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When sports decide which teams make the playoffs, there are often tiebreakers used to sort-out teams with identical records.  One of the most common tiebreakers is the “head-to-head” record.

Head-to-head record is a poor tiebreaker, especially compared with, say, strength of schedule.

Let’s NCAA basketball as an example.  Suppose Wake Forest (my alma mater) and Western Carolina (the school where I teach) both go 29-1 in the regular season.  Suppose Western Carolina’s only loss was to Mars Hill, and Wake Forest’s only loss was to Western Carolina.

Image result for western carolina basketball

The diehard “head-to-head” people would say “Western Carolina should be ranked higher!  They won the head-to-head matchup!”  But I say: what about the other 29 games?  Wake Forest plays in the ACC, and has multiple games against Duke, UNC, Miami, NC State…you get the picture.  Western Carolina has a much weaker schedule against the likes of Wofford, the Citadel, VMI, Chattanooga.  Sure, Wake Forest lost to Western Carolina, but in turn, Western Carolina lost to Mars Hill!  Which loss looks worse, hmm?

Image result for wake forest logo

The problem with head-to-head is that it’s only one data point.  Any team can lose a single game.  Maybe Wake Forest was missing their starting 5 due to the flu for that one game against Western Carolina.  (Clemson’s loss in football to Syracuse, earlier this year, was partially due to their starting quarterback being out).  A tie-breaker should be as broad as possible, and take the entire year into consideration.  This is especially true in basketball or baseball, when the long seasons make head-to-head records well-nigh meaningless.

I’m thinking about this now because college football is nearing its end for the year, and some arcane committee will have to decide who gets into the college football playoff and who stays out.  There are those who have complained that an undefeated Wisconsin team (currently #3) should be ranked higher.  But the Badgers have played an easy schedule, compared to, say, Auburn, who has faced the toughest road possible.  (Look at strength-of-schedule rankings here.)  In fact, I personally rank Auburn (10-2) higher than Wisconsin (12-0) for that very reason.  We only have 24 total data points here, but if Auburn and Wisconsin swapped schedules, then Auburn would be 12-0 easily and Wisconsin would be, at best, 7-5.

I can’t say it enough.  Head-to-head is a garbage tiebreaker.  It’s only one data point.  Strength-of-schedule incorporates literally dozens of data points and should always take precedence.

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