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Playoffs killed the BCS, but will embrace BCS-style rankings

By Matt Hinton | Blogger

In name, the Bowl Championship Series is about to become an historical relic, the victim of a mercy killing by its creators. In reality, the ranking system that will replace it in two years may not look all that different.

According to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the as yet unmanned selection committee charged with choosing teams for a four-team playoff beginning in 2014 will pick up where the BCS left off by publishing weekly rankings over the second half of the regular season. Like the rest of the details surrounding the playoff, criteria for the rankings is TBD – one more battle for conference commissioners to fight amongst themselves – but Swarbrick told the South Bend Tribune Wednesday that there is a consensus to create some degree of transparency: "We didn't want the top four teams to just come out of the blue at the end of the season."

Of course, the important question is not the when – it's the how. Will the formula used to create the rankings include human polls, a la the current BCS formula? Will it continue to exclude margin of victory from consideration? Will it still employ computer polls? Will it pass muster among actual statistical analysts? Already, the Big Ten and Pac-12 are pushing for the return of a strength-of-schedule component, one of the features (or bugs, depending on your perspective) that went by the wayside as the BCS formula gradually dumbed itself down over the years. That, along with comparisons to the RPI in college basketball, suggests the result may look a lot more like the earlier, unwieldier versions of the BCS than the slightly more streamlined version it eventually settled on.

Transparency is good, but it can also enflame inevitable controversies on those occasions when the committee decides to overrule the rankings by, say, selecting No. 5 Oregon over No. 4 Stanford when the circumstances dictate. That's why you have a committee: To make judgment calls re: conference championships and head-to-head wins and injuries and any other relevant detail that might not show up in the formula. By publicly ordering the teams, though, instead of simply dropping the playoff field in December like stone tablets from a mountaintop, they're also helping undermine borderline decisions and publishing a readymade rebuttal for critics. ("How could they pick Oregon when their own rankings said Stanford was better?") I suppose when the alternative is taking heat for conducting business behind closed doors, hoping fans can learn to live with a little cognitive dissonance is just the cost of letting them peek inside.

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