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Tocqueville and College Football

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: A defense of the Bowl Championship Series.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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AS A POLITICAL SCIENCE professor who created one of the computer rankings that determine which two college football teams will meet in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), I find the controversy over the rankings mirrors American political culture. Indeed, it shows American character is still as Alexis de Tocqueville described it: We swing on a pendulum with excessive deference to popular opinion at one extreme, excessive deference to authoritative rule at the other. On the one hand, Americans embrace direct democracy; on the other, they embrace rule by "experts," whether in the bureaucracy or on the Supreme Court. The moderate middle ground of representative government is often distrusted.

Football fans swing between the same two extremes, as we shall see. But first a word about the BCS for those who do not follow it. Until 1998, college football had no organized national championship game but a number of traditional bowl games featuring top teams. That year, the Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls agreed to host the annual BCS championship game on a rotating basis. Playing in the game are the two top teams in the BCS standings, which combine four elements, each weighed evenly: a team's average ranking in the AP's poll of sportswriters and ESPN/USA Today's poll of college coaches, its number of losses, its strength of schedule (determined by opponents' and opponents' opponents' won-lost records), and its average score in seven computer rankings (actually in six, as the lowest is dropped). Bonus points for wins over top-10 teams are added after the initial rankings are computed.

This season, Oklahoma was the only undefeated team and was the consensus No. 1 team, until the Sooners lost badly in their last game. After Oklahoma's loss, USC and LSU vaulted ahead of Oklahoma in the coaches' and sportswriters' polls. But six of the seven computer rankings (including mine, the Anderson & Hester Rankings) put Oklahoma and LSU ahead of USC. The BCS's strength-of-schedule ratings showed that Oklahoma's was the hardest schedule of the three teams, while USC's was easiest. Among the top three teams, only Oklahoma had a victory over another top-10 team. When all of these BCS components were weighed together, Oklahoma finished first and LSU a close second, with USC an even closer third. This means Oklahoma will play LSU for the championship this year in the Sugar Bowl on January 4.

The public outcry was loud and immediate: How dare the BCS leave out USC, thereby defying public opinion as registered by the media and coaches' polls? Perhaps most striking was the nearly complete absence of any attempt to defend the polls' judgments as correct. Their correctness was held to be self-evident. The consensus view, expressed on ABC's BCS selection show, ESPN's follow-up broadcast, and apparently in living rooms and barrooms across the nation (judging by emails I received), was something along the lines of, "The polls have USC No. 1, yet the Trojans are not No. 1 in the BCS standings; therefore, the BCS standings are clearly wrong." This recalls Tocqueville's comment that in America, "the majority . . . lives in perpetual adoration of itself."

And what is the favored solution? In their zeal for overthrowing a BCS system that does not unquestioningly embrace public opinion, fans are willing to leave behind their customary place at the altar of public opinion only if they are allowed to transport themselves to their other favorite altar, that of authoritative rule. Let's scrap the BCS system and create a "panel of experts" to determine results, they say. They'll know which teams to pick.

The BCS standings, on the other hand, embody the moderate middle ground of public opinion tempered and modified by reasonable thought and more objective standards of analysis. But as in American politics as a whole, this reasonable middle ground between unchecked popular rule and unchecked rule by authorities is a lonely place.