An Interview with
James Howell's College Football Power Ratings
YL: You have quite a collection of scores dating from 1869 on David
Wilson's site. Not only that but you actually have final ratings for each year.
I like to look back at particular years because I remember all the hype and
excitement and disappointment. How long did it take you to gather all these
scores? This must have been a labor of love.
James: I cannot give you an exact answer. I began my rating system in
early 1995 after the Penn State-Nebraska MNC controversy. I was actually
gathering some scores at that time, but the first couple years were focused on
developing and refining the rating system. The majority of the historical
research was over the last three or four years. I cannot talk about the research
without citing the fact that I did not do all of the work myself. There were
many people who provided information including the Sports Information Director's
at the schools. However, one person deserves special mention. Mike Sparrow who
works in the Cleveland Public Library had access to a lot of research materials
and was invaluable in assisting me by researching hard-to-find scores. He spent
many hours and I would not have been able to complete the project without his
YL: It's hard to find good help these days. I'm glad to see there are
still real fans out there. In developing your system of rating teams, what did
you determine to be the most important factors?
James: In my system, performance against opponents is the most
important (50%) factor. The other 50% of the rating is win-loss record modified
by strength of schedule.
YL: You have rated the NCAA Football teams all the way back to the
beginning. What sparked this interest in rating teams?
James: As I said, the Penn State-Nebraska controversy of 1994 is what
sparked my interest in developing an objective and consistent rating system.
After the system was developed and brought up-to-date from 1994 forward, I began
to think of some other questionable MNC years (Washington-Miami, BYU, etc.).
Things just began to spiral from there. At first, I was going to go back to
either 1982 or 1978 (the two main years in the I-AA/I-A split). Then it was
1970. Then, I decided to go back a decade at a time to see how far I could go.
One other point. My pre-season ratings are based on historical final ratings, so
I needed to go back a sufficient number of years to get decent pre-season
YL: So your ratings are predictive? You don't give the same weight to
all the games during the season? That seems to be the biggest disagreement
between the theories of the rating systems.
James: On the contrary, my ratings are retrodictive.
And, all of the games are treated identically. It doesn't matter whether it was
the first game of the season or the last.
YL: I see. It's my opinion that if computer ratings ever decide in
some fashion which teams play in the championship it should be done
retrodictively, though my ratings are actually weighted toward the end of the
season. What do you see in the future of computer ratings?
James: At some point there will be a playoff. It is not a matter of
"if," rather "when." It will likely start with an 8-team
format, but will at some point expand to 16 teams. There may be four and twelve
team interim set-ups. When we get to 16 teams, subject to some minimal criteria,
all conference champs will get a slot. The at-large slots will likely be mostly,
or perhaps exclusively, based on computer ratings. For all the complaints about
computer ratings, at least they apply the same criteria to all teams and apply
the same criteria from year-to-year.
YL: I'm salivating at the thought of playoffs. I would like it to stay
at eight teams - first the undefeated teams, then the highest rated teams no
matter how many losses. Then the question arises: Whose highest rated teams?
Have you given any thought to what might be the perfect rating system to use or
the best combination? Would the BCS be acceptable? Do you agree with me that
only the winner of each conference should ultimately be in the playoff?
James: My belief is as follows. The conference champions must be
rewarded. It's hard to argue that you're the best in the nation if you can't win
your conference. Plus, by giving automatic bids to conference champions, it
encourages teams to schedule tough non-conference games in order to prepare for
the conference slate. For any at-large bids, only computer rankings should be
used and the more, the merrier. Something as broad as Massey's comparison site
would be the ultimate. Personally, I don't think record should enter in. Is
there anyone that believes that an undefeated Tulane or Marshall is more
deserving than a one loss Nebraska squad?
YL: What do you describe as your profession?
James: I am a Senior Financial Analyst for FDIC (the Federal Deposit
Insurance Corporation). However, my degree is in Computer Science.
YL: What are your personal interests or hobbies?
James: I always tell people that my main hobby is commuting as I have
a three hour round trip commute each day. My main interest is preaching the
Gospel of Jesus Christ. After that comes genealogical research, college
football, computers, and reading, not in any particular order.
YL: Where do you call home? Would it be the place you do all that
James: Southwest Michigan will always be home to me. Although I live
in the Baltimore area, I remain a Midwest boy at heart.
YL: Which teams and sports are your favorites?
James: I really only follow college football closely. The Michigan
Wolverines are the team I follow. Since I am a Maryland alum and an Air Force
veteran, those two teams have a special place in my heart as well. I also like
all Big Ten teams in non-conference games and whoever is playing Notre Dame that
particular week. After college football, college hockey would be second. The
Michigan Tech Huskies are the team I follow. When I watch professional sports, I
generally follow the Detroit teams except for hockey where it is the Chicago
Blackhawks. Since I live in Baltimore, I keep track of the Ravens and Orioles,
but don't particularly consider myself a fan.
YL: What else would you like us to know about James Howell?
James: I think we have about covered it.
We would like to thank Mr. Howell for this
interview. His web site can be found at http://www.jhowell.net/cf/cfindex.htm