Friday, January 8, 2010

2009 Year in Review: the Big Picture

Alrighty, let's start dissecting the season. There was a lot of grumbling in mid-season about how boring this year was, and in general a lot people seem discontented. Let's try to figure this out...

First is the fact that this year, the games weren't much different from past years, at least statistically speaking. So the numbers don't support that we had a less exciting year on the field.
Home-field advantage was at 64%,
points per game was at an average of 52,
yards per game averaged 740,
and the average margin of victory was 17.4 points - all normal numbers for the BCS Years.

There were only a few less Top5 upsets this year compared to others, but on the whole there were more upsets than average among all the other ranks.

AP Top 25 Losses (bowls not included)
All Top 25 Losses Top 25 Upsets Only
Year # of games #1-5 #6-10 #11-15 #16-20 #21-25 Total #1-5 #6-10 #11-15 #16-20 #21-25 Total
1998 652 8 15 21 14 17 75 8 10 11 6 7 42
1999 663 12 13 14 26 21 86 10 8 10 15 13 56
2000 671 13 12 16 11 24 76 12 10 13 6 11 52
2001 684 11 15 18 16 26 86 10 14 7 11 12 54
2002 744 10 16 19 23 22 90 9 10 12 11 13 55
2003 743 12 19 20 18 20 89 10 17 11 12 14 64
2004 679 8 13 10 17 15 63 7 10 7 11 12 47
2005 690 12 15 13 21 23 84 11 12 6 12 16 57
2006 760 12 12 13 18 13 68 10 8 7 12 5 42
2007 760 17 17 19 21 23 97 17 12 12 12 11 64
2008 770 11 10 14 27 28 90 10 5 9 18 18 60
average 710.5 11.5 14.3 16.1 19.3 21.1 82.2 10.4 10.5 9.5 11.5 12.0 53.9
2009 808 9 14 15 20 20 78 8 11 11 13 12 55

And there weren't any huge surprises when the BCS, non-BCS, and I-AA teams did play -
the BCS won 55 of their 57 games against I-AA teams,
non-BCS teams won 34 of 37 against I-AA teams,
and BCS teams won 93 of 113 games against non-BCS teams - all within the normal range during the BCS years.

The BCS teams did continue their trend of scheduling more and more I-AA cupcakes as opposed to non-BCS teams.

I suppose people could have been more bored with these cupcake games than others, which makes some sense. But most of those games are played at the beginning of the season when excitement is high. So it's probably not the games themselves. Let's look at it from a different angle. Instead of the individual games, lets look at the season as a whole.

As we expand our perspective out, there's one simple fact that becomes clear - college football as a whole is getting more predictable. No, not the games themselves. And not which exact teams are going to do well or not. Those are still pretty up in the air. But people are focusing less on the individual games and more on how those games combine to form the big picture - and the big picture has followed the same script for the last few years. Now we're getting somewhere.

The biggest reason for this is the rise of the conferences. What conference you're in has as much to do with success nowadays than most anything else. And that's not because of the competition aspect - it's because of the non-competitive aspects like money, fans, & TV. There is now a distinct pecking order among the conferences that doesn't change based solely on how many games its teams win each year. It goes like this.

the SEC
Sure they win games, but they have the most fans, the best bowl deals, and the best TV contracts as well.
Those things create the not only strong teams but the perception (not wholly undeserved) of a very strong conference.

the Big12 & Big10
These two's deficiencies in one area every now and then are propped up by their overall strength in both.
The Big12 usually is stellar on the field against non-conference competition, and when they lack that (as they did this year), it is made up for by their fanbase. The Big10 has a fanbase as strong as the SEC's, but not the recent on-field success. (I know, I know - they've done really well this bowl season. But the bowl season is blown out of proportion and the pecking order doesn't do single years.)

the Pac10
They're usually pretty successful on the field, getting acknowledgment for playing a tough non-conf schedule even when they lose more games than the other BCS confs. But a lack of diehard fans make them seem weaker than the top three.

the ACC
Same as the Pac10, but less success on the field.

the BigEast
Even in a year when their non-conference winning percentage is as good as anybody's, they don't have nearly the following of the other BCS conferences. A big part of this is because they only have 8 teams.

the MtnWest
They've been growing in the last few years, and are seen as up-and-coming, but still have neither as big a following nor as much on-field success as the BCS schools. Might they get to join the big boys one day? Maybe - but they'll have to increase attendance and winning percentage consistently over the next few years for it to happen. The bowl wins really helped them this year, but overall the season didn't do much to move them forward.

the remaining non-BCS conferences: CUSA, WAC, MAC, & SunBelt
These four are at the bottom of the totem pols, probably in that order. They don't have followings anywhere near the conferences above them, and not nearly the same on-field success.

