Air Force’s Underwhelming Weekend And Why It Matters

Air Force failed to make Regionals...after earning a bid for their DIII region.

This weekend saw a result that should irk people who care about college ultimate, particularly Division III. Air Force, ranked 11th in the country and a bid earner for the South Central, finished 6th in their Conference tournament this weekend, failing to qualify for Regionals. Afterburn was ousted by Colorado Mines, who swooped in to upset the top seed and take the fifth of five bids.

Air Force went 3-4 this weekend, falling to Harding (#150), Missouri S&T (#177), and Colorado Mines (unranked) twice. They came into the tournament seeded first and came out sixth. Sixth out of eight teams in the northern half of a mediocre region. According to USA Ultimate, there are only ten teams in the country that are better than Air Force, yet five teams in their own conference bested them.

My concern is this: When it came to Air Force, the USA Ultimate’s current ranking and bid allocation system sorely failed. 

Despite finishing 11th in USAU’s rankings, Air Force never spent a single week on Ultiworld’s Power Rankings. In fact, they were never really in the discussion. This was a team whose results did not warrant their position and when the cards were put on the table, it showed.

Anyone familiar with the division looked at the final released rankings and questioned the position of Air force. Anyone unfamiliar with the Division likely looked at their results and said, “That’s all we needed to do to earn a bid for our region?”

This is why I wrote extensively on Air Force in my rankings reaction last week. Their results and consequent ranking just didn’t pass the eye test.

Upsets happen. If you’ve play ultimate you’ve found yourself on the wrong side of an upset. But when there’s such a colossal “upset” as was the case with Air Force this weekend, the system needs to be reviewed. The salient point here is that these results were only upsets in the eyes of a quantitative ranking scale (not when a simple human element was introduced) and that quantitative ranking scale has 100% of the power to dole out bids to Nationals.

It wasn’t hard to predict that Air Force wouldn’t defend their bid, and the manner in which they failed to just emphasizes this point.

While this may seem like an attack on Air Force, let me be clear that it’s not. I applaud the team for playing as much as they do given their other commitments. Ethan Glover, one of Afterburn’s captains, wrote a nice response to my article last week. He clearly laid out that the team was trying to play top competition but their military restraints and logistics didn’t allow it. This ultimately made for lesser competition.

Of course, Air Force shouldn’t be punished for this but they certainly can’t be rewarded. There were more deserving teams playing in more deserving regions that were deprived a bid to Nationals because of a faulty system.

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What I know is this: DIII Ultimate is nuanced and thus requires a nuanced bid allocation system. The small amount of programs and proximity of DIII tournaments makes for a drastic lack of connectivity between teams.

DIII teams play significantly less games than their DI counterparts, making for fewer data points and decreased validity.

School administrations at these small colleges don’t respect club sports enough to give them sufficient funds, making travel a financial issue.

There aren’t enough elite tournaments for DIII teams to play significant out-of-region DIII competition.

The lowered bar of play makes doubling-up B-teams a viable option for moving up in the rankings; while besting a B-team won’t earn Pitt or Oregon any points in the rankings, it can move the chains for a Cedarville (#89) or Messiah (#90).

The current bid allocation system works (for the most part) for DI allocation because it was built to work for the top 20 DI schools. It starts to fall apart as both a mathematic algorithm and a reliable structure at the DIII level. I haven’t even looked at the women’s side of things but I imagine there’s a ton of wonkiness going on over there, where these issues are even more drawn out.

I will concede that the bids were actually allocated reasonably well this season. With the exception of Air Force’s bid being taken from, say, the Ohio Valley, an argument can be that each region got the “deserved” amount of tickets to Nationals. However, there were still many oddities (Rice at 7th in the country) and close calls (John Brown just missing a third bid for the SC by one point) that could go another way and unravel the system next season. Leaving things the way they are is playing with fire.

I don’t work for USA Ultimate. My job is not to create a rankings algorithm or bid allocation system for college ultimate teams. I did well on the math section of my SATs but I’m more Billy Madison than Cady Heron when it comes to advanced arithmetic. This is why I can’t offer any surefire solutions or even endorse any functional suggestions to really alleviating this problem. I’ve highlighted the problems and I imagine that someone smarter than me can work with them.

Does there need to be a human element to allocating strength bids?

What about DIII flights, along the lines of the Triple Crown Tour?

Should games at DIII-specific tournaments be weighed more heavily than other events?

I don’t know. But I hope this is all looked into this offseason. It’s a difficult problem to solve and I hope the time and effort is put in to come up with an elegant solution, or, at the least, substantial improvements to the system. I hope that outside-the-box ideas are considered and input is received from DIII teams around the country.

Most importantly, I hope that the 16 most deserving DIII teams end up earning bids for their regions in 2016.

  1. Jesse Moskowitz
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    Jesse Moskowitz is the DIII editor for Ultiworld. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he started playing Ultimate at the Bronx High School of Science in 2008. He captained Connecticut College Dasein and currently plays Mixed Club with 7 Express (NYC). You can reach him by email at jesse@movoli.com.

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