A Monte Carlo Simulation of the Big10 Race

November is shaping up to be quite the race in the Big10, I have to say, the addition of divisions and a championship game have created a great new dynamic (and makes me rethink my objection to a playoff, hmmm.)

Many sites have written about all the permutations of possible teams in the championship game, and the surprising fact that OSU is not out of it, and in fact has a very good shot at making the game. Being a bit of a nerd, I decided to play around with a “Monte Carlo simulation”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Carlo_method of the race to the championship game.

I wrote a little C program that does any arbitrary number of iterations of the rest of the season and examines the results to determine the championship game participants. The outcome of each game is determined randomly — a random number is selected from 0-1 and used as an index against the a priori probability (as made up by me) that each team would win the game. I.E., if you believe Northwestern has a 70% chance of beating Minnesota, then any random number from 0 to .7 implies a Northwestern win. I used the c rand function with a time-based seeding on each run, please no complaints about the quality of my random numbers, I am just simulating football games for gosh sakes. I toyed around with the a priori probabilities a little to see how sensitive the outcomes were. And then at the end of the season, I apply all the tiebreakers if necessary to see what teams represent the divisions in the title game. I ran the simulation 1000 times, and a few runs of 10,000 trials just for yuks. The 1000 run simulation

So — the Legends division. Not surprisingly, due to the weakness of their remaining schedule, MSU is the title game rep ~2/3rds of the time. Nebraska about ~1/3, and Michigan picks up a smattering (1%) of appearances. Since Michigan has already lost to MSU, if they ever end up tied in the standings, MSU always takes the spot. Michigan needs MSU and Nebraska to both falter (and can control the Nebraska since they have yet to play) and also needs to beat OSU, Illinois, Iowa. A tough road. This weekend’s play won’t shake things up much, the most interesting game is the Michigan-Iowa game, I would have picked Iowa a week ago but losing to Minnesota has shaken my faith in the F(erentz) Troop. The Nov 12th weekend will be more entertaining — MSU@Iowa, Michigan@Illinois, Nebraska@PSU. And then Nebraska@Michigan Nov 19th. It seems unlikely that Michigan will still be in the hunt by the time of the Ohio State game.

The Leaders division is far more interesting. PSU has the inside track, no surprise being up 2 games on everyone else at this point. They take the title game spot 30-60% of the time, depending on how you view the likelihood of them winning their remaining games. If you think they are a slight favorite in all their remaining games, then 60%. If you think they are a modest underdog, then 30%. OSU has a surprisingly good shot, 20-25%, depending on how you rate their odds against Michigan and PSU, and because they are in a good tiebreaker position having beaten Wisconsin. Wisconsin picks up the pieces and has the weakest chance due to the OSU loss. The Nov 5th weekend will likely teach us nothing as PSU has a bye, OSU has Indiana, Wisconsin has Purdue. The Nov 12th Nebraska@PSU game is one to watch, and then Nov 19th with Wisconsin@Illinois and PSU@OSU is a defining weekend. There is a very real chance that on the final weekend, all 3 teams need a win to make it to the game — OSU is at Michigan and PSU is at Wisconsin, so that should be a great day.

Today is why college football rules

OSU’s win in doubt until the last play. 3 game winning TDs in the last 90 seconds of the Michigan-ND game. Iowa-Iowa State overtime. USC preserves win on the last play of the game…and are credited with 6 more points hours later. And a half dozen other close games.

ND and Georgia’s seasons are on the rocks. Michigan is resurgent. Wisconsin looks like a title favorite. The highs and lows in the sport are so intense.

There are so many things wrong with the structure of the sport…but my gosh, Saturdays are awesome.

NFLand NCAA step in it on Pryor decision

I am glad that the NFL has allowed Terrelle to pursue his career and wish him the best of luck. But man did the NFL and NCAA step in it big time as “CBS blogger Mike Freeman notes”:http://mike-freeman.blogs.cbssports.com/mcc/blogs/entry/6264363/31396933. By enforcing these arbitrary NCAA rules, the NFL has made it clear that it is fully cooperating with the NCAA to establish and control the labor market for football players. These two organizations have always claimed in the past that they are separate, it is hard to maintain that fiction. There is clear collaboration to limit the opportunities for 18-21 year olds, and no representation of these players in the system at all.

