Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Big Ten was busy while I did nothing

The Big Ten revamped its BCS tiebreaking procedure this week, adding a controversial provision and removing one that was unusual but beneficial to the conference and its fans.

Based on a little-known clause that was adopted several years ago, games against FCS teams were penalized when the conference championship came down to the second tiebreaker (after head-to-head results), so a school that played an FCS team would be passed over for a BCS game in favor of one that didn't. While this never actually came into play, it was obviously meant to be a deterrent to regularly scheduling cupcake opponents, which seems like a positive thing ... so when the conference announced that it was dropping that tiebreaker -- as well as the third tiebreaker, an old rule that eliminated the team that most recently reached a BCS game -- it was a little surprising.

Barry Alvarez, former coach and current athletic director at Wisconsin (which always has a fluffy soft schedule, coincidentally), announced the changes to the university's board and may have been the initiator, although it's unclear from the available information whether he actually proposed the change. But regardless of who offered up the suggestion, for a conference that's generally done an admirable job of avoiding some of college football's annoying problems -- oversigning, scheduling a glut of games against FCS schools, adding a conference championship game purely for monetary gain -- this seems like a step in the wrong direction.

What's even stranger, though, is the tiebreaker that was added: The Big Ten took a page from the Big 12's book, swiping the heavily criticized procedure that takes the school with the highest BCS ranking and declares it the winner if head-to-head results aren't applicable. This caused an uproar last year when Oklahoma jumped Texas late in the season, and rightfully so.

The BCS has no relation to conference play, and using it to break a tie -- when there are numerous conference-specific comparisons that could be used -- seems a little ridiculous. This will simply lead to more politicking and less sportsmanship, something none of us want to see.

The problem is that the conference has no way to go to a true round-robin format, so there will always be scenarios in which two tops teams don't play each other or three top teams all beat each other (like in the Big 12 last season). Even if the conference went to a nine-game schedule, there would still be one team missing from every schedule (the Big Ten has 11 teams). And a three-way tie like we saw between Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech will always make things difficult -- you're going to have a complaint from someone no matter how you set up a tiebreaker, because one team can claim to have beaten the team that gets selected.

There's no perfect solution, obviously, but what I'd like to see is a few direct comparisons thrown in after the head-to-head tiebreaker -- overall record would be the obvious one, but you could go even further, with each team's record against common conference opponents, for example. That would add a strength-of-schedule factor, mitigating the benefits of playing a fortunate conference schedule that doesn't include, for example, Michigan and Ohio State in a given year. Point differential in conference play could also be included, although that could lead to some ugly blowouts in an effort to pad the numbers.

Those statistics would certainly have more relevance to the conference title than the BCS rankings, though. With the added likelihood of a controversial finish and the added incentive for scheduling ugly nonconference matchups, I don't see what the Big Ten is gaining from this change.

The conference isn't really losing much in terms of a tiebreaker -- I never would have wanted the winner to be decided by the FCS provision -- but this move certainly has some negative side effects, and it's sure to cause a firestorm if it comes into play.

On a related note, the Big Ten athletic directors have discussed expanding the conference schedule to nine games, but the logistics would be a nightmare -- one team would have to play eight games to make it work mathematically, and all sorts of bizarre tiebreakers would have to be established if that happened.

In other words, don't expect that change any time soon -- just expect Wisconsin to schedule an FCS team every year from now until eternity.

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