We Are Shocked — Shocked! — to Learn that College Football Coaches Exhibit a Conflict of Interest When Rating Teams

File under “Not Surprising But Still Interesting.” A new working paper by Matthew Kotchen and Matthew Potoski makes these claims:

Using individual coach ballots between 2005 and 2010, we find that coaches distort their rankings to reflect their own team’s reputation and financial interests.  On average, coaches rank teams from their own athletic conference nearly a full position more favorably and boost their own team’s ranking more than two full positions.  Coaches also rank teams they defeated more favorably, thereby making their own team look better.  When it comes to ranking teams contending for one of the high-profile Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games, coaches favor those teams that generate higher financial payoffs for their own team.  Reflecting the structure of payoff disbursements, coaches from non-BCS conferences band together, while those from BCS conferences more narrowly favor teams in their own conference.  Among all coaches an additional payoff between $3.3 and $5 million induces a more favorable ranking of one position. Moreover, for each increase in a contending team’s payoff equal to 10 percent of a coach’s football budget, coaches respond with more favorable rankings of half a position, and this effect is more than twice as large when coaches rank teams outside the top 10.


I don’t mean to belittle Kotchen and Potoski’s research — it looks to be very good. But the more one learns about incentives and bias (and self-delusion), the more one is unsurprised by this sort of behavior.

Kristine A

Occupy BCS!


While not surprising, an explicit empirical connection between rankings and payoff might lead us to the college football promised land -- a playoff system. I can see this evidence, which everyone knew to be true but could not show specific data for, being used by proponents to push for this clearest solution.


And what about the USNews College Rankings where 25% of the calculation is based on "Academic Reputation" from a survey of top administrators? Do college presidents behave the same way as football coaches?


I haven't read it, so it might be addressed. But there is a possibility that some of the higher rankings come from the pure bias of having played the opposing team. Few teams are as bad or as good as their records indicate. The Chiefs beat the Packers this year. So actually playing a team may increase the coaches respect for the team. Just a thought because I don't really doubt their explanation.


The BCS needs to get rid of the USAToday Coaches poll from the formula, otherwise it's just the BiasCS. To thing that there isn't collusion is hypocrisy precisely because you're dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars. The large conferences also need to get away from naming themselves after numbers (i.e., Big12, PAC-10, BigTen, etc.) and locations (i.e., Missouri next year in the SEC). Also, the Big12Ten needs to drop the dumpest naming of all Leaders and Legends - a Leader could simply be a 5-year senior starting their last year, while a Legend is someone that lives on forever - so which would you rather be?