Why don’t we realign conferences every year?

With “conference realignment furor in full swing again”:http://www.alongtheolentangy.com/2011/8/11/2358636/texas-a-m-to-sec-roaring-expansion-tidal-wave-imminent, I have to wonder why no one has harnessed the fan and media interest for good effect. If I was running a large conference — I wouldn’t have static divisions, but I’d rebalance every year in the middle of the offseason. Yes it could be a scheduling pain in the ass but we have software to manage that. The key point is to create a positive planned offseason media event that fans could look forward to and that would create some valuable media content — a full week of BTN or other network shows could be built around the realignment announcement and discussion. Realignment across conferences would be even more fun but is politically contentious.

It is dumb to not tap into the fan interest around alignment, the schools are leaving money on the table. And to be a little manipulative — better to have the press focusing on positive topics like realignment during the offseason, rather than digging around for scandals.

After the offseason of infinite pain, football tickets arrive!

Thank goodness that tickets arrived in the mail today! We can get back to playing football and enjoying the games, and quit focusing on all the activity off the field.

Despite all the offseason turmoil, or maybe because of it, I am actually looking forward to this season quite a bit. There is an uncertainty about OSU this season that has been lacking in recent years. Key positions are major question marks. A new coaching philosophy will be in play. That School Up North has a new staff and some new life. The entry of Nebraska into the league is great news, I would love to get to the OSU/Nebraska game this year. The divisional lineup of the Big10 is a new element. It all adds up to an exciting season.

OSU’s home schedule is interesting, tho not great. Nebraska and Michigan are away which is too bad. But Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State at home are great games.

No idea which games we are going to get to. Our schedule is very complex this late summer and fall. But hope to see some of you there…

“Sometimes, the NCAA just makes me want to puke”

Completely totally 100% agree with “this gentleman”:http://blutarsky.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/sometimes-the-ncaa-just-makes-me-want-to-puke/.

I don’t understand how anyone with a straight face can propose to generate yet more incremental revenue off the revenue sport athletes, without proposing anything regarding greater compensation for the players. This proposal will generate more money for media companies, for entertainment companies, for advertisers, for the NCAA, for schools. And $0 for the athletes involved. The athletes don’t even get to have a say in the process.

Nuts.

BTW, al.com is running a nice series on “the treatment of players in division 1 revenue sports”:http://www.al.com/sports/index.ssf/2011/04/college_athletes_rights_who_fi.html. Worth a read. And nice pointes to “oversigning.com”:http://oversigning.com/testing/ and the related site “Parents of Players”:http://www.parentsofplayers.com/.

Which fruit is the fruitiest?

You have a basket of wonderful fresh fruit delivered weekly to your house. Melons, apples, peaches, oranges, cherries, kiwi, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranates, etc. Maybe even an olive or a tomato. In all the best varieties and at the peak of ripeness. The honeycrisp apples are crisp and tart and cold. The cantaloupe is cold and juicy and flavorful. The strawberries have the deep red flesh of the best homegrown varieties and an amazing smell. The cherries are flawless and sweet. The peaches are juicy and firm but not too firm. The pomegranates open easily and the seeds just fall out. Really, it is just an orgy of fruitiness. OK, sure, it is fruit, and there are a few pieces here and there that are a little mushy, and a few that are not quite ripe. And week to week, one variety may outshine the others as the season moves one. But overall, it great basket of fruit weekly and you are very happy.

At the end of the fruit season, you are asked to taste all the fruit in the current week’s basket, two at a time. And then answer the question, “Which fruit is the fruitiest?”

But they are all good! And different. And good at different times. How would one answer that question? Why would the question even be posed? What would any answer even mean? Would we quit trying to grow the “losing” fruit? Would we try to breed oranges to make them more cherry-like? (Perhaps you like “Grapples”:http://www.grapplefruits.com/.) If a November pear is better than an August peach, do we just quit eating fruit in August? The entire discussion is just strange.