So what does this pecking order tell us? Well, I hesitate to buy in to the theory that overall respect depends on your television footprint more than anything. That's not only because the competitive side of me retches at the thought that teams' rankings are the result of how many people saw them play, but also because there most definitely is a big winning percentage aspect to it. If the Pac10 went 28-2 or 27-3 in non-conference play year after year, they'd gain a whole lot more respect regardless of how many people watched. At the same time, I think that perception plays a much bigger part of conference strength than just W-L records which is why I don't see conference strength as cyclical as others do. (At least not on a year-to-year basis.) There's a balance between the two, how much you win and how much people pay attention to (and talk about) you winning. And one down season doesn't help you or hurt you too much.

Even when a BCS conference absolutely tanks a season, losing bigger than the others, their fan base and followers can keep them propped up. For instance, during the 2007 season Ohio State and the Big10 were still seen as relatively strong, even after a 2006 season which saw them lose to two I-AA teams, go 9-12 against non-conf BCS schools, and go 2-5 in bowls including getting blown out in the Rose Bowl & National Championship games. Even after that 2006 season, Ohio State was still #1 at the end of the 2007 regular season - it wasn't until they got blown out in the title game again that people piled on and the conference dropped in standing.

And with teams playing more and more cupcakes, it's unlikely that a BCS conference is going to have a string of really horrible non-conference seasons. So for now, the SEC is going to stay on top until either 1)their non-conference winning percentage drops well below the .750 they've been at since 2006, or 2)another conference starts to boosts their winning percentage up even higher than that for a couple years in a row AND as a conference starts to fill the stands as much as the SEC does. Their fanbase and intangibles can keep them afloat. Same with the Big10 - why do you think they keep getting at-large teams invited to BCS games? Because they can bring the fans. Even when they're not having success on the field, they remain strong because of the money that follows them. Even after their relatively "bad" non-conference records the few years previous, they still get more consideration than the ACC, BigEast, or non-BCS conferences.

Do you remember during the first seasons of the BCS, up until a few years ago, people would always be curious as to who was going to be playing in the BCS games? It hasn't been all that surprising anymore because basically people know who's going to get the at-large spots. The SEC gets one, the Big10 gets another, the Big12 usually gets another, and a non-BCS team gets one. That's the way it goes, not just because of the way the season plays out or who beats who, but also because of the non-competitive factors. ("Deserve" has nothing to do with it, remember?) Will the Pac10, ACC, or BigEast ever get an at-large bid? Not for the foreseeable future (a lot of things would have to fall just right into place for it to happen), and not unless their fan followings and TV deals can get closer to those of the conferences above them in the pecking order. It's not all about wins & losses.

So let's return to our big question. Back in August, everyone was predicting that it would be Alabama, Texas, and Florida at the end, that USC would be down, and that some of the mid-majors were gaining strength. Because the big picture is easier to predict, they were pretty much on the money. But I've never seen so many people so unhappy to be proven right. Why were so many people disappointed?

Because they knew two other things too. First, that no matter what craziness the season turned into, the BCS probably wasn't going to work perfectly. As usual, this is because it's given a near-impossible task: to be provide certainty within a subjective system that's based on perception. There were the usual detractors, claiming that the system failed yet again because deserving teams didn't get to play for the title. But what also pissed people off this season was also knowing that the BCS's failures wouldn't really affect it. (Nevermind the fact that there was much less controversy this year as opposed to 2006-2008, mainly because we had two undefeated teams from top-BCS conferences in the championship.) Fans and their outrage used to be able to change the BCS - up until 2004, the BCS kept modifying its ranking formula and rules of inclusion to appease people. But that hasn't happened in a long time, and there's no indication that its ever going to again. So people know what's going to happen, they hate it, and they can't do anything to change it. From a competition standpoint, the BCS keeps disappointing people - but it keeps performing (and growing) from a financial standpoint.

As for the true weaknesses of the BCS, did we see a situation like my prediction about how the BCS will die, if it does? Nope, not quite. Sure Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State went undefeated and were left out, but they weren't "jumped" by a team from a better conferences with more losses. The SEC and Big12 are seen as stronger than the BigEast, MtnWest, and WAC, which is the main reason Texas & Alabama were locks for the title game amongst the undefeated teams. Sure there was outrage at undefeated teams not getting a shot at the title, but we've had that before. That's not gonna hurt the BCS.

