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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Hamilton and the College Football Playoffs

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hamilton and the College Football Playoffs

James Hamilton, one of my favorite economists, at Econbrowser, one of my favorite blogs, wrote the following post.  
Since Congress and the President are taking positions on a college football playoff system, it must be time for Econbrowser to weigh in as well.

I want to suggest first that the purpose of a playoff cannot be to determine the best team in the country. I say that for two reasons. First, there is no such thing as the best team in the country. Different teams have different strengths and weaknesses that will match up differently against different opponents. In any given game, anything can happen. In 2007, for example, Appalachian State beat Michigan who beat Florida who beat Kentucky who beat the supposed national champions LSU. So you've either got to declare Appalachian State the best team in the country, or drop your insistence on transitivity.
Second, if you do believe in such a thing as the (probabilistically) best team in the country, the more teams you put in the playoffs, the less likely it is that the best team ends up being declared the champion. Suppose for example that there's a team that with 80% probability would win its game against any other team that might make the playoffs. With a single championship game, that superior team gets declared the champion with probability 80%. With a 4-team playoff, the best team must win both its games, the probability of which is (0.8)(0.8) = 0.64. With an 8-team playoff, the best team is only going to be declared the champion about half the time.

I therefore suggest that the primary purpose of the system is not so much to determine "the" best team as it is to bring enjoyment and satisfaction to the fans. Granted, the proposed playoff games themselves would do that very well for the handful of teams and games that get included in the playoffs, but at the cost of subtracting from the excitement of the 30 or so other post-season games that would have to be diminished as a result. Of course, the parties with a vested financial stake in those other games are for that precise reason opposed to the playoff idea, and that opposition is the main reason it hasn't yet happened. But if you took the objective to be to maximize the economic surplus of all the post-season games combined, I say you'd want to stick with a system like the present one. The lobbying power of those vested interests is precisely a lobby on behalf of maximizing total economic surplus.

But whatever you may think of the merits of a college football playoff, doesn't it bother you to see the U.S. Congress acting as if it's the nation's ruler on this matter?

It does me. Which is why I wrote this.
I wish that I had written this post.  I should add that I would love to see the NCAA institute a playoff system, but I am deeply offended that the U.S. Congress is "acting as if it's the nation's ruler on this matter."  My thanks goes to Rep. John Barrow, Ga, who was apparently the only no vote on this bad bipartisan legislation (follow the Congress link). 


  1. Although there may not be a team that is the best in the country the team that makes it to the end must of done some good things with their "strengths and weaknesses" to topple their opponent I believe that at any game anything can happen and the winner is decided partialy before the game on how the team stratigises and practices, then how they execute in the game. (Adam)

  2. I personally think the only reason a playoff system would be good for NCAA football is the amount of extra money it would produce for the organization. An example of that is the change this year of the bowl system to make it possible for losing teams to make a bowl game at the end of the season. That's ridiculous and almost makes it pointless for a team to even strive for a goal at the end of the season if they are already out of the BCS talk. But the playoff system wouldn't do anything for the NCAA besides raise more money and reward bad teams that may have a good game at some point during the playoffs. (Nathan Pool)

  3. Andy Salinas11/11/10 11:51 PM

    The level of competition you're up against matters. This year TCU, Boise State, Oregon, and Auburn are all looking to lock a national championship game spot. However, TCU and Boise State haven't done their part. I understand that they have to play the teams in their conference. But, since their conferences are extremely weak in comparison to others, they need to do better to schedule harder non-conference games. Its like they purposely want to go undefeated knowing they still may not make the title game. Why put your team in that kind of predicament? Winning all your games in college football should mean something. But, when the best teams you are playing are teams such as virginia tech, nevada, baylor, and utah, it is extremely difficult to judge exactly how good your team is. You shouldn't have to hope for an Auburn or Oregon caliber team to lose for your team to make it to the title game. The strength of your schedule should weigh heavily.
    Teams like boise state and tcu are pledging for a playoff. Well that makes no sense because any above average team could run the table with the schedule they(tcu, bsu) have only having to win a few "tough" games. It(a playoff) would add more excitement to the game, and fans would get into it more. But, it simply is not fair. Any team that made it to the playoffs would have a legitimate chance of winning the national title even though they may have not been the best team the whole season or played a tough schedule to prove themselves.
    I don't like that the U.S. Congress is getting involved with this. I think the NCAA is making the correct choice as of right now using the computer assisted BCS rankings to determine the best team.