opinion, but teams which have played best) end up in better bowls. Another result is that bowls can end up with better teams if they want to - they just need to pay. Each year, the payout scale might change. If the Holiday Bowl committee thinks they can afford upping the payout to jump ahead of the Chick-Fil-A and Outback bowls, they can go for it. #1 always plays #2, and #3 always plays #4. In fact, all the matchups would be between teams that had pretty comparable seasons. No The teams that get screwed in the new system are the mediocre to bad teams in major conferences - but so what? I'd much rather screw a 6-6 team in a big conference than a 10-2 team in a smaller conference.

So how would it work in practice? Would my system provide for better matchups for the bowls, or the teams?

Let's go Bowl by Bowl, starting with the cheapest. Oh, and one other thing. When I ranked the bowls, and the payouts were the same, I placed the bowl closer to January 1 in the slot with higher priority.

32. Poinsettia Bowl - $750,000
Actual matchup: Northern Illinois vs. TCU
New matchup: Florida State vs. Pittsburgh
Analysis: Bigger names, though perhaps lesser quality for the new matchup. Pitt is the last team in under the new system, and they didn't get a bid under the current system. I think more people would watch the new matchup. Plus, I don't think it'd be a two-touchdown spread. On totality, I think the new matchup would be better.

31. Las Vegas Bowl - $750,000
Actual matchup: Oregon vs. BYU
New Matchup: Iowa vs. Oklahoma State
Analysis: Neither matchups is terrible, though BYU is a better team than the rest (and should probably be going to a better bowl). If any bowl should be ponying up more money, it's the Las Vegas Bowl, so under this kind of system, I'd expect a quick raise for payouts. The new matchup has two teams that should travel well, and I'd bet the city would prefer fans that gamble and fornicate and such. Probably about the same for matchups, but the system this bowl would be big fans of.

30. New Orleans Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Troy vs. Rice
New Matchup: Minnesota vs. Washington State
Analysis: Bigger programs, and probably better teams. Washington State is another team that simply should've been included in a bowl ahead of some others. Better matchup, more interest, better bowl.

29. Papa John's Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: ECU vs. South Florida
New Matchup: NIU vs. Arizona
Analysis: Birmingham probably would prefer the actual matchup, since geographically the actual teams might be more likely to travel. However, Arizona is the best team in the country according to the Lebowski Rankings that did not get invited to a bowl. Arizona deserved a bid somewhere. I'll call it a wash.

28. New Mexico Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: New Mexico vs. San Jose State
New Matchup: MTSU vs. ECU
Analysis: Since it seems like the New Mexico bowl was tailor made for New Mexico, this is not as good a matchup.

27. Armed Forces Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Utah vs. Tulsa
New Matchup: Utah vs. Troy
Analysis: Not too different. Troy deserves some credit for winning its conference, so a slightly better bowl than New Orleans is deserved. Tulsa ends up better. Geographically, the bowl might prefer Tulsa to Troy, but Tulsa has one of the smallest fan bases in the country. Wash.

26. Hawaii Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Hawaii vs. Arizona State
New Matchup: Kansas State vs. Rice
Analysis: Worse for the bowl, since the 10-win home team is gone. But Hawaii should've been going to a better bowl. The new matchup isn't all that bad though. This Bowl is one of the most expensive to attend for bowls, so increased payouts would be extremely important.

25. GMAC Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Southern Miss vs. Ohio
New Matchup: Cincinnati vs. Texas Tech
Analysis: Southern Miss was a semi-local draw, so that's a drawback. But Texas Tech is a bigger name. The new matchup teams are both pretty good, so it'd be a decent matchup under the new system.

24. Motor City Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Central Michigan vs. MTSU
New Matchup: Kentucky vs. Arizona State
Analysis: Another local draw gone, but two big conference, large fanbase teams head to Detroit. The new matchup would be a pretty exciting matchup too. I think this change would be beneficial to this bowl.

23. Emerald Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: FSU vs. UCLA
New Matchup: South Carolina vs. UCLA
Analysis: Not too different. FSU's season was more deserving of a worse bowl than this (and this isn't that great a bowl). I'd argue that this game is better than the actual matchup.

22. International Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Western Michigan vs. Cincinnati
New Matchup: Southern Miss vs. Oregon
Analysis: I have no idea whether this is a better game, matchup for the bowl, or what. Southern Miss probably isn't a catch for Canada, but Oregon gets ratings, for some reason.

21. Texas Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Kansas State vs. Rutgers
New Matchup: San Jose State vs. Purdue
Analysis: Not as good for geographical draws, and this bowl loses a great story in Rutgers. But Rutgers deserves better. Purdue doesn't, and they're more appropriate here. Maybe not a better matchup, but I'd argue it's a fairer matchup.

20. Insight Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Minnesota vs. Texas Tech
New Matchup: Nevada vs. Western Michigan
Analysis: Smaller names, but better teams (seriously). Plus, Nevada is a geographic draw (sort of). I think this is a better and fairer bowl.

19. Meineke Car Care Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Boston College vs. Navy
New Matchup: South Florida vs. Tulsa
Analysis: Worse matchup, worse draw. But BC and Navy deserve better bowls. Maybe fairer, but not better for the bowl.

18. MPC Computers Bowl - $750,000
Actual Matchup: Nevada vs. Miami
New Matchup: Missouri vs. Clemson
Analysis: Much better teams for Boise, and Miami probably didn't deserve a bowl bid. Better game, better teams. Overall, a definite positive.

