The role analytics will play in choosing the College Football Playoffs


(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

College football is going to look a lot different this season. For the first time ever, the Bowl Championship Series, which has chosen the top two teams to play in the national title game since 1999, will be replaced by a 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee, who will choose teams to participate in the College Football Playoff.

“The College Football Playoff marks a new era in which a group of college football experts will decide the best four teams which will compete for the national championship,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. “The members of the Selection Committee are an outstanding group of people with high integrity and excellent judgment, and ultimately the decision will be theirs.”

The committee includes five current athletic directors plus Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, a former superintendent of the Air Force and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is now a professor at Stanford.

“The best basketball committees that I were on had a diverse group,” explains Mike Tranghese, former Commissioner of the Big East Conference who served on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee from 1996 to 2001 and one of the 13 committee members. “They weren’t all coaches, they weren’t all just pure basketball people. They were people with great strengths in analyzing data and great committee persons in a variety of other ways. Having that diversity allows you to hear a different perspective.”

Here is how the process will work:

  1. Each committee member will create a list of the 25 teams he or she believes to be the best in the country, in no particular order. Teams listed by more than three members will remain under consideration.
  2. Each member will list the best six teams, in no particular order. The six teams receiving the most votes will comprise the pool for the first seeding ballot.
  3. In the first seeding ballot, each member will rank those six teams, one through six, with one being the best. The three teams receiving the fewest points will become the top three seeds. The three teams that were not seeded will be held over for the next seeding ballot.
  4. Each member will list the six best remaining teams, in no particular order. The three teams receiving the most votes will be added to the three teams held over to comprise the next seeding ballot.
  5. Steps No. 3 and 4 will be repeated until 25 teams have been seeded.

The semifinals will match the No. 1 seed vs. No. 4, and No. 2 will face No. 3 in semifinal games that will rotate annually among the Peach Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. The first semifinals will be January 1, 2015, at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. The first national championship game will be Jan. 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

“The real difference is we are going to pick four teams and it is going to be done by human beings and not by computers,” said Tranghese.

The hope is to avoid some of the controversies that plagued the BCS during its reign over college football, some of which were caused by those pesky computers. For example, the split national titles for LSU and USC in 2003 and an undefeated Auburn team left out of the title picture a year later. And let’s not forget the 2007 LSU squad that won a championship despite suffering two losses during the season.

However, the Selection Committee will have access to data though SportSource Analytics, which, according to its Web site, “is a sports-focused analytics company dedicated to enabling better decisions with better data through the use of customized platforms and services.”

“The custom platform we built for selection committee was to their specifications and has approximately 100 million pieces of data, including those at the season, game, possession and play-by-play level,” SportSource co-founder Scott Prather said. “We put that into different tools that make it easy for the selection committee to compare and contrast teams.”

“We have statistics at every level of granularity,” Prather continued. “Using custom filters each committee member can determine the information important to them.”

“I don’t think this is rocket science,” said Tranghese “We are going to see teams play so there is the eye test. It isn’t as if we are computers and this is exactly how you do it. I may look at strength of schedule a little differently than someone else, and that could have an influence on how I ultimately vote.”

Strength of schedule has always played a key role in choosing a national champion, however, when based on the opponents’ win-loss record from the previous year, calculated by adding up the total wins and losses for the 12 teams on the schedule, it has its flaws. But that’s the value of having approximately 100 million pieces of data since 2001 at your disposal: You can make decisions on the right data.

“A lot of the statistics that people might look at that aren’t as important,” Prather said. “For example,  scoring offense, total offense and total defense might not be as important as some of the rate statistics or efficiency statistics, things like yards per point, points per possession, which in our research correlate higher to winning. It’s not about how many total yards you are getting on offense, it is about how efficient you are with your possessions.”

This is consistent with some other research done in the field:

You make more big plays than your opponent, you stay on schedule, you tilt the field, you finish drives, and you fall on the ball. Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers are the five factors to winning football games.

  • If you win the explosiveness battle (using [points per possession]), you win 86 percent of the time.
  • If you win the efficiency battle (using Success Rate), you win 83 percent of the time.
  • If you win the drive-finishing battle (using points per trip inside the 40), you win 75 percent of the time.
  • If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.
  • If you win the turnover battle (using turnover margin), you win 73 percent of the time.

“We are just trying to be useful,” said Prather. “Everyone is trying to find the magic bullet and there are so many variables involved with college football it is hard to come up with a magic bullet. We are just providing the data in an easy to use format to help the committee make the most informed decision possible.”

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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