Will We Hold (Football) Pollsters Accountable?

Aaron Ellis gives every single proximate reason why Notre Dame’s football team was completely crushed by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. But he misses the higher-order cause: They were over-rated in the polls and did not deserve to be in the game in the first place.

After the election, there were welcome efforts by worthies such as Brad Plumer and Andrew Sullivan to hold political prognosticators accountable for ridiculously errant electoral predictions. The same thing should be done with the people who rank college football teams.

This isn’t just about the incredible lameness of this year’s championship game, which a Martian would have mistaken for a match between an NFL team and a high school junior varsity squad. Getting into the championship is a multi-million dollar reward for universities. Teams like Notre Dame, who have a national fan base that will buy tickets and merchandise and are a “name” are frequently over-rated and thereby get into big money bowls which they don’t deserve. If a team such as Boise State or the University of Wyoming had played the same teams as Notre Dame with the same results, they would not have been ranked as highly and would have been shut out of the big money.

Given that college football poll votes are documented and conducted weekly, it would not be hard to implement a system that rewarded performance at ranking teams. To take a completely bad apples approach, every time a team ranked in top 5 lost to an unranked team by 28 points, you could remove the voting rights of all the people who ranked the former team so highly. Or you could let the people who voted unsuccessfully for the unranked team have their votes count double in the following weeks. Or both. One could tinker with a range of solutions; any that rewarded performance and punished ineptitude (and self-promotion and venality to the extent that drives some individuals’ inaccurate rankings) merits consideration.

With no accountability, some teams will have an unfair, lucrative advantage and people who make lousy rankings and thereby generate lousy bowl games will keep getting away with it.

p.s. To anticipate a weak objection: “But Alabama would have beaten anyone, they were so good.” Remember, they lost to Texas A&M in November and beat Georgia by only 4 points for their conference title in December. And Notre Dame didn’t just lose, they were utterly humiliated in all phases of the game. If Coach Nick Saban had been in a mean mood, the final score would have been 70-7. There were much better options available, and the poll voters who generated this one should be held accountable for their failure.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.