I originally posted this blog on www.irrationalmusings.com on 3 Dec 2010.
I hate the head-to-head (HTH) tie breaker rule. It gives the impression of selecting the superior, more deserving team when statistics show it does no such thing. And sports fans in general, and college football fans in particular will cite it as unequivocal evidence that their team is superior. And FBS conferences use it like it is an all-knowing Magus to select the superior team and their championship representative. I am here to preach that it is a biased rule, it is no more accurate than flipping a coin and it has no place in selecting among co-champions. When teams are tied, it is very difficult to determine the more deserving team. An objective selection, such as eliminating the most recent representative, seems much more appropriate to me. I would even prefer a flat use of BCS rank to select the representative. The illusion that HTH selects the superior team simply irks me.Many college football conferences are content with co-champions. There is no need to decide which of two or three tied teams is better, they have the same record and so they are co-champions. But these conferences don???t have to decide who goes to a championship game, or a bowl game.
In the College Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Conferences, the HTH tie breaker has emerged as the gold standard among tie breakers. Among the 11 FBS conferences, 5 of them (ACC, Big12, C-USA, MAC, and SEC) are split into two divisions whose champions meet in a conference championship game, and three (BigTen, PAC10, BigEast) are AQ conferences with simpler tournament play. Each of these 8 conferences must use tie breakers to determine either a championship game representative or a bowl game representative. (The remaining three conferences are content with co-champions and any bowl invitations that may follow.)
In an attempt to select the most deserving team to send to the conference championship game or to the contracted bowl game, these conferences employ a complicated algorithm or tie breaker rules that typically center around HTH and end with BCS rank, except if two of the teams are within 5 ranks of one another in which case HTH victor of the top two ranked teams is the representative unless the HTH game was played under the lights on the first Friday following the first full moon following the autumnal equinox. The implication that HTH is superior to BCS rank and that BCS rank should be used merely as a filter before application of HTH makes me want to choke somebody.
The teams are TIED. They are both deserving. Any algorithm to determine the more deserving team gives only the illusion of fairness. If conferences would simply apply the legacy rule of eliminating the most recent representative, we would have the simplest and fairest tie breaker.
The HTH does not determine the most deserving team, merely the lucky team. The basic premise is this: if State and Tech are co-champions with the same conference record and State beat Tech in the HTH game, then State has a quality win over a co-champion, but, necessarily, State has a loss to an inferior conference team. The paradox of the HTH is that the winner has a better win, but it also has a worse loss. With equal logic, one could argue that the HTH loser is the more deserving team.
Here's a breakdown of tie breaker activity in the 11 FBS conferences in 2010.
No divisional tie this year (Virginia Tech (8-0) vs. Florida State (6-2) in championship game). HTH is 1st tie breaker. Falls to BCS rank unless highest two are within five ranks of one another, in which case it reverts to HTH.
HTH: 0 for 0
3-way tie, head-to-head is 1st tie breaker, falls to BCS rank (Wisconsin). Interesting to note that the BigTen started the trend of referring to tied team as co-champions and uses the tie breaker process simply to select the Rose Bowl representative. Many conferences have followed this trend. For 3-way ties in the BigTen, the first tie breaker is "If three teams are tied, and if one team defeated both of the other teams, then that team shall be the representative." In other words, if Wisconsin had beaten both Michigan St. and Ohio St., but lost to, say, Penn St., thereby creating the tie, Wisconsin would be the Rose Bowl representative. In my book, losing to Penn St. is a bigger blemish on your record than losing to co-champ Wisconsin. Fortunately, HTH does not apply this year.
HTH: 0 for 0
3-way tie in south division, 2-way tie in north. HTH is first tie breaker. North goes to Nebraska over Missouri by virtue of HTH. Missouri lost to Nebraska and Texas Tech. Nebraska lost to Texas and Texas A&M. Colley has Missouri #7 and Nebraska #15. BCS has them #12 and #13. This one is pretty close, so HTH may have it right but it is certainly not indisputable. Let's be generous and say HTH got this one right.
