Tuesday, October 14, 2008

2008: The Midway Point

In the buzz that surrounds college football, there are a decent number of commentators and columnists who think that the craziness of the 2007 season changed the landscape of college football forever. We all remember the upsets, the constant shifting of the polls, and wondering which #2 was going to lose next. But 2008 is a new year, and I'd argue that so far through this first half of the season, things are relatively back to normal. We're NOT experiencing the same kind of abnormal season we did last year, and here's why.

There's haven't been nearly as many upsets.
Oh sure, we've had nearly as many teams in the Top 10 lose this season (12, versus 15 in 2007). But we haven't had nearly the number of upsets. Let's take a look at the games.

Top 10 Losses - first half of 2007
Week Rank Team Loc. Rank Team Score Upset?
1 #5 Michigan vs - Appalachian State 34-32 Yes
2 #9 Virginia Tech @ #1 LSU 48-7 No
3 #9 Louisville @ - Kentucky 40-34 Yes
4 #10 Penn State @ - Michigan 14-9 Yes
5 #3 Oklahoma @ - Colorado 27-24 Yes
5 #4 Florida vs - Auburn 20-17 Yes
5 #5 West Virginia @ #18 South Florida 21-13 Yes
5 #7 Texas vs - Kansas State 41-21 Yes
5 #10 Rutgers vs - Maryland 34-24 Yes
6 #2 USC vs - Stanford 24-23 Yes
6 #5 Wisconsin @ - Illinois 31-26 Yes
6 #8 Kentucky @ #11 South Carolina 38-23 No
6 #9 Florida @ #1 LSU 28-24 No
7 #1 LSU @ #17 Kentucky 43-3 Yes
7 #2 California vs - Oregon State 31-28 Yes

App State started things off with a bang in week 1, and things picked up from there. All but three of those can be considered a bona fide upset. They were at the time the game was played, and they were at the end of the season after all the W's & L's had been counted.

Top 10 Losses - first half of 2008
Week Rank Team Loc. Rank Team Score Upset?
1 #9 Clemson v #24 Alabama 34-10 No
2 #8 West Virginia @ - East Carolina 24-3 Yes
3 #5 Ohio State @ #1 USC 35-3 No
4 #10 Auburn vs #5 LSU 26-21 No
5 #1 USC @ - Oregon State 27-21 Yes
5 #3 Georgia vs #8 Alabama 41-30 No
5 #4 Florida vs - Mississippi 31-30 Yes
5 #9 Wisconsin @ - Michigan 27-25 Maybe
6 #10 South Florida @ - Pittsburgh 26-21 Maybe
7 #1 Oklahoma v #5 Texas 45-35 No
7 #3 Missouri vs #17 Oklahoma State 28-23 Maybe
7 #4 LSU @ #11 Florida 51-21 No

When we look at 2008 so far, we see a very similiar picture on the surface. One upset a week for the first four, then significantly more in weeks 5, 6, and 7. But look closer. Right off the bat we can eliminate at least five of them because they were instances of other Top 12 teams beating someone ranked a few spots ahead of them. We can already eliminate some others too, even though we're only halfway through the season. Was Alabama's victory over Clemson in week 1 an upset? It barely qualified at time, and I'd argue that it certainly didn't count as one after September ended. Michigan over Wisconsin? Sure, Michigan is looking bad, but there's no way Wisconsin is a Top 10 team at this point. As the weeks go on and depending on how the season ends, I think we might be able to cross Oklahoma State over Missouri and Pittsburgh over South Florida off the list too.

So overall, we have less than half the number of upsets so far this season as we did in the first half of last season. That's not to say that we'll see a whole slew of upsets in the second half of the season - I'm sure we'll see more Top 10 teams going down. Penn State has to play Ohio State, Alabama has to play LSU, Florida has to play Georgia, the Big 12 teams all have to beat each other up, etc. But those will be cases of Top 10 teams losing to other Top 10 or maybe Top 20 teams, rather than being knocked off by teams that are mediocre. There will probably be a few more major upsets as well. But I don't think we're going to see the #2 revolving door syndrome that we did last year. There's still a lot of football to be played though, so who knows.

