College football is the last bastion of playoff-free competition in American team sports. Folks who aren’t happy about the bowl system can blame Jeff Anderson.
He’s about 5 percent of the problem.
Anderson, an Arlington resident, is the co-founder of the Anderson-Hester College Football Rankings, a computer-based scheme that is among the services used by the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS.
If you can find anybody to explain exactly how the BCS bowls are chosen in short and sensible terms, well, ask ’em to break down icing and quarterback ratings and all the other sports mysteries while you’ve got their ear. But, basically, BCS bowl selections are made after crunching numbers provided by a select group of subjective sources (Associated Press reporters poll and the USA Today coaches poll) and from a half-dozen allegedly objective rankers, including Anderson-Hester and the Sagarin computer rankings, and then factoring in such things as total losses, strength of schedule, and the nebulous “quality wins.”
After all the crunching for the 2007 season, LSU and Ohio State were picked for last week’s BCS championship. Anderson says that his service—which before the bowl games put Missouri at No. 1, LSU at No. 3 and Ohio State at No. 7—counted for 5.6 percent of the decision. He’s grateful to be among the deciders.
“I love having our say, whatever that say is,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of time, but that’s a great reward for anybody who loves college football.”
Anderson, 38, grew up an Air Force brat, with addresses all over the globe. So he didn’t root for any particular team. He rooted for the game. And still does.
“I think the Americana elements appealed to me,” he says. “I love college football traditions, and every year I become more appreciative of how distinct the game is. With the NFL, there’s so much sameness—all the teams are more or less doing the same things. [College] has the differing styles of play, all the colorful aspects of the game, the cheerleaders and the bands, so many teams playing in different regions, and even different styles in different regions, like the SEC vs. the PAC 10.”
But even as a young fan, Anderson says, there was one part of college football that bugged him: The weekly polls. He’s still bugged. “I remember being in sixth or seventh grade,” Anderson says, “and asking my dad, ‘What are they trying to do with these rankings? Are they telling us who is the best team right now? Or, who is the best across the entire season?’ I don’t think Dad had an answer, and I was frustrated with that. I didn’t know what the rankings were trying to do then, and I still don’t.”
Anderson attended one of the country’s great football schools, the University of Washington, as an undergrad, and while studying political science there he tried to right what he saw as the wrongs in the rankings his favorite sport relied on. In 1993, working with classmate and fellow enthusiast Chris Hester, Anderson launched his ranking system. The plan was to give more weight to strength of schedule than the existing ranking services did. “What we’re trying to show with our rankings is who had the best season,” he says. “We’re not trying to show who we think would win if teams meet. That’s not what our rankings are trying to do. We’re trying to reward teams for their actual accomplishments.”
A local daily, the Seattle Times, agreed to publish the Anderson-Hester rankings as part of the paper’s regular college football coverage. And in 1998, when the BCS supplanted the Bowl Coalition, Anderson got a call from the College Football Hall of Fame, which was charged with overseeing the BCS. Anderson, a former college professor who moved to town last year to start a political career, declines to divulge how much money he gets for the use of his football rankings, but he concedes the payout is mostly emotional.
If everything works, the BCS system spews out a championship game matchup attractive enough to quiet the demand for a college football playoff system for another year.
“Sure, it’s muddled sometimes,” he says. “What do you do when there’s not clearly two teams? But that was resolved this year with remarkably little controversy. There was pretty widespread agreement that Ohio State–LSU was the best matchup.”
Yet, as always, there was some high-profile dissent. The loudest came from Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia. A day after LSU’s win, Adams announced that he would push for the NCAA to do away with the BCS and replace it with an eight-team playoff.
“[T]his year’s experience with the BCS forces me to the conclusion that the current system has lost public confidence and simply doesn’t work,” Adams declared.
Adams’ playoff proposal came after LSU leapfrogged his Bulldogs in the final weeks of the season to get to the BCS Championship. Georgia whupped an undefeated but untested Hawaii team in the Sugar Bowl. This sort of playoff clamoring comes every year. And, every year, the NCAA pooh-poohs the idea, usually by saying that a playoff system in football would prove too much for the student-athletes to handle, what with their class loads.
Obviously, that’s crap. Every other NCAA team sport has playoffs, and even lower divisions of NCAA football manage to hold winner-take-all tournaments without collapsing. Besides, if academics were really the issue, the NCAA would ramp down college basketball, which is even more of a full-time job for players than football.
Even Anderson agrees that the NCAA’s stated reasoning for not instituting a playoff is bogus.
“I really don’t know why they keep saying [it’s about the classroom],” he says. “It’s not.”
But he supports the status quo. “I thought this was one of the most exciting seasons in the history of college football and gave a great example of how college football has the best, most meaningful regular season in all of sports,” he says. “That is largely a product of not going with a playoff system.”
And while others point to the NCAA basketball tournament as evidence of how great a playoff system could be, Anderson sees an underside to the hoops championship.
“I think the commissioners understand that as wonderful as the three weeks in March are for college basketball, it has come with a cost,” he says. “People really do not care about regular season college basketball now because [of the NCAA tournament]. That’s just not the case in college football. From Week One, people are packing these mammoth stadiums. Every week matters. If there’s one game that people have to see, two teams that have to play each other, that happens now. The playoff would change that. Nobody talks about those things.”
Anderson promises he’s not just supporting BCS because he’s part of the system.
“Even if they do go to a tournament,” he says, “they’re going to need somebody to seed the teams.”