And Now We Wait: Lingering Questions On Selection Sunday

STILLWATER, OK - DECEMBER 03: Oklahoma State Cowboys fans hang on the goalpost after a 44-10 win against the Oklahoma Sooners at Boone Pickens Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Who's No. 2? Who's No. 14? Who's No. 16? These questions all matter as we sit back and wait for tonight's official BCS rankings to be unveiled. Also: there is a better way of evaluating teams! Really!

And now we wait.

We have played the games, everybody has made their cases, and now we wait to find out who plays LSU in the national title game, who gets selected for other BCS bowls, and which two bowl-eligible teams miss out on the postseason.

By now, you already know where I stand on most of the heavily-debated topics of the past week -- Alabama is better and more deserving of a title shot than Oklahoma State, there is no "No Rematches" clause in the BCS selection criteria (and therefore LSU's win over Alabama should not carry any extra weight beyond simply "Alabama lost to LSU and is therefore 11-1"), and while I would thoroughly enjoy an expanded playoff in the future, I do not hate the BCS (and in fact somewhat appreciate it for giving us a two-team playoff to argue over in the first place when we didn't even have that until the 1990s) -- and if last night on Twitter is any indication, I already know that you disagree with me. Such is life. But this is no longer about what we think should happen (and no matter what, we will use the result as an indication that the system is broken, which is fun), it's about what will happen. At this point, our fate is in the hands of neutered computer rankings, Gene Chizik's sports information director and, apparently, Jackie Sherrill and Chip Brown. So let's try to figure that part out.

Who's No. 2?

On Thursday, our friends at Roll Bama Roll took a look at what it would take for Oklahoma State to leapfrog Alabama. The short answer: a lot.

You can play with the numbers on your own and come up with various final BCS calculations based on the number of votes poached in each respective poll, but on the whole what emerges is that, given both polls would likely tend to be relatively similar, Oklahoma State will have to take away somewhere between 34-37% of the overall #2 votes from Alabama to overtake the Tide, and again that assumes that Oklahoma State finishes no lower than third on every ballot (i.e. they are voted above both Virginia Tech and Stanford in every single ballot). If Virginia Tech wins this weekend and together with Stanford they take away any meaningful amount of the third place votes, say 10%, then it becomes even harder for Oklahoma State, and at that point the Pokes will find themselves needing to take 45-48% of the remaining #2 votes (or higher) to overtake Alabama.

To give themselves a good shot at catching Alabama, Oklahoma State needed to absolutely destroy Oklahoma; having Virginia Tech lose wouldn't hurt. Guess what: they destroyed Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech lost. Now, there's a decent chance we may cancel those rematch talks.

More of them will still have Alabama at No. 2, in both the coaches and Harris polls, but OSU's edge in the computers might be enough to overcome the Crimson Tide's shrinking advantage in the two human polls. [...]

Oklahoma State's impressive victory over Oklahoma was an eloquent statement delivered with maximum impact. The Cowboys proved that not only they could score, but they could play sound defense and cause game-changing turnovers. The lopsided outcome required the voters to give them another look.

So there's Photo Finish No. 1.

Who's No. 14? And Who's No. 16?

We have another interesting race to watch once the official BCS standings are unveiled, as well. Participation in the BCS bowls will be very much determined by where Michigan and TCU fall in the standings.

Why Michigan?

If there are fewer than 10 automatic qualifiers, then the bowls will select at-large participants to fill the remaining berths. An at-large team is any Football Bowl Subdivision team that is bowl-eligible and meets the following requirements:

  A. Has won at least nine regular-season games, and
  B. Is among the top 14 teams in the final BCS Standings.

Why TCU?

The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, or the Western Athletic Conference will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:

A. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or,
B. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.

From what I can tell, the BCS rankings should shake down in certain pods of teams:

1. LSU

2-3. Alabama and Oklahoma State, in some order.

4. Stanford

5-7. Arkansas, Boise State and Oregon, in some order.

8-11. Kansas State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin, in some order. (For what it's worth, Samuel Chi projects Baylor at 11th and Virginia Tech 12th, so perhaps Baylor goes in this pod, too.)

12-18. Baylor, Clemson, Houston, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and TCU, in some order.

19-20. Georgia and Nebraska, in some order.

How far do Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and especially Houston fall after losing blowouts? How far does Michigan State fall (if at all) after a heart-breaking loss to Wisconsin? There is simply a ton of uncertainty here. If Michigan drops in at No. 15 instead of No. 14, then Kansas State's BCS odds increase considerably. And if TCU is No. 17 instead of No. 16, that's another open slot. And that's Photo Finish No. 2.

Because of that uncertainty, I doubt we get quite as many Sunday afternoon "Team A going to Bowl B!" leaks. (This shouldn't stop you from perusing Jason's "rematch and no rematch" bowl projections in the meantime.) If Kansas State (or, technically, Baylor or Oklahoma) makes the hop to the BCS, then all of the Big 12 teams get bumped up one slot in the bowl selections. Same with Michigan and the Big Ten. And TCU and the Mountain West. This is actually the best-case scenario for ESPN and its selection show, isn't it? Funny how that works out.

And Because I Can't Help Myself ...

One of the things that got me into playing with advanced stats in the first place was the the way we rely on a sample size of 12 to make incredibly important (in the world of athletics, anyway) decisions. Simply evaluating teams based on who they had the opportunity to play maximizes the impact of luck and timing on the BCS standings. In 2008, the quality of Oklahoma's non-conference schedule (one that included TCU and Cincinnati) carried the Sooners ahead of Texas in the BCS standings even though, when Oklahoma scheduled those games, neither TCU nor Cincy were as good as they turned out to be in 2008. This year, the fact that the Big 12 was extremely deep and the SEC was rather top heavy has meant that Oklahoma State has more "wins over Top 25 teams" than Alabama. And that's where our analysis seems to stop. Oklahoma State played, and beat, more Top 25 teams (and at the same time, they didn't have to play LSU), and therefore they deserve a spot in the title game.

What advanced stats can do is judge teams based on how they perform against the teams on their schedule. That sounds innocuous enough, but what it means is, whether you play New Mexico or LSU, your performance versus the status quo is what matters. It isn't who you played, but how you played versus who you played. If LSU dominates everybody on the schedule, but they barely beat you, that is a feather in your cap. If New Mexico gets crushed by everybody and doubly crushed by you, that matters too. By limiting ourselves to "resume" arguments, and by implementing computer ranking systems that only look at who you've beaten and who's beaten you (removing margin of victory from the equation made somewhat limited computer systems infinitely worse), we are limiting ourselves significantly.

I like Alabama more than Oklahoma State for two reasons: 1) I think they're a better team (and when you have the same record, "better" does come into play), and 2) the rankings with which I'm associated -- rankings that look at every non-garbage time play and drive -- say they are quite a bit better. They were more dominant against their schedule than Oklahoma State was against theirs. I'm not going to try to stop you from disagreeing (not that I could if I wanted to), but I would love it if we could eventually shift the starting points for our arguments a bit.

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