|Sunday, October 21
Updated: October 22, 8:05 PM ET
As the game changes, so do the formulas
By Richard Billingsley
Special to ESPN.com
Many times I'm asked about the formula I use, and it's evolution through the years. Mathematically, it's not a complex formula, using only simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. What makes it unique I think are the "rules" that are used in the formula's evaluation process. These rules relate to specific scenarios that I've seen play themselves out over the course of my 40 some odd years of closely observing the sport.
There is no substitute for experience. My poll is not better than any of the other seven BCS polls and I want to be real clear about that. I have a very healthy respect for all of the formulas being used by the BCS. My ranking system is not better, but it is very different. I think the public relates to it readily, even in the early weeks of the season, because it compares well with the AP, and since it was modeled after the AP, it should. My formula was designed, quite honestly, to create a "better" AP Poll. Better in the sense that it is non-biased, more flexible in its movement and has a higher regard for strength of schedule. Those are the three criticisms I have of the sportswriters and coaches. Yet, it retains the qualities that I find so precious within the AP and coaches polls -- tradition, carrying the torch from one season to the next and the most recent performance having the greatest impact.
Over the years the formula has been modified four times. At the inception of the poll in 1970, the formula was heavily weighted in margin of victory. In 1975, I recognized that fact and took steps to minimize the impact scoring margins had on the results. In 1980, I modified the formula to handle tie games more effectively, which is a moot issue now with our overtime rules, and in 1998, I once again diminished the margin of victory and extended the decimal range to three digits.
The most recent -- and most prominent change -- came in this offseason when I decided to take the scoring margin out completely. This was a very difficult decision, because, although the scoring margin at that point only accounted for about 5 percent of the overall totals, it held the "starting place" in my formula. Taking it out meant that I had to rewrite the entire formula, using the all of the same components except margin of victory, but finding a new base. This was not a decision I made lightly, but one that I felt compelled to do.
At the end of every season I always reevaluate the formula and make sure that it still "has it's pulse on the needs of the sport." With all of the controversy over using scoring margins last season, I knew it was time to address that issue once and for all. In my formula, it was not blowout games of 51-7 that were not being handled as well as I thought they should be, it was the close 13-10, 21-14 games. When investigating anything, I believe in accessing every resource possible, in this case the greatest resources were the coaches themselves. These guys are, after all, the ones who have to make the actual decisions during a game of whether they need to run up a score to impress the voters and computers.
Turning to coaches for advice is not something new for me. I've picked the brain of some of the greatest, most respected coaches in the game over the last 30 years, including Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Barry Switzer, Frank Broyles and LaVell Edwards just to mention a few. I doubt these guys even remember me, but at times, their words of wisdom sure helped me understand the sport a heck of a lot better in regards to everything from scoring margins to academic and financial woes. At any rate, this last round of conversations provided me with the exact ammunition I needed to make my choice -- margin of victory should no longer play a role in determining college football rankings.
Every coach I with said the same thing -- they didn't want to be placed into a position of having to wonder whether another field goal or touchdown was going to move them from No. 3 to No. 2 in the polls. That was enough for me. In the past, I felt using margin of victory helped produce a more precise rating involving a team's strength, making it more accurate when comparing one team to another. However, I found that not to be true. The new formula produces the exact percentage of higher ranked teams beating lower ranked opponents as it did under the old formula. If I can be just as confident of the results by not using such a controversial component as margin of victory, then why use it? But more importantly, if using margin of victory is creating a question in the minds of the coaches that any unsportsmanlike behavior might be beneficial to their national championship hopes, then I want no part of it. That's not what college football is about.
I did not anticipate that removing scoring margins would change the ranking results in any of my previous polls, but I needed to be sure. I ran 20 of the most controversial seasons I have encountered through the new formula and the top two teams didn't change. That was conformation to me that I had made a good decision. This year, after running both formulas so I could evaluate the new one's progress, I'm happy to say I'm even more pleased using the No Margin Formula than I thought I would be. The Top 3 teams Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Miami (Fla.) are identical, and it's actually made watching football more fun. I'm no longer concerned whether any team has to win by a certain number of points to maintain a current rank. It's taken an anxious edge off of the games. Overall, I think my move to a "no margin formula" has been supportive to the BCS poll. Now there is even a greater sense of balance with four polls capped at 21 points, and the other polls not using margins at all. Any time a greater balance can be achieved, I think it always benefits the whole.
BCS pollster Richard Billingsley is a college football historian, and author. His complete rankings are available at www.CFRC.com.