So many people — fans, commentators, US senators, etc — would have you believe that this is the best kind of system by which to judge a college football season. And that the bowl system is somehow wrong. That the only fair and American way to judge the season is to have some subset of teams play each in a single elimination playoff at year end.

This is wrong on so many levels. The sports of baseball and basketball permit multi-game series to determine the better of two teams, this eliminates any single-game hiccups. This is just not physically possible in football. The notion that a single game determines the absolute better of two teams is odd; a system that weights and values the entire resume of work of a team seems more rational. It is not obvious what a single game win really says other than “Team A was better than Team B tonight at this particular location”. Which fruit is really the fruitiest? I have no idea and a single-elimination playoff series is not really going to answer that.

Further, the bowl system today allows roughly half the teams in the FBS to enjoy an additional month of practice to better themselves. And then 1/2 of those teams get to end the season on a high note and go home with a trophy. That is a lot of practice time and goodwill spread around across a lot of teams. Replacing this with a system that has only 1 winner and a bunch of losers does not seem like a net improvement for the athletes involved. Yes one team feels a lot better, and perhaps a few more feel good about having had their shot, but the rest feel no better and possibly worse.

And the adults in the system should be running the system for the benefit of the students, who are relatively powerless, not for the benefits of frustrated fans or others. Does a move to a playoff system help the students in some fashion? It is a net reduction in goodwill for most of the athletes, is it worth it to celebrate one single team which may or may not really be the best team of the season? And is the extra playing time demanded of the students balanced by any sort of compensation for the time spent and the health risk incurred?

There are economic arguments for a playoff, but the economics of NCAA football are so screwy it is hard to give these arguments any weight. Any proposal which brings a lot more money into the sport without distributing that money to the athletes involved is morally suspect.

So a playoff has no obvious benefits for the athletes and is of dubious value in establishing which team is “best”. And in the process of distilling the sport down to a simple ill-conceived yes/no question, we would lose some of the in-season and off-season chatter that is so unique to the sport. The gnashing of teeth about the injustices of being ranked in a certain way or being excluded from certain events. The back-and-forth about the weaknesses of other conferences, about the inadequacies of other team’s schedules, all the “would-of could-of should-of” talk. All this turns into deep-seated resentment and hatred which is the pulse that drives college football.

College basketball and March Madness are fun, but ultimately are somewhat passionless. The regular season of basketball has become a drag. Individual games just don’t matter that much. A loss doesn’t sit with you and gnaw at you for years. It would be terrible if college football became just like this. There is no reason for it. Let’s embrace the difference and the wackiness that is college football and let it thrive.

Should some things change in the game? Sure. We need to pay more attention to head injuries. The economics of the sport are ridiculous. The early season games against hugely mismatched opponents all for the purposes of money do a great disservice to the sport. Let’s fix these things. But leave the end of the season craziness alone.

Servicing my college football addiction

Finally, the first week of college football. And the first week of servicing my addiction. Here is the plan for this year:

* In person attendance at games: We’ll make the November Penn State and Michigan games at Ohio Stadium. 4 tickets to each game at $70/pop comes to $560, we are able to easily sell the unused portion of our season ticket books. Oh of course to get the rights to buy 4 tickets and a parking pass, we had to join the “Buckeye Club”:http://www.ohiostatebuckeyes.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=17300&ATCLID=1398165 at the appropriate level, and make ongoing scholarship donations which qualify us to join the “President’s Club”:http://giveto.osu.edu/donorsocieties/presidentsclub/index.html. But we will pretend those aren’t related — in fact we would donate the scholarship money anyway, to help Marion County students with demonstrated need make it through Ohio State. Oh and we will ignore the travel expense to Ohio as well, since we are going to be there primarily to visit family. Oh and I may sneak to a USC or UW game in addition but we will see. And depending on how the Buckeyes do, we may go the bowl game, count on another $2500 for tickets/travel/accommodations in Glendale (hey, go big or go home!).