The other reasons below don't rely on second-half results as much, mainly because most of the non-conference matchups for the year have already happened. So I'm pretty confident putting them forth as solid reasons that 2008 isn't like 2007.

The Myth of "The Rise of the Mid-Majors" and "BCS Busters"
Sure Utah, BYU, TCU, Ball State, and Boise State are having excellent years so far. And I can easily see one of them making it to a BCS bowl. But all throughout the BCS years there have been non-BCS conference teams who have excelled. They've been invited to BCS bowls in the past few years (Hawaii 2007, Boise State 2006, Utah 2004), but that was mainly the result of a the new rule that guaranteed a spot to non-BCS teams who finished high enough. Had that rule been in place during the first years of the BCS, we probably would've seen more non-BCS teams in BCS bowls. In fact, the success of the following non-BCS teams was the reason they had to institute the rule in the first place - in 1998 there was Tulane, 1999 was Marshall, 2000 was TCU, 2003 was Miami (OH), etc. So having a non-BCS team towards the top of the BCS rankings is nothing new.

But there's so many of them up there this year, right? Sure, but we're only halfway through the season and by the end there won't even be a handful of undefeated non-BCS teams, just like there hasn't been in the past. BYU, Utah and TCU all have to play each other, Ball State isn't getting near enough love in the rankings (and still has to play a good Western Michigan team), and Boise State still has 7 games to play, 4 of them on the road. Will one of them make it? Probably. Will all of them? Definitely not. We'll end up with one or maybe two staying in the conversation, just as we always have.

From another angle, when we look at the overall winning percentages between BCS conferences, non-BCS conferences, and I-AA teams, little has changed.

BCS vs non-BCS, BCS vs I-AA, and non-BCS vs I-AA through the first 1/2 of each season
Year BCS Wins vs non BCS Losses vs non BCS W% BCS Wins vs I-AA BCS Losses vs I-AA BCS W% non Wins vs I-AA non Losses vs I-AA non W%
1998 78 14 84.8% 12 2 85.7% 17 4 81.0%
1999 76 23 76.8% 14 0 100.0% 26 5 83.9%
2000 89 18 83.2% 13 1 92.9% 23 10 69.7%
2001 73 15 83.0% 14 0 100.0% 19 6 76.0%
2002 100 20 83.3% 27 1 96.4% 24 7 77.4%
2003 86 30 74.1% 21 1 95.5% 37 8 82.2%
2004 75 21 78.1% 20 2 90.9% 22 4 84.6%
2005 81 10 89.0% 30 1 96.8% 18 1 94.7%
2006 90 17 84.1% 39 4 90.7% 28 2 93.3%
2007 94 17 84.7% 36 2 94.7% 26 6 81.3%
2008 78 22 78.0% 48 0 100.0% 34 2 94.4%

Parity schmarity. In 2007, the Year of the Upset, BCS teams had their third-highest winning percentage against non-BCS teams during the BCS era. This year it's down, but still not the lowest it's been. And the non-BCS conferences' winning percentage against I-AA teams has generally been increasing as well - it's almost at it's highest point ever in 2008.

Now don't get me wrong, I really like that the non-BCS conference teams are getting more press nowadays. I think it's a good thing for college football as a whole that they're on TV more, that they are seen as more competitive, and that they're in the rankings more often. I enjoy it when they pull the upset over a BCS school. But the truth is those non-BCS confs over BCS confs upsets aren't happening any more these last few years than it has over the whole course of the BCS era.

The Mountain West is better than the Pac10 this year.
In 7 games between the conferences this year, the MtnWest has won 6 of them. And it's not a matter of the best teams in the MtnWest beating up on the worst of the Pac10. Sure 6-0 BYU beat 0-6 Washington, but 3-4 New Mexico beat 4-2 Arizona and 3-3 UNLV beat 2-4 Arizona State. The mountain boys are hands down better this year.

