Furman professors help NCAA with rating system

ncaa-logoFurman University’s football team made it to the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs before falling to North Dakota State in Fargo last weekend, but the university’s involvement in the playoffs continues beyond the playing field.

While head coach Bruce Fowler and his staff were directing the Paladins to the Southern Conference’s automatic bid to the playoffs, two members of Furman’s Department of Mathematics were crunching numbers to help the Division I Football Championship Committee, the group charged with selecting the teams for the FCS tournament.

The computer-generated NCAA Simple Rating System (NCAA SRS), developed by John Harris and Kevin Hutson, was one of the resources the committee consulted as it determined the 24-team playoff field in November.

Harris said he and Hutson developed an interest in the project as teachers, not just mathematicians or sports fans.

The seed for the NCAA SRS was planted years ago when Furman student Jordan Lyerly asked to do a research project involving sports and math.

While attending a sports analytics conference in Boston, Harris, Hutson and Lyerly met ESPN TheMagazine writer Peter Keating.  The meeting and discussions there later resulted in a call from Keating.

“When Peter called us he said not too many people are using the Simple Rating System for college football,” Harris said. “That’s what he wanted us for; to see if we could tweak the Simple Rating System a little.”

The Simple Rating System referred to was being used in the National Football League and other settings.

After discussions, the Furman staffers developed a system for rating Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 2012. Notre Dame landed in the lower half of the top 10 in the ratings despite being unbeaten and No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.  Keating used the data from Furman to write an article suggesting Notre Dame did not merit a spot in the BCS title game.

Alabama won 42-14.

In January, Damani Leech, NCAA managing director of football, called Harris and Hutson to seek more information about the rating system. They sent Leech some ratings information for the NCAA to compare to its 2012 FCS selections.

“He liked what we sent, so we started working with that group, coaches and athletic directors and other people by conference call,” Hutson said. “The system evolved over time. It doesn’t look like any of the four systems we sent to them originally. Most of that was because coaches would have concerns about including certain things and we would extract them.”

Harris and Hutson didn’t begin calculating the NCAA SRS until several weeks into the 2013 season. “Our system views all teams equally. We build a network of teams that not only consists of FCS teams, but FBS and NCAA Division II teams,” Hutson said. “Then, we try to rank the teams by giving each team a rating and organizing them from highest rating to lowest rating.

“The rating is based on how well you perform throughout the year,” Hutson said. “It involves not only how well you perform, but how your opponent’s opponents perform and how your opponent’s opponents’ opponents perform. The network provides a way to link everybody to everybody else.”

Both Harris and Hutson said a human element still needs to be involved in the selection process to account for factors—such as injuries—a solely numbers-based system could not compute.

Harris, a Furman student when the Paladins won the then-NCAA Division I-AA title in 1988, said the NCAA hasn’t committed to using the NCAA SRS in future years, but he is optimistic they will. “A lot of the language they’ve used has said ‘beginning this year, the NCAA is using this system,’” Harris said.

The NCAA has invited Harris and Hutson to the FCS championship weekend in Frisco, Texas, in January to give a presentation on the NCAA SRS. They would have preferred being accompanied by the Paladin football team, but they’ll be there just the same.