BCS & College Football Coaches Poll Shenanigans – Bad Voters or Bad System?


Some of you might not care about college football, but I'm always interested in a story about people gaming a system and what drives that behavior, whether that's in healthcare (such as not reporting errors) or in sports. We can criticize the individuals involved all we want, but what they are doing is usually perfectly rational and understandable, given the design of the system.

This article caught my eye the other day (it also appeared in USA Today): “Coaches Poll votes, revealed: Big 12 stifles Northern Illinois.”

One input into the “BCS” (Bowl Championship Series) rankings, which determines which teams play in the highest profile bowl games, is a poll of certain college coaches. These coaches work such grueling schedules, they can't possibly watch enough college football to make informed choices about how to rank teams (even given that it's a subjective ranking on which teams they THINK are best)… these rankings are often based on reputation as much as anything (much like the US News rankings of hospitals, actually).

One problem with the Coaches Poll is that some of the coaches directly benefit from their own rankings. When a single coach's ranking is an outlier, it raises suspicion of self-serving votes.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops found his team “on the bubble” – possibly into a BCS bowl game, as the second representative from the Big 12 conference (since they weren't the conference champion, they weren't guaranteed a spot). The other possible bubble team was Northern Illinois University. The NIU Huskies could only be selected for a BCS game (instead of Oklahoma) if they were ranked in the top 16 spots.

So, Stoops voted Oklahoma #6 (an outlier, since the consensus ranking was #11). Stoops also ranked NIU #24, another self-serving vote, as the consensus placed NIU at #16, meaning they go to the Orange Bowl, not Oklahoma.

Other Big 12 conference coaches also tried manipulating the system by either voting Oklahoma #6 or ranking NIU #24. The conference of the Orange Bowl representative gets a share of the payout (rumored to be $18 million or more). They clearly had a financial incentive to do so. But, the manipulation didn't work.

Among the Big 12 voters other than Stoops and [Texas Tech coach Tommy] Tuberville [who voted Oklahoma #11 and NIU #16] , the voting went as follows: Briles had Oklahoma sixth and Northern Illinois 19th; Holgorsen had OU ninth and NIU 24th; Rhoads had OU sixth and NIU 20th.

As one columnist said, “Stoops' coaches poll strategy didn't work, but you can't blame him for trying.”

Coaches from other conferences, without a direct financial incentive, voted differently.

Northern Illinois was listed on all ballots, but the only coach outside the Big 12 to have the Huskies at No. 24 or lower was Michigan's Brady Hoke, who voted them 25th while voting Oklahoma No. 11. Vanderbilt's James Franklin had Northern Illinois 23rd and Oklahoma 11th.

Maybe Brady Hoke is buddies with Bob Stoops or just thinks that a smaller school like NIU shouldn't be in a BCS bowl game.

Coaches from NIU's conference (the MAC) didn't vote in such a selfish way:

The MAC's six voters – including Northern Illinois' Dave Doeren – cast their ballots in a way that was not as helpful to the Huskies as the Big 12's votes were to the Sooners.

Do we call the Big 12 coaches' voting “unethical” (putting the individual responsibility on them) or do we blame the system and the creators of the coaches poll and its role in the BCS? Was the Big 12 more “sophisticated” (or devious) in their attempted manipulation or was it a coordinated effort directed by the league office, perhaps? Or, are the MAC coaches and Tuberville more ethical and honest?

Do the designers of measurement and ranking systems in other industries have to take action to prevent opportunities for manipulation?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I’m a HUGE college football fan like you, Mark, and I look at it this way: from principles, we create systems that drive behaviors. So, the gaming we’re seeing is simply a result of the system (BCS) that was created. It’s human nature to game systems, so this really isn’t surprising to me (but no, I do not think it’s right).

    So, since the system is changing (2014?) to a playoff, this would indicate that the NCAA Football gods’ principles are changing. The question is, “From what, to what?” This is just a hunch, but I believe they are changing the principle of, “This is college football – not pro – and the student athletes are students first and athletes second, so they should be concerned with one bowl game, not possibly several. Academic integrity is 1st priority,” to “College football has become even more of a big business and the fans (customers) are clamoring for a true champion. We can do this and make a lot of money in the meantime.” Again, this is just my hunch, and whether we agree with the shifting of these principles or not, they are what they are, and they will drive behavior.

  2. Dubs,
    The problem is that even though Stoops and others were unable to influence the results on this particular occasion, the coach’s still have the power to control and manipulate the system in their favor. It may not work all the time but don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same top teams from the same conferences are playing in the top bowl games year after year.

  3. Part of me believes the Big 12 coaches votes were more accurate based on what I saw having watched NIU in the MAC Championship game.

    Were the Big 12 coaches votes a little self-serving? Absolutely. But were they inaccurate? That’s a different question.

    It was well publicized regarding the winner of that game’s potential to get a BCS spot based on a top 16 ranking, regardless of whether NIU or Kent won the game. So, and i’m just throwing this out there, but I wonder if a form of groupthink could have been at work here because there was plenty of positive national publicity surrounding the potential for a “BCS buster,” and most folks like those feel-good stories.

    It would take an analysis of the weekly voting to see what kind of variances happened and when, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to consider the possibility that smaller-conference coaches had a motive to ensure NIU did get into the BCS game. Of the 59 voters in the coaches poll, 24 of them are from the non-BCS AQ conferences.

    I have no idea if they did or didn’t — or maybe it is simple voter ignorance because coaches are looking for the most part at win-loss records and not watching as many different games during the season as they do during the off-season.

    But I’ll raise the question: did the system drive behavior that actually favored a team like NIU getting in this year?

  4. Using coaches and their rankings of the teams as 1/3 of the input for a championship when they see nearly zero games aside from their own and those of their opponents and have very little basis for their rankings is extremely silly and flawed.

    This is the equivalent of allowing the IT department 1/3 of the total influence on a company’s FY13 spend budget when they don’t see finance data and planning or sales forecasts, etc.

    When the Coaches’ Poll was first established, it was a “nice to do” because it allowed coaches to provide feedback and “their vision” of the college football landscape and tell the world who they thought was best. But now to use this as a piece of who actually wins a championship is ridiculous.

    I, for one, have a heavy lean on the computer input. Unbiased, completely objective (other than the creators of the algorithms), and limited use for “style points.” Remember Jimbo Fisher of Florida State whining earlier this year when his one-loss FSU team was high in the voting polls but super low in the computer polls? It’s because FSU racked up their wins against a crummy schedule and the computers blasted them for it. Turns out they were right – they were manhandled in their last regular season game against top competition (Florida).


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