But here's the thing - you can't take the fact that one non-BCS conference is better than one BCS conference and expand it to say that ALL non-BCS conferences are making progress and catching up to BCS conferences. The MtnWest's record against non-Pac10 BCS teams? 2-4. Not so great. Add to that the fact that the MAC, CUSA, WAC, and Sun Belt are losing to the BCS conferences as much as they ever have, if not more, and you end up with an isolated, one season example of an up-year for a non-BCS conference and a down-year for a BCS conference. There might be more parity between the MtnWest and the Pac10, but you certainly can't say that about non-BCS conferencess and BCS conferencess as a whole. Now, if the MtnWest wins a bunch of bowl games against non-Pac10 teams, and they show that they can hang with the BCS conferences next season and the season after that, then we can talk about the parity between their conference and the BCS conferences. But until that happens, and until the other non-BCS conferences show some major improvements and start to compete more consistently with BCS conferences, you can't truthfully say that overall there's more parity between non-BCS and BCS conferences. Even if it does seem that way.


Scott said...

I enjoy your work because there is so much information. The BCS and Non-BCS comparisons are worthwhile. My position on college football is that it needs an overall. The creation of the BCS distinction for conferences hurts those programs that are new to the FBS and/or those "non-BCS" schools on the outside looking in. Lost in the discussion about the Mountain West success is the fact that those schools will not receive the bowl money the programs from the PAC-10 schools will. Have they earned that this year? Bowl participation equals more prestige, better image and more money to recruit with. How does this system promote fair competition? Why do accept that this is the way it has to be? College football's postseason is more dependent on subjective opinions like rankings and bowl selection committees than any other major sports competition. Look at the 2007 season for Troy (7-4), Oklahoma State (6-6) and Alabama (6-6) and you will see what I mean. Troy deserved postseason play and pay more than the other two, but did not go bowling.

Ed Gunther said...

Thanks for the kind words, Scott. You bring up a good point about the money difference, and it is one of the many things about college football that many people would want to change. It'll play out this year exactly as you say - the Pac10 will go to 6-7 bowls mid to high-range paying bowls (if they can get everyone eligible), while the MtnWest will go to 4, maybe 5 bowls that don't pay as much and aren't as established. Is it fair? No. But it is good business, and that's what a lot of the issue comes down to.

The reason the SEC has 8 bowl tie-ins, and the SunBelt has 1 is because fans of the SEC teams will buy thousands of tickets and travel to watch their team play. When it comes to bowls and the heirarchy, they're always going to take the team that will bring in revenue, regardless of if that team deserves it or not. Troy might have been more deserving last year, but I guaranted they couldn't have sold half as many tickets as Oklahoma State and probably not a third as many as Alabama.

The good thing about the MtnWest is that they have teams whose fans are willing to travel and buy tickets. The keepers of the BCS keys are much more willing now than they were even five years ago to give a spot to a MtnWest team because they know they'll bring in the fans.

But the MtnWest has become special - the other non-BCS conferences are still a huge risk, mainly because they don't win nearly as much. I'll have something on that later this season...

Scott said...

It may be good business, but is it business that practices restraint of trade? You may have heard about House Resolution 1120 introduced in Congress last April that calls for the justice department to investigate as to whether the BCS system is restraint of trade.

Ed Gunther said...

Yup, and they actually found that it was, calling for the BCS to be declared illegal and a playoff to be instituted. I have some problems with this on a few levels.

First, I don't think lawmakers know enough about the intricacies of college football. If they did, they'd realize that the situation is more complex than just passing a resolution. If they think that a simple playoff will bring "fairness and... parity to all NCAA teams" they're sorely mistaken.

Second, I think a lot of that was a knee-jerk reaction from some members who's feel that their home states' flagship universities got the shaft last year (Georgia). It even mentions them in the resolution.

Third, forced parity makes for a watered down product. Imagine if TV stations had to give equal time to the non-BCS or I-AA teams. Instead of LSU vs Florida, we might be forced to sit through the LA-Lafayette vs North Texas slugfest. Throw out all the economic and democratic cliche's you want - if more people want to see Oklahoma State and Alabama in bowl games than Troy, it's gonna happen.

Fourth and finally, as much as I love college football, there are more important things in this world, and congress really should be tackling them instead of trying to "fix" the BCS.