Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"Favorable Schedules" and Such

I was watching ESPN recently when a retired coach who shall remain nameless reminded me of why I do Atomic Football. In referring to the FBS team he once coached, he stated that he believed that they would play for the national championship this year. While folks may or may not agree with his projections, it was his rationale that bothered me.

It wasn't because he believed the team was one of the two best in the nation. It was simply because he felt that they were playing a relatively easy schedule.

And thus I was reminded of how Atomic Football came to be. Over the past ten years, I have heard this kind of talk less and less... thankfully. And if you don't really ask what it means, you might even think it makes sense. But if you do ask what it means, and you put that meaning into words, you start to realize just how crazy it sounds. So, let's do that -- let's put it into words.

It actually goes like this... Let's assume that for undefeated teams there are two kinds of schedules. The first kind we shall call "good enough." If you play a "good enough" schedule and go undefeated, you MUST be ranked #1 or #2 (unless there are three or four undefeated teams that played "good enough" schedules, in which case, they will all be ranked in some order at the top). The second kind of schedule is "not good enough." Now here is where things get tricky. If we rank one of these undefeated teams #3 behind a team that played a "good enough" schedule but had a loss, then we create the kind of nightmare so many fear. So, we have imagined that all schedules fall into these two discrete categories -- "good enough" and "not good enough" -- so that this nightmare won't happen. We also imagine that there is a sufficiently wide chasm between the two kinds of schedules that a team that goes undefeated must either finish #1, #2, or no higher than, say, #6.

So, what the ball coach was saying is that your best strategy is to play a schedule that is just barely "good enough." In any case, just barely "good enough" is still "good enough" and a team that goes undefeated against such a schedule can squeak into the championship game even though they're not really one of the two best teams in the country. The problem lies in the fact that as fans, it's sometimes hard for us to deal with a continuum of possibilities. We naturally categorize teams as "upper tier" or "lower tier." Our rankings once flagged wins as "quality" or "not quality," and we still often think in those terms. Because conferences have been labeled "BCS" and "non-BCS," we tend to categorize the teams this way as if the two groups don't overlap. We hate gray areas, and when there is no clear #1 and #2 at season's end, it's somehow a failure of the system, as if, somehow, it should be impossible for the third best team in the country to be almost as good as the second best team.

The bottom line: Shouldn't the two best teams always get to play in the championship game. Call me crazy, but if a team happens to schedule twelve games against all top 20 opponents and goes 10-2, I think they should be a lock to play in the big game.

For a good finish to this ramble, check out my post on having a "standard."

Postscript (11/29/09): The coach's team finished 6-6.