* Watching all other weekends on TV: Sports, and particularly college football, are at least 50% of the driver for our cable/dish subscriptions. We subscribe to enough of a tier on cable to get ESPN, Fox Sports, and the Big-10 network in HD. And since we are splitting time between Seattle and Ohio this fall, we have to maintain subscriptions in both locations since cable and dish subscriptions are not portable. We’ve tried a variety of ways to get around this, but there are no quality solutions — ESPN3 is low quality, the various pirated feeds are even worse, slingbox doesn’t really work for HD content. So say half a cable bill monthly in two locations is attributable to football, that is $50/month * 2 locations * 6 months == $600.

* Tracking on the PC/iPad. When I’m at home watching game A, I want to track other games on a medium sized screen. ESPN, ESPN3, and SI are the best of a bad lot — all crammed with ads, tend to have load issues on Saturdays, tend to lag the real action, etc etc. I used to use Sportsline but investment in that site seems to be trending down. I’m not going to allocate any of our internet costs to sports, we would have the same connection if sports didn’t exist.

* Tracking on the iPhone. A real weak spot. The ESPN app is the best score tracker — customizable for just my teams, reasonable UI. But massive load issues on Saturdays, something has clearly been engineered poorly in the transaction model for this app, since it is way more load-sensitive than the web site which makes no sense at all. Backup are the websites for SI and ESPN. Twitter also critical since every major sportswriter/sportsblogger is active on twitter. Of course everyone of these data services fails totally when at a live game, as 100K people all try to hit the same cell tower at once. Google SMS is the fallback of last resort, it can sometimes work when the 3G/Edge networks are failing. You can certainly allocate half my cell phone data plan to sports for the 6 months of college football, so let’s say another $300. Yes I would look harder at a different data plan if I didn’t track sports. Overall the lack of a great app to track sports teams on the iPhone is a little surprising.

OK so $3100 in costs to attend games and bowl, $900 in telecom costs, so $4K in direct costs a year to watch college football. Plus the opportunity cost of time — at least 16 weekends, 8 hours of time, 128 hours. And I am probably not being honest with myself about that time commitment. But eternally hopeful that the Buckeyes will win the national championship, thereby justifying all of it!

OSU's reloading challenge; helmet schedules

The BigTen Network has a nice page summarizing all the watch lists for this season. Which nicely highlights OSU’s challenge this year — compared to years past, OSU has way too few players on these lists. For OSU to achieve the top 5-10 finish predicted by a lot of pollsters, some relative unknowns are going to have to have breakout seasons. OSU certainly has the talent but will it develop and gel?

BTW, get your helmet schedule here

Another blow to ND's independent status

UConn (after signing a home and home series last week with Michigan) doesn’t feel like they have to bend over for Notre Dame anymore. ND has been able to stuff a schedule full of lower rank Div I opponents, but these are the teams that are exactly in demand by the top tier of Div I teams. So the price in dollars and return visits for all these games are heading up. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for ND, as the price rises for them to maintain their schedule, though obviously they still are doing fine economically as an independent.

The UConn/Michigan linkup tho is especially pointed, as teams from the two conferences which have been most desirous of ND inclusion have joined up to put a hole in ND’s schedule.

College Football Week One Picks

My buddy Tim runs a little pickem content and the first week slate is out:

* August 28 North Carolina State vs. South Carolina. I don’t think NC State is there yet
* August 29 Temple vs. Army. ugh. Army i guess
* August 30 Utah vs. Michigan. I think Michigan will have a lot of emotion and will win this
* Syracuse vs. Northwestern. Northwestern. Never take Syracuse
* Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina. VT
* Michigan State vs. California. Hmm, MSU is the favorite darkhorse in the big10 this year. But hard to win on the west coast.
* Hawaii vs. Florida. Florida
* Alabama vs. Clemson. Oh damn, Clemson is a trendy pick, but I have never won picking Clemson
* Missouri at Illinois. Mizzou. Illinois strugges to repeat last year’s breakthru
* Washington vs. Oregon. Hmm, Oregon is confused at QB, UW is not.
* August 31 Kentucky vs. Louisville. Ugh, no respect for these teams. Probably take Louisville
* Sept 1 Fresno State vs. Rutgers. Take Rutgers at home
* Tennessee vs. UCLA. UCLA not ready for primetime yet