HTH: 1 for 1
We have several conferences (Big12, SEC, ACC, C-USA) with two
divisions in which division champs meet in a conference championship
game. Teams play everyone in their divisions, but that is only 5 or 6
conference games. And so conference play includes 2 to 3 cross-division
games that count equally in determining division champ. The problem with
this is that a team may face the best teams in the cross division while
another faces the worst. This happened to Kansas in 2008. That year,
Kansas beat Missouri beat Nebraska beat Kansas. But Kansas also played
all three Top 10 South Division teams Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma
while Nebraska played only two of them (Oklahoma and Texas Tech) and
Missouri, one (Texas). All were losses for the respective North team.
(Missouri added a loss to Oklahoma St.) While Nebraska and Missouri each
had 5-3 conference records and Kansas was 4-4, they all had a 4-1
record in the division. Kansas was unfairly eliminated from tie breaker
consideration. Missouri was the North representative in the Big12
Championship game by virtue of HTH over Nebraska. HTH probably got that
one right, but Division champ should be determined by division record
HTH: 2 for 2
South tie breaker reverts to BCS rank. Condition on BCS rank is if
top teams are within one rank of one another, HTH decides. HTH does not
HTH: 2 for 2
Big East football consists of an 8-team, round-robin. Currently there is a 3-way tie and there is still potential for 5-way co-champions. HTH is the ruling tie breaker to determine the Big East's BCS representative. It falls to BCS rank with no conditions when HTH cannot resolve the tie. This year, the HTH tie breaker chooses Connecticut. Colley (http://www.colleyrankings.com/) has WVa #23, Pitt #55, and UConn #57. I'd say HTH failed this one.
HTH: 2 for 3
My biggest issue with the HTH is coming true in the Big East. Its likely to end in a 3-way tie. UConn beat both West Virginia and Pitt. West Virginia beat Pitt, which of course means Pitt lost to both. UConn will get the BCS bid by virtue of the HTH. But they lost to Big East Cellar Dwellers Rutgers and Louisville, teams West Virginia and Pitt handled without issue. (ok, WestVirginia plays Rutgers this weekend, but they're likely to pound them).
The fact that the HTH winner has the best record against the conference's top teams necessarily means it has the worst record against the worst teams.That's the paradox; your wins are better but your losses are worse.
Conference USA has two divisions and a conference championship. Teams play two inter-divisional games. UCF is the clear winner in the East Division. SMU (6-2, 7-5) is going to the championship game against UCF by virtue of HTH over Tulsa (6-2, 9-3). Tulsa's losses are to East Carolina (from the East Division) and SMU. SMU's are to Houston and UTEP, both lesser teams in the West Division. The Colley Rankings has Tulsa at #29 and SMU at #53. The common East Division game was against East Carolina, whom SMU beat and Tulsa lost to. The non-conference record reveals little because SMU has losses against tough teams in Texas Tech, TCU, and Navy. Tulsa has a loss to Oklahoma St and a marquis win over Notre Dame. Looking at overall body of work, it seems to me HTH's attempt at selecting the superior team failed.
HTH: 2 for 4
No ties this year. Clear divisional winners Northern Illinois and Miami (OH) will face each other in the championship game. As with all other similarly structured conferences, the HTH tie breaker is the ruling tie breaker.
HTH: 2 for 4
No ties this year. 9-team round-robin. Tied teams are simply co-champions.
HTH: 2 for 4
The PAC 10 consists of a 10-team round-robin. There is still a potential for co-champs, although Oregon is the clear favorite and has the HTH edge over Stanford. The HTH tie breaker determines the Rose Bowl representative. BCS rank is used when HTH cannot resolve the tie.
HTH: 2 for 4
Football in the Sun Belt Conference is a 9-team round robin. There is still a potential for a tie, but I found no tie breaker rules. Tied teams are simply co-champions.
HTH: 2 for 4
As in the Sun Belt Conference, WAC football is a 9-team round-robin. There will likely be a 3-way tie this year between Hawaii, Boise St., and Nevada. Tied teams are simply co-champions. Let the bowl invitations fall where they may.
HTH: 2 for 4
So the final tally for HTH is 2 for 4. Sorry folks, HTH appears no better than flipping a coin. And I think I was generous by giving HTH to two successful calls, especially since one of them isn???t even from the current season.