Monday, December 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Conferences

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A season of stability, and a season of chaos. The SEC and the Big 12.

Before and during the 2008 college football season, predicting that we would see a season similar to a previous one was an easy call. In the last ten years of deciding on the participants in a national championship game, we’ve seen the BCS match up undefeated teams, leave undefeated teams out, put in teams that didn’t win their conference championship, leave out the voters’ #1 team, put in a two-loss team, choose one-loss teams from amongst many, and cause a split of then national title. What else could it possibly do differently?

As it turned out, my prediction of a season similar to a past one (but not 2007) was both right and wrong. We’ve seen this scenario before – just not in a single year. 2008 can be best described as a combination of both 1999 and 2000, the first year the BCS matched up the only two undefeated BCS conference teams and the year a team was chosen over a team that had beaten them on the field.

In 1999 it was the ACC versus the Big East, undefeated Florida State versus undefeated Virginia Tech. There was no doubt that these two deserved to be in the title game, and there was no controversy. This year, the SEC walked the same path – there was no doubt that Alabama and Florida deserved to play for the SEC title, and there was no doubt that the winner of that game would go to the national championship game. It was, for all intents and purposes, a national semi-final game. One half of a “Plus-One”.

In 2000 it was Miami getting jumped by Florida State for the #2 spot, even though the Hurricanes had beaten the Seminoles by 3 in the first week of October of that year. Miami was #2 in both the AP and Coaches polls, but the computers loved Florida State and put them ahead by a few percentage points. This year we had Texas getting jumped by Oklahoma, even though the Longhorns won the Red River Rivalry by 10 back in the second week of October. There was so much uproar in 2000 that the BCS changed its formula for the first time, and the controversy this year will probably cause the Big12 to change its tiebreaker formula.

We could stop the analogy there and finish by saying that the BCS has added another distinctive chapter to its lore, or that it twisted the kaleidoscope of college football once again to produce a season that, while bright and colorful, is skewed and fragmented. But there’s a bigger point to be made here. As similar as those years are to elements of this one, it’s the differences between them that we can focus on to see how much college football has changed in under a decade.

In 1999, the ACC was Florida State and that’s about it. The Seminoles had won eight straight conference championships and hadn’t lost more than two games in thirteen straight seasons. Virginia Tech was in the Big East, which was less than ten years old as a conference, and their only real competition was Miami (FL) and Syracuse. At the same time, Nebraska went 11-1 in 1999, their only loss to the hands of 9-4 Texas, and the Big12 went 27-11 in non-conference play. Yet there was hardly a peep, if any, about Nebraska jumping into the title game. (Back in 1999, "jumping" wasn't an option.)

If this happened nowadays, there’d be a lot of discussion whether the Huskers were more deserving than the Hokies, and maybe even the Seminoles. Why? Because conference strength is much more relevant now. After losing one game, USC and Penn State weren’t really in consideration this year because the Pac10 and Big10 weren’t seen as very strong conferences. Had they actually gone undefeated they would have had more of an argument, but even so there were still a lot of rumblings about whether or not a one-loss team from the Big12 or SEC should jump them. We know for a fact that non-BCS conferences don’t get the same consideration – the best an undefeated Utah can do is #6, and that’s after the Mountain West went 25-11 this year, dominating the Pac10 and beating Oregon State and Michigan in the process.

But what about an undefeated team from a really weak BCS conference, like the BigEast? What if Cincinnati or Connecticut had gone undefeated? Would they possibly get jumped by a one-loss Big12 or SEC team? I hesitate to say no, but their inclusion in the title game wouldn’t have been without controversy.

Part of the problem is that conference strength, like all rankings, is subjective. The Big12 was 38-10 this year, the SEC was 38-11, and the ACC was 37-11 - all basically equal records. Arguably, the ACC played a harder non-conference schedule, taking on 23 BCS conference teams to the Big12 and SEC’s 15 each. And the ACC was a much more balanced conference this year – only Duke was under .500, and 10 teams were bowl eligible. So why are the SEC and Big12 seen as unquestionably stronger than the ACC? Is it because the ACC didn’t have a stand-out powerhouse or two? Or is it because more people want the SEC and Big12 to be seen as stronger? Or because the SEC and Big12 have more fans (using the attendance at the ACC championship game as proof)?

I don’t point this out to turn it into a “bash the SEC and Big12” post. I’m pointing it out to show that in the last decade, how your conference does has become just as important as how your team does in determining rankings, bowls, power, etc.

As far as the differences between the Big12 controversy and the Florida State-Miami controversy of 2000 goes, we know that the computers were the deciding factor. The Seminoles made up ground by being ranked #1 (ahead of even undefeated Oklahoma) in a majority of the computers, while the Sooners’ computer strength put them over the top. But let’s look at the voters. In all three polls this year, the margin between the Longhorns and Sooners was as slim as it could get (with Oklahoma being ahead in the Coach’s) in the week before the Big12 Championship. Only 8 points, 6 points, and 1 points separated them in the AP, Harris, and Coach’s respectively. Back in 2000, Miami was ahead by 53 points in the AP and 34 points in the Coach’s, putting them solidly at #2.

So what? What do all those voting points mean? It means that voters today are more willing to evaluate a team’s body of work over the course of the whole season rather than just focus on one game. Miami used the same head-to-head argument and was shot down by the same type of “well you lost to Texas Tech” response, except in their case it was their loss to #4 Washington. The situations are eerily similar, but voters' responses were not.

Putting those two major changes together, 1) people taking conferences into consideration more and 2) voters taking the whole season into consideration more, we can see that there’s been a not-too-gradual shift taking place of people seeing college football as a competition that takes place nationally for four months instead of regionally on Saturdays. That’s a big part of the reason why college football is more popular now than ever before, it’s a big part of the reason why it rakes in more money than ever before, and it’s a big part of the reason the conference commissioners don’t want to change anything about the BCS. More than anything else it is the reason college football has grown as big as it has and as quickly as it has over the past few years.


Jams said...

I would like to commend you for once again having excellent analysis of the situation. Especially in the last couple paragraphs, you do a great job expressing the shift that has been going on in the past few years of college football.

Also, I'd like to say that I've followed your computer rankings and commentary all season long after stumbling onto your blog over the summer. During the offseason I was impressed by your posts about the BCS, and especially the post about what the 2008 Super Bowl meant for college football.

It's been a pleasure reading your blog this season, so I just wanted to express my appreciation.

Ed Gunther said...

I appreciate the kind words, Jams - I don't have many readers, but comments like that make the blog well worth the effort in my book. Thanks for leaving a note.