Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Probabilities

I know, I know – I’ve already admitted my “USC vs the SEC” post was way premature. But on the heels of my predicting success this last weekend, I can’t resist another post about the rest of the season. However, this time I’m not writing about what should happen, but what could happen.

A lot of other pundits & commentators are throwing out these BCS doomsday scenarios like it’s 2007 or something, but I’m not really buying any of them. So as usual, let’s look at them realistically and put out some of these fires before people really start flipping out.

Chances a National Championship game team will come from a non-BCS conference: 1%
There are a lot of solid non-BCS teams this year, and at least one if not two will probably make it into a BCS bowl game. But the chances they’ll get to the one of the top two spots in the BCS is razor thin.

What Needs to Happen:
1) Chaos. The top BCS conference teams would have to start dropping like flies in order for Utah, TCU, or Boise State to make significant moves.
2) The voters ascend into a very, very good mood. History has shown that the voters always rank a one or even two-loss BCS conference team higher than an undefeated non-BCS conference team. The main reason the pollsters won’t put a non-BCS team into the NC game is because there is a perception that the majority of their schedules (conference games, mainly) are so much weaker than schedules played by BCS teams. None of those non-BCS unbeatens has played a tough-as-nails non-conference schedule this year either, which doesn’t help their cause any.

Chances a National Championship game team will NOT be their conference’s champion: 3%
It’s basically become an unwritten rule that if you don’t win your conference championship, you don’t get to play for the national championship. Oh sure, it’s happened, but it’s more a matter of how people felt about it than the fact that’s it’s occurred. The two times it happened, 2001 with Nebraska and 2003 with Oklahoma, most of the college football world was livid that those teams were in the championship game, even more so after those two teams lost convincingly. They elevated Florida over Michigan in 2006, and LSU over Georgia in 2007, and both those choices were seen as correct because those teams went on to win. So the message that “win your conference” is the right way to go has been hammered home four times in the last seven years, which is pretty significant. Because of that…

...Chances that Oklahoma gets to the National Championship game: 5%
The Sooners, though #4 in the BCS standings, are not in a good spot.

What Needs to Happen:
1) The Sooners need to win out. That should go without saying.
2a) Texas needs to lose - twice. For the Sooners to even make it to the Big12 Championship game, the Longhorns need to lose two of their next four games. This is actually the Sooner’s best bet, which isn’t saying much for their chances.
OR 2b) Texas wins the Big12, there are no other undefeated teams, and the voters get over their aversion to a) rematches, and b) one conference monopolizing the NC game. Thinking back just two years ago in 2006, a & b were two of the main reasons that voters didn’t put Michigan into the NC game with Ohio State. If they didn’t do it then, there’s little chance they will do it this season. The only way they might is if all the other BCS conference champions are seen as significantly less qualified than Oklahoma, which is unlikely. As for that #4 ranking, that can change pretty quickly – just ask Georgia about the last week of 2007.
3) The voters have to show some faith that Oklahoma won’t choke. The Sooners have not done well in their last few bowl games, to say the least. They’ve lost the last four BCS bowl games they’ve played, and their only bowl victory in the last five years was 17-14 over Oregon in 2005. That’s not good history.

Chances a National Championship game team will come from the ACC or Big East: 5% While these conference races are shaping up to be uber-exciting, both suffer from a negative perception this year. The only real possibility here is Florida State – everybody else already has at least two losses, and the only two conferences that isn’t an automatic excluder for at this point are the Big12 & SEC.

What Needs to Happen:
1) The Seminoles need to win out. Easier said than done against Georgia Tech, Boston College, Florida, and the Coastal division champ.
2) Wake Forest needs to rebound. The Demon Deacons have lost three of their last four, making the Seminoles home loss look uglier and uglier.
3) Two of the three remaining BCS undefeateds*, USC, and the one-loss SEC teams have to lose. Florida State isn’t going to get the nod over most of the other one-loss teams – they’re gonna need a whole lotta help. (*There’s only the possibility of three BCS undefeateds at the end of the season, since Texas & Texas Tech play this weekend.)
4) They need to move up from their #15 BCS ranking. If #3 happens, they’ll move up, but all the way to #1 or #2? Really doubtful.

Chances a two-loss team will play in the National Championship game: 5%
It happened last year, but we all know 2007 was awkward, to say the least. It could happen again but probably won’t.

What Needs to Happen:
1) All three of the remaining BCS undefeateds need to lose. Duh.
2) The team has to be from the SEC or Big12. These two are seen as the strongest conferences this year.
3) USC needs to lose again. A two-loss team, even from the Big12 or SEC, isn't going to be able to overtake the one-loss Trojans in the BCS rankings.
4) There will have to be some major conference upsets. The Big12 south is now cannibalizing itself, but it’s division champ will most likely have one loss at most. Should the north division champ somehow upset the south in the Big12 title game, the conference is likely out of the NC game picture – only Missouri has a realistic shot, and their credibility has taken a huge hit this season. In the SEC it’s more possible since both Florida and Georgia have tough non-conference games left. Then either one of them would have to beat Alabama (most likely) in the SEC championship game.

