Upon Further Review: An Empirical Investigation of Voter Bias in the Coaches' Poll in College Football

By Stodnick, Michael; Wysong, Scott | The Sport Journal, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Upon Further Review: An Empirical Investigation of Voter Bias in the Coaches' Poll in College Football


Stodnick, Michael, Wysong, Scott, The Sport Journal


Introduction

Every year in college football, a debate occurs about which team should be ranked higher than another, and 2010 was no different. With three teams finishing their regular seasons undefeated, it was up to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings to determine which two teams would play for the national championship. While Auburn defeated Oregon in Glendale, Arizona, on January 10, 2011, and was crowned champion, fans over a thousand miles away in Fort Worth, Texas were left to wonder, "Could TCU have beaten Auburn?" Thus, the scrutiny of the BCS continues.

The BCS system was started in 1998 as a way to bring the top-two ranked teams face to face in a bowl game to determine a national champion (3). Prior to the BCS, the bowls tried to match number one versus number two, but with guaranteed conference tie-ins, such as that of the Pac 10 and the Big 10 to the Rose Bowl, it was not always possible. When the Rose Bowl relented, the BCS was born. According to the official BCS website, "The BCS is managed by the commissioners of the 11 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ("FBS") (formerly Division I-A) conferences, the director of athletics at the University of Notre Dame, and representatives of the bowl organizations. The conferences are the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Pacific-10, Southeastern and Western Athletic" (3).

As of 2005, the BCS standings are determined by averaging three different rankings: the Harris Poll, computer rankings and the Coaches' Poll. The Harris Poll is run by a marketing research firm, Harris Interactive, and is "comprised of 114 former college football players, coaches, administrators and current and former members of the media...randomly selected from among more than 300 nominations" (10) from the FBS. The final computer ranking used is an average of the rankings from six different firms/individuals that mathematically calculate a team's ranking based on wins, strength of schedule, etc. (3). The Coaches' Poll is run by USA Today and the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) and is approximately 60 coaches--50% of the coaches in each conference are randomly selected to vote (18).

This research explores one component of the BCS: the Coaches' Poll. In particular, we investigate to what extent coaches have been biased in their voting. Bias, as defined herein, is considered to be present when a coach ranks a team significantly different than the other voting coaches in the poll. Why is this important? With teams often being separated by a few tenths of a point in the BCS standings, ensuring the integrity of the rankings is critical. The BCS standings can determine a team's bowl game and/or a coach's bonus. For example, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz received a $225,000 bonus for finishing in the Top 10 BCS rankings in 2009, and another $175,000 bonus for playing in the BCS Orange Bowl that season (8). In 2010, the BCS bowl payout was 17 million dollars (6) with the non-BCS bowl payout being much less (e.g., The 2010 Capital One Bowl had the highest non-BCS Bowl payout of 4.25 million dollars (6)). So, biased decisions may not only affect the coaches, who make these decisions, but other coaches and universities, as well.

Prior to 2005, the coaches' votes were not made public. Then, in response to added pressure for transparency, a vote by all FBS coaches made the final regular season Coaches' Poll public by agreeing to have the ballots published in USA Today (7). However, the decision was not unanimous. According to Texas coach Mack Brown, who was initially not in favor of making the votes public, "It can put coaches in a difficult situation" (7). How did the first year of public voting go? According to Sports Illustrated writer, Stewart Mandel, it was "the equivalent of a high school student-council election" with "Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, his team about to be squeezed out of the BCS by Notre Dame, placing the Ducks fourth and the Irish ninth," and "Arkansas coach Houston Nutt ranking SEC rival Auburn third and Big East champion West Virginia .

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