College football playoff teams are best selected by humans — not machines

When it comes to picking college football’s No. 1, humans reign

The long-running discussion pitting humans vs. machines is often steeped in data, science, social science, experimentation — and then the conversation rolls around to college football.

College football is about emotion, about becoming unmoored from reality, about ignoring the statistics and declaring, “We’re No. 1,” when, technically speaking, “We Are Much Closer to No. 137.”

College football is all about being like Phyllis the rabid Alabama fan and sports radio caller:

For the first time in years, the decision over who is the top NCAA football team in the country has been turned back over to humans. Yes, humans have always taken to the field of play to see who’s the better team, but since 1998 the declaration of who actually is No. 1, when all is said and done, was left up to a convoluted combination of human-generated polls and computer-calculated rankings.

This year it’s back to humans. This year, a committee of 13 has determined that the University of Alabama, the University of Oregon, Ohio State University and Florida State University are the four best college teams in the country and that they deserve to play a semi-final round, with the victors moving on to play for the national title.

The 2014 system marks a change from recent years when the top two teams playing for the championship were determined by a sportswriters’ poll, a coaches’ poll and a series of computerized rankings. It was a system that often produced howls of protest from fans of teams who thought their team ought have had a chance at the No. 1 ranking. Just as the system before that — relying on separate polls of writers and coaches to each select a champion — led to howls of protest (and sometimes to co-champions).

This new system? Yes. Howls of protest. And then some.

IllvsMich

College football fandom is an emotional thing tangled up in school ties, bitter rivalries, nostalgia, regional jealousies and team loyalties passed down through generations. Given advancements in big data, processing power and machine learning, it seems entirely possible that a neutral group could devise a computer program that could come extremely close to flawlessly selecting  the best team in the country.

“But what fun is that?” Asks San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Mark Purdy. He even has an answer: None.

“One of the reasons that college football has been a favorite sport of mine, is the history” says Purdy, who’s covered a variety of sports over a distinguished career. “College football has been all about humans assessing what’s good and what’s bad. I think if you have a correct number of people assessing these games, I think you end up with a pretty good consensus of what’s the best team.”

College football presents some special challenges: Most schools belong to conferences, which dictates the bulk of their schedules. Head-to-head matches involving top teams are often not available, so producing rankings based on what happens on the field is often impossible.

That, everyone agrees on. It’s what to do about it that sparks debate. Austin Narber, who blogs about sports — Iowa State University basketball in particular — has written that machines are the way to go. From his post earlier this year:

“There is one fact you cannot deny: the human brain, no matter how intelligent its possessor appears to be, cannot begin to fathom the amount of information that goes into calculating things like tempo, adjusted field goal percentage, turnover percentage, luck, or strength of schedule. It cannot fathom how these statistics are ever-changing with every single possession of every single game, every single day of the year. By not supporting the existence of the computers that flawlessly calculate things like this, you are instead supporting the idea that human error is acceptable.

Let’s say you’re answering a trivia question worth one million dollars. You have two lifelines:

  1. You can ask a group of your relatively intelligent friends to collaborate and come up with an answer, or
  2. You can Google it.

Don’t sit there and tell me you wouldn’t go to the computer.”

Rosebowlnite

But maybe part of the fun with picking a national football champion is the quirky uncertainty. Maybe having humans involved in picking the four teams that will have a chance to win the national championship just adds to the delight. Humans are flawed, unpredictable. They do screwy things. Sometimes it’s fun to watch.

“Football is unique,” Purdy says. “There are a lot of teams; all these different cultures of these teams. There are leagues from coast to coast, where teams don’t play each other. So you kind of have to rely on the eyeball.”

So why not pick enough eyeballs — say 26 in the case of the current committee, attached to people who know something about football, and let them set up the playoff?

“It’s football,” Purdy says. “It’s not deciding which general should defend us in a nuclear war.”

And that’s just it. I’ve written a lot lately about the balance between humans and machines. I’ve looked at Yahoo’s early efforts to categorize the Web. And London cabbies’ ability to navigate the streets of central London based on their knowledge and experience. I’ve written about centaur chess players who team up with machines to become the best possible chess players they can be. Mostly, I’ve written about working to get things done.

But what if, like in the case of football, human foibles were core to the entire exercise? To take it to the extreme: If you’re going to rely on machines to pick college football’s national champion (based, of course, on wins, losses and a long list of other metrics), why not rely on a machine to determine the outcome of each individual game and do away entirely with the need to play them?

Why not? Because it would be silly. And a whole lot less fun.

Or as Purdy puts it:

“The college thing I think is, more humans equals more fun. Always and forever.”

Photo of Illinois vs. Michigan football by Adam Glanzman and Rose Bowl at night by Navin75

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.