17. Music City Bowl - $780,000
Actual Matchup: Kentucky vs. Clemson
New Matchup: Georgia vs. Maryland
Analysis: The first bowl where a couple thousand more makes a difference. The shape of things to come if money meant better choices. Basically, Music City slides up a notch in the SEC and ACC bids, so it's a better bowl.

16. Champs Sports Bowl - $862,000
Actual Matchup: Purdue vs. Maryland
New Matchup: Ohio vs. Penn State
Analysis: Penn State is a good pick for the bowl, and Ohio gets a reward for a great season in the MAC. Probably a wash as to the quality of the teams.

15. Independence Bowl - $1,200,000
Actual Matchup: Oklahoma State vs. Alabama
New Matchup: Georgia Tech vs. Central Michigan
Analysis: Seriously, that payout is legit! Alabama shouldn't be in a bowl this year. And Shreveport is suprisingly a better bowl than it gets credit for. Better teams. I'd say it's a better bowl.

14. Liberty Bowl - $1,500,000
Actual Matchup: Houston vs. South Carolina
New Matchup: Oregon State vs. Nebraska
Analysis: The SEC automatic bids are crazy high payouts, man. Liberty deserves better, and Memphis is a totally underrated destination. Much better teams, a better matchup, and finally this bowl gets the attention it deserves. Significantly better.

13. Sun Bowl - $1,575,000
Actual Matchup: Oregon State vs. Missouri
New Matchup: Boston College vs. Navy
Analysis: The Meineke Bowl gets a deal. BC and Navy deserve a better bowl than where they're heading, and the Sun would get decent teams, if not a better matchup.

12. Gator Bowl - $1,600,000
Actual Matchup: Georgia Tech vs. West Virginia
New Matchup: Cal vs. Texas
Analysis: The bowl would love it, since Tech isn't coming back after a loss in the same city, and two of the most telegenic programs and largest fanbases would arrive. Vastly improved (and WVU deserves a little better).

11. Alamo Bowl - $1,650,000
Actual Matchup: Texas vs. Iowa
New Matchup: Tennessee vs. Texas A&M
Analysis: Iowa doesn't deserve a bowl this good (they lost to Northwestern and Indiana!). Tennessee and A&M are a great matchup and there's still a geographic draw. Much better bowl.

10. Holiday Bowl - $2,000,000
Actual Matchup: Cal vs. Texas A&M
New Matchup: Houston vs. Hawaii
Analysis: Smaller names, but probably a more fun matchup. Hawaii and Houston both deserve better bowls than where they're headed because of their good seasons. Cal doesn't head to San Diego for like the 10th straight year. Maybe not a much better bowl, but it'd be interesting.

9. Chick-Fil-A Bowl - $2,350,000
Actual Matchup: Georgia vs. Virginia Tech
New Matchup: TCU vs. Arkansas
Analysis: Georgia probably deserves worse (I admit it), VPI probably deserves better. TCU showed tonight that they deserved better. Arkansas would be a return team, so the bowl probably wouldn't like it. Probably a worse matchup, but maybe fairer.

8. Cotton Bowl - $2,500,000
Actual Matchup: Nebraska vs. Auburn
New Matchup: Rutgers vs. BYU
Analysis: Two teams are now involved that definitely deserve better than the bowls they're headed to. And it might be a more telegenic game. Definitely fairer, and arguably better.

7. Outback Bowl - $2,850,000
Actual Matchup: Tennessee vs. Penn State
New Matchup: West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech
Analysis: I'd say better teams, and it could be an exciting game. The drawback is that these new teams have played a few times in recent years.

6. Capital One Bowl - $5,312,000
Actual Matchup: Arkansas vs. Wisconsin
New Matchup: Notre Dame vs. LSU
Analysis: The Capital One gets the Sugar matchup for a third the price. Better matchup, more exciting teams. Much better bowl.

5. Fiesta Bowl - approx. $14,000,000
Actual Matchup: Oklahoma vs. Boise State
New Matchup: Southern California vs. Auburn
Analysis: Pretty good matchup either way. The Fiesta gets two big teams to finish what could've been in 2004. Arguably, a better bowl.

4. Rose Bowl - $14,998,000
Actual Matchup: Michigan vs. USC
New Matchup: Oklahoma vs. Wake Forest
Analysis: Yeah. The Rose wouldn't be too crazy about this.

3. Orange Bowl - approx. $15,000,000
Actual Matchup: Louisville vs. Wake Forest
New Matchup: Louisville vs. Wisconsin
Analysis: Better matchup, bigger teams. Better bowl.

2. Sugar Bowl - approx. $16,000,000
Actual Matchup: LSU vs. Notre Dame
New Matchup: Florida vs. Michigan
Analysis: Now that'd be fun, wouldn't it? Better matchup, better teams, exciting draw. Better all around.

1. BCS National Championship Game - approx. $17,000,000
Actual Matchup: Florida vs. Ohio State
New Matchup: Boise State vs. Ohio State
Analysis: The two undefeated teams face off. No way there's a split title. Boise State gets a chance at a title by winning every game. For the people who think Ohio State is head and shoulders ahead of everyone else, here's a victory lap for them (instead of another tough game). It might be a huge spread, but there'd be the chance for the single greatest upset in the history of college football, with a title on the line. I'd love it.

And there you have it. The bowl selections are based solely on how much the bowls are ponying up and how good the teams' seasons were. Totally objective. I'd say there are probably a lot of fairer and several better bowls.

Of course, there's another way of doing things - rank the bowls by money, but then let the bowls who pay the most have the first two "picks" without regard to who actually was best. That'd be interesting too.