College Coaches Running up the Score: Responding to Incentives

From Pat Forde at ESPN:

Oklahoma ran it up last and loudest, scoring 45 fourth-quarter points in its past two games against Oklahoma State and Missouri — 31 of them in the last half of the last quarter. The Missouri game was particularly egregious, with Bradford chucking for the end zone with less than four minutes to play and the Sooners clinging to a precarious 34-point lead.

Many will damn Stoops for doing this, arguing (reasonably) that he shouldn’t have his starting offense on the field late in the 4th quarter of a blowout game, as in the Big XII championship game against Mizzou. But that blowout allowed the Sooners to hurdle the only team to beat them this year – Texas – in the BCS standings, putting the Sooners into the “championship” game against the Florida Gators. Speaking of the Gators:

But don’t forget Florida’s naked scoreboard padding earlier in September — particularly the field goal the Gators kicked with 25 seconds left against Miami to stretch a 23-3 lead to a 26-3 final score. There was no point in even trying to justify that one, so Meyer didn’t. He offered no significant explanation at all.

…Florida did not turn off the USA Today coaches’ or AP poll voters with that field goal. The Gators gained points in both polls following that victory.

The kicker:

This is another manifestation of a BCS system that is awash in money and finds frustrating ways to crown a champion. The system rewards blowouts — not in the computer rankings, which collapse margin of victory, but with voters who use scores to help split hairs between powerhouse teams.

Not only that, but coaches get bonus pay for reaching the BCS, getting into the title game, and winning the championship (from a Nov. 2006 USA Today article).

•At 83 schools, more than $23 million in on-field performance bonuses are at stake as coaches and their teams approach the 2006 postseason. Florida’s Urban Meyer will pocket $37,500 for getting the Gators to next month’s Southeastern Conference title game; he will effectively get another $137,500 if the Gators win it and qualify for a Bowl Championship Series game, $50,000 more if they get to the BCS national title game and an additional $100,000 more if they win that.

The current BCS formula is a combination of 6 computer rankings, the Harris Interactive poll (a poll of former coaches, players, and administrators, and current and former members of the media), and the USA Today coaches’ poll. When humans pick who is best, they naturally look at margin of victory to partially provide that information. This is, IMHO, especially true of coaches who spend most of their time preparing for their next game. They simply don’t have the time to closely follow how particular games unfold.

I certainly can admire coaches that don’t run up the score on purpose, but it’s hard to damn them when they do. They’re just responding to the incentives that they face.

Cross-posted at The Sports Economist