Chances that Notre Dame gets to a BCS bowl: 10%
The Domers are looking much better this year, but they’ve got a lot of work to do.

What Needs to Happen:
1) The Irish need to finish at 9-3 minimum. Their next four games look manageable, but the finale @ USC is going to be rough. Should they run the table and finish 10-2, they’ll be a lock for a BCS spot. If they lose one of those it’s still possible – a loss to USC wouldn’t be devastating, and a loss to one of the others (coupled with a victory over USC) would be okay too.
2) Non-BCS conference teams need to lose. As solid as the Irish have looked, they haven’t looked better than some of the non-BCS conference teams out there.
3) They need to skyrocket in the rankings. Can they go from unranked to top twelve in just six weeks? Possible, but doubtful.
4) Bowl execs need to focus on the money instead of the perception. We know that bowls love Notre Dame because of their fan base. But Notre Dame has choked worse than Oklahoma in recent bowls – they haven’t won one since 1993. Choosing them will probably be seen as stealing a spot from a more deserving team, even a non-BCS one, and that won’t sit too well with a lot of people.

Chances that USC gets to the National Championship game: 15%
The Trojans are in a better position than Oklahoma, but still must have a lot of things bounce their way.

What Needs to Happen:
1) The Trojans need to win out. And they need to win big – just squeaking by isn’t going to cut it. Winning out probably gets them to a BCS bowl at 11-1, but not necessarily the NC game.
2) Two of the three remaining BCS undefeateds have to lose. USC’s chances will be better if all three of them lose, but two is a must.
3) Oregon State needs to lose. Just once, optimally. If the Beavers win out, they win the Pac10 and USC isn’t a conference champion – NC game down the drain. If the Beavers lose multiple times, it makes the Trojans’ loss to them ever uglier, which doesn’t help perception.
4) A two-loss team has to win the SEC. The Trojans probably won’t get the nod over a one-loss SEC champion.
5) Their non-conference opponents need to keep winning. The Trojans are lucky that Ohio State, Virginia, and Notre Dame are solid this year, because the Pac10 isn’t. The more those three teams win, the better USC’s victories look. The Buckeye’s loss to the Nittany Lions hurt a lot.

So those are the unlikely scenarios that we probably don't have to worry about too much. Could they happen? Sure, but the chances are really slim. The main reason that there's little chance of these is because the voters have 2/3 of the power now and can override the computers, for the most part. They're not all going to act unreasonably and will make the best matchup, as they have the past two years.

So let's take a look at the four main possibilities left for the National Championship game, assessing the likelihood of each one and who has the best chance of being involved. We've seen them all before, and we've weathered them before, so the controversy that ensues (and you know that it will) shouldn't be as big, exciting, or original.

3 Undefeateds: Chances that an undefeated team gets left out of the National Championship game (ala 2004): 20%
Of course, this means an undefeated BCS-conference team. As I said, there’s only the possibility that three will be undefeated, so let’s assess their chance of running their respective tables.

Chances that Penn State goes undefeated: 85%
The Nittany Lions are already 9-0, with only @ Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan State left. It would be a huge upset if any of those three won, though the best bet is the Spartans.

Chances that Alabama goes undefeated: 70%
The Tide have Arkansas State, @ LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, and the SEC Championship left, which isn’t too bad. Their last game against probably Florida or Georgia is going to be the toughest.

Chances that Texas goes undefeated: 65%
The Longhorns have @ Texas Tech, Baylor, @ Kansas, Texas A&M, and the Big12 Championship left, which is a lot of work to do but their schedule is top heavy – their hardest games are behind them. But they’ve looked really solid this year, and any loss would be a major upset.

Chances that Texas Tech goes undefeated: 10%
The Red Raiders have Texas, Oklahoma State, @ Oklahoma, Baylor, and the Big12 Championship left, which is brutal. Winning three of those first four would be a major achievement.

So with those in mind, let’s think about some scenarios. Of the big three (not Texas Tech), Penn State would seem to be the odd man out, mainly because they play in the Big10. But if Texas Tech is in the mix instead of Texas, I’d give the edge to Penn State because of the non-conference schedule – playing I-AA Eastern Washington, I-AA Massachusetts, Nevada, and Southern Miss could come back to haunt the Red Raiders. But that leads us to this -

Chances of a split National Championship (ala 2003): 1%
Sure it's possible, but highly unlikely - so many things need to fall juuuuust right. The only real plausible scenario is Penn State at #3 in the BCS standings with the SEC & Big12 champions at #1 & #2 (not necessarily respectively).

