Game Theory, Mixed Strategies, and a D1 Playoff

If you are a fan of game theory (or even if you’re not), you probably loved last night’s BCS game of Boise State against Oklahoma. The favored Sooners spot the Broncos a quick 14 points and the Broncs, through their spirited effort and Sooner QB Paul Thomspon’s poor decisions take a 28 – 10 lead, only to see the Sooners take a 35-28 lead with less than a minute to go on a muffed out-pattern that OU picked and ran back for a TD.

The Broncos appeared to be finished when Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker intercepted Zabransky’s pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to put the Sooners ahead 35-28 with 1:02 remaining.

Then, knowing they are likely to catch the Sooners off guard and with desperation calling, the Broncos pull everything out of the game plan but the blue field. The lateral to tie the game and send it to overttime.

The magic came on a stunning 50-yard touchdown play on fourth-and-18 in the final seconds of regulation. Zabransky hit Drisan James at Oklahoma’s 35, and James pitched the ball to Jerard Rabb, who raced into the end zone with 7 seconds to play.

The statue of liberty* for the 2-point conversion to win the game (where did I see something like that before?) in overtime .

On the decisive play, Zabransky looked at three wide receivers to his right, then handed the ball behind his back to tailback Ian Johnson, who raced untouched into the end zone.

It was pure and beautiful game theory put to work. Certainly a mixed strategies Nash Equilibrium was at play.

I am skeptical about the potential for this game to bring a playoff. Yes, some of the “little boys” can beat the big boys and would do well in a playoff. But a playoff system would, for all intents and purposes, kill the non BCS bowl system. By adding every bowl but the Bowl, the NCAA has nearly done this already. Getting into a bowl game isn’t that big of a deal anymore – a 0.500 team can make it – and a playoff system would make lower-tiered bowls even more irrelevant, a football equivalent of the NIT. Those who would be most adversely affected are the schools perenially out of the top 25.

There are too many schools in D1 that have little shot in a reasonable playoff format who have a better shot at some kind of recognition (and cash) in the current bowl system. Their presidents can out-vote the presidents of the OU’s and Texas’s in the NCAA. So let’s be frank. Don’t blame the final exam schedule for the lack of a playoff. Blame the size of the NCAA and the majority of college presidents in the NCAA who believe they have little shot at making it in a playoff system.

*Update: Doc corrects me. The final play was the ol’ statue of liberty, not the hook and lateral as I originally wrote. And I call myself a football fan!

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Author: Phil Miller

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