For seemingly the first time since its inception prior to the 1998 season, the BCS has avoided controversy this bowl season. Southern Cal and Texas, the top two teams since the start of the year, are the only two undefeated programs remaining in Division I college football. So when the two meet in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, it’ll be the matchup most of the country has been waiting to see.
But if it were up to the University’s Juyong Park and Mark Newman, Southern Cal wouldn’t be playing in the Rose Bowl. Park and Newman, two University physicists, have developed a new system to rank college football teams, and according to their method, Penn State (10-1) deserves a spot in the national championship game.
The new method is more basic and principled than current computer rankings, said Newman, an associate professor of physics who is not a football fan.
“It would be possible to add extra bells and whistles,” he said. “But right now, it’s very simple.”
The system is based off the idea that, if team A beats team B and team B beats team C, then A beats C. A team gets points for direct wins and also receives a fraction of a point for indirect wins – when a team they beat defeats someone else. And it doesn’t stop there.
“You can do the math all the way out to infinity,” Newman said. “That’s the trick.”
Each team also gets negative points for losses – both direct and indirect.
The current BCS system combines six computer systems and two human polls to come up with the final rankings. Each of the computers uses a different method to come up with the best team – and some of the methods are extremely complicated. Newman and Park pride themselves on the fact that their system is very simple and transparent.
“The only thing we care about is the strength of schedule,” said Park, a doctoral student.
As an example, he explained that, even though it was a big risk for Texas and Ohio State to play each other in the second game of the season, it actually helped both teams. Texas got a big boost in the rankings for beating a quality opponent with a lot of wins, and Ohio State didn’t lose much because Texas went undefeated. Teams that suffer are ones that don’t play any tough opponents, Park said.
If nothing else, their system might force good teams to play a tougher schedule, he added.
“There’s a difference between how good teams are perceived to be and how good they actually show themselves to be,” Newman said.
Neither Park nor Newman has had any contact with the BCS about possibly incorporating their rankings into the current system in the future. No one from the BCS committee would comment, but Mike Reilley, who handles media relations for the BCS, said the BCS does look at new systems.
“Keep in mind that the BCS formula is pretty much set, but it does get tweaking from year to year,” he said.
Newman and Park started working on their system around this time last year, when there was controversy surrounding which two undefeated teams should play in the national championship game. Southern Cal defeated Oklahoma 55-19 in the title game, while Auburn, also undefeated, beat Virginia Tech 16-13 in the Sugar Bowl. Many complained that Auburn didn’t have a chance to compete for a national title, but the system created by Newman and Park wouldn’t have changed anything. It had Oklahoma ranked No. 1 and Southern Cal coming in at No. 2. Auburn was No. 3.
Still, Park, a huge football fan, saw the controversy and wondered if he could come up with a better system. He has done a lot of work with social networks and said he looks at college football as just another network. His system uses linear algebra to determine which team has the most influence over other teams in football and is therefore the best in the country.
Park claims that, unlike many other computer ranking systems, his method is based entirely in mathematics. It also only takes the current season into account.
“Just because they’ve been doing very well for five years doesn’t mean they’re the best team this season,” Park said.
That might help account for Southern Cal’s drop in the rankings. The Trojans, defending national champions two years in a row, have been the consensus No. 1 team in the country since preseason. But playing in the weak Pac-10 has hurt them in the system developed by Newman and Park. Southern Cal is fourth in their rankings.
The new ranking system has a fairly high correlation to the current BCS, but there are a few outliers. Oregon, for example, is ranked No. 20 by Newman and Park but is fifth in this year’s BCS rankings.
Like many Big Ten teams, Michigan made a jump in the standings – from No. 20 in the current BCS to No. 12.
“Big Ten teams are pretty high this season,” Park said. “And Michigan beat Penn State, which helped them.”
But even though Park is a huge Michigan fan, the system does not inherently favor the Wolverines. In fact, Park has used his model to rank teams every year since 1997, when Michigan split the national title with Nebraska. According to Park and Newman, Nebraska was the best team that year. Michigan was ranked third, behind Tennessee.