What Needs to Happen:
1)We end up with 3 undefeated teams. Possible, sure.
2)The AP Poll needs to disagree with the BCS Standings. This is the big one - if it doesn't happen, there's zero chance for a split title. If the AP has the same top two as the BCS, then #3 is out of it - too bad. However, if Penn State is #3 in the BCS but #1 or #2 in the AP, things could get interesting. They'll go to the Rose Bowl, possibly to face...
3)USC needs to win the Pac10. In order for Penn State to have any argument, they need to be matched up with the Trojans in the Rose Bowl. If USC gets to Pasadena, they'll proabably be a top 5 team. If USC isn't in the Rose Bowl, chances are it's because Oregon State won the Pac10 - and the Nittany Lions already smashed the Beavers once this year. They're not going to get much credit for doing it again. So they need to get the Trojans, then...
4)Penn State needs to crush USC Nobody has blown out the Trojans in more than five years, but in order to make any case for a championship Penn State needs to win convincingly.
5)Texas and Alabama need to play a close, ugly game. If one blows out the other, Penn State's chances are done.

Can all these things happen? It would have to be a perfect white-out of a storm.

2 Undefeateds - Chances that we end up with a perfect two undefeateds in the National Championship game (ala 2002, 2005): 40%
There would be no controversy if this were the case, save for people who detest the system for no good reason and like to argue just for the sake of it.

What Needs to Happen:
1) One of the undefeateds needs to lose in the last five weeks of the season. Simple as that. As of right now, my money is on Alabama, giving us a Penn State-Texas national championship game that nobody can complain about.

1 Undefeated - Chances that we end up with one undefeated and one one-loss team in the National Championship game (ala 1998, 2000, 2001, 2006): 30%
This has happened pretty frequently, and often as a result of some December upsets. So it's not unheard of, and although the arguing would be fierce, I don't think that many teams would have legs to stand on. A lot of people are of the mind that if you don't go undefeated, you can't complain too much, which I tend to agree with.

What Needs to Happen:
1) Two of the undefeateds needs to lose in the last five weeks of the season. If this is the case, it'll probably go one of two ways: The easy way is if the Big12 or SEC champion is the undefeated - the other champion (SEC or Big12) will probably have just one loss and would most likely get the nod over USC or Penn State, with the perceptions of conferences the way they are this year. But if Penn State is the only undefeated, then the (probably one-loss) champions of the SEC and Big12 will have a fierce battle about who's #2 with 11-1 USC in the mix.

0 Undefeateds - Chances that we end up with two one-loss teams in the National Championship game (ala 2003, 2007): 10%
This one's a possibility too, but I don't see it happening, partly because there's been at least one undefeated BCS-conference team in 8 of the 10 BCS seasons. 2003 had some perfectly placed upsets, while 2007 was just odd, to say the least. That's not really the case this year, though there's still a month plus to go. It could happen, but I doubt it.

So that's how I see the rest of the season playing out. If I had to say right now, with 2/3 of the season in the bag, I see undefeated Penn State & Texas in the National Championship game.

On a somewhat related note, I'm tinkering with the idea of skipping the whole "Versions of the BCS - 2008" post that I usually do at the beginning of December. There's a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the data just isn't available and it's become more of a guessing game, since the NY Times and Matthews rankings are no longer around. The second is that we haven't seen many discrepancies with the versions for the last few years - the last time they disagreed was 2003. So I don't think there'll be that much excitement between the versions this year. If I see it happening, I'll post about it, but I think I'd rather spend the time analyzing the end-of-the-season stats and prepping info on the bowl matchups. But we'll see...

***Addition: Here's an example of an article spouting off about the "BCS Disaster" scenarios. As I say in the comments, probably not gonna happen. Here's another.

2 comments:

euclid said...

Interesting. We did something similar with an interactive predictive model based on point spreads.

http://www.atomicteeth.com/euclid-claude/would-you-like-to-play-a-national-championship-game/

We got some pretty different answers for some of these, particularly chances of Penn State and Alabama winning out.

Ed Gunther said...

Very cool, euclid. I like the idea, and it's certainly much more scientific than my system for this post (pure guesses based on past results). I think what it comes down to for me is that in all of the freaking out about "what if a one-loss florida or alabama or texas jumps an unbeaten penn state?" (no), or "what if a one-loss texas wins out but doesn't make it to the conference championship but jumps over the one-loss SEC champion?" (no), people forget that the voters have 2/3 of the power, and they're not going to let anything crazy happen, especially when it comes to all this "jumping". If the voters "jump" a team, they have a good reason, like last year when they jumped LSU over Georgia - LSU won the SEC, which game them a good reason to get to #2. Voters aren't going to jump a one-loss team over an unbeaten BCS team, and they're not gonna jump a one-loss team over another if the first one didn't win their conference championship. Not gonna happen. Yeah, all this talk is premature with five weeks to go, but so is all the freaking out. Relax, people - you'll have plenty of time to freak out after the regular season is over.