Something this year that might actually help the BCS in the long run is the inclusion of both TCU and Boise State this year. Not only did their conferences get a share of the BCS gold, but their inclusion created the perception of more access for the non-BCS teams, something they've been clamoring for for years. And the fact that the Fiesta bowl performed so well, not only in terms of attendance, hype, excitement, and TV ratings (no, they weren't stellar, but they were good enough), will only serve to make the commissioners and bowls more likely to include the likes of the non-BCS powerhouses in the future.

(But don't be fooled into thinking that the Broncos' & Horned Frogs' new-found status transfers to all the other non-BCS schools. Oh no no no. The only non-BCS teams that are taken seriously right now are Boise State, TCU, BYU, and Utah. Here's the proof: of the 2 million AP votes in the 2004-2009 seasons, 9.1% of those (around 182,000) were for non-BCS teams. Not bad. But of those 182,000, over 75% (138,000) were for one of those four teams above. The rest were spread among the other 33 non-BCS teams that got actually received votes.) Will the non-BCS conferences as a whole ever get a fairer shake? Probably not as long as the BCS is around.

Overall, it does seem like the tide is turning more in favor of some sort of playoff. It's not going to happen anytime soon, with a new 4-year cycle of the BCS starting next season. But there's growing support for something else, and it looks like eventually we're headed for bigger and bigger fights with the future of college football in the balance. And if the BCS doesn't evolve somehow, it could lose the battle one day. But make no mistake - the BCS isn't going to go out quietly, no matter how much strength the other side gains.

So that's where we're at starting the new decade. In my season wrap-up last year and at times this year, I've noted that college football has gone from a game that's played on Saturdays regionally to a game that's played for four months nationally. And that's what's causing so many folks so much consternation - instead of focusing on their own teams each weekend, they're looking at everyone's whole season with tunnel vision on the national championship game. With that big picture focus, 118 out of 120 teams are bound to end up disappointed every year, which is a shame. Because the games this year were as good as any. When all you're focused on is the view from the top of the mountain, you miss a lot of great scenery.


PeteP said...

Great analysis as always.

The Fiesta Bowl's 8.2 rating (22.8 in DFW -- about the same as a Cowboys game) was really good considering it featured two AQ teams in a defense struggle.

The BCS can deal with the non-AQ issue by merely forcing the MWC to expand to 12 (taking Boise, Houston and Fresno) and giving it AQ status.

The next big change for the BCS will be adding the Cotton Bowl and a plus-one. The Cotton Bowl deserves to be a BCS bowl and it makes space for the MWC AQ.

Getting the plus one will be the biggest change of all, but it will be the most resisted by the Rose Bowl.

As to the only way we get a real playoff, it will be if we get a Big East-non AQ BCS title game. With only a few of the near-upsets coming through, we could have seen Cincy-TCU this year. If such would have happened, I fully believe that the BCS would immediately move to a playoff so as to avoid such a result ever again....

Anonymous said...

I know at this point all folks can do is speculate, but how does your analysis above change with the addition of 1 or 3 teams to the B10, and the addition of a B10 Championship game?

Ed Gunther said...

Force the MtnWest to expand... very interesting. There's no doubting that the MtnWest would jump through major hoops to be a part of the BCS, but I can't say I've ever given any thought to if the current BCS conferences would force them to... Off the top of my head I'd say it won't happen, mainly for two reasons: first, they don't really want the MtnWest (ie don't want to share their money with any more teams than they have to, especially teams that aren't going to be bringing in a lot of revenue), and if they set up such a requirement that'll mean that they're on the path to including the MtnWest, somewhere they don't want to be. Second, there's no precedent for such hoops. Third, and most importantly, even the BigEast, Pac10, and Big10 don't follow the 12-team format, and there's no way the other conferences are going to force them to.

If the Big10 expands, it'll be because they want to (and want a conference championship game), not at the end of the other conferences' bayonet. And I can't really see them adding three more - that won't happen. Why would they want to go to 14 teams? Any more than 12 and you run into too many scheduling problems. Might they add one? It's looking slightly more likely, according to speculation, but it'll be a fairly long process. Some of the same speculation has been made about the Pac10 adding two more, but that's much less likely. With all that said, if either the Big10 or Pac10 decide to add school(s), that'll shake things up quite a bit and maybe get a playoff ball rolling a bit more. (The BigEast needs to add teams, but that won't affect the BCS that much.)

As Pete points out though, the Rose Bowl is a major hurdle towards a playoff - the only way I can see the tournament of roses honchos ever even thinking about it is if they're guaranteed the championship game every year. (Which, if you ask me, wouldn't be a bad idea - of all the bowls, they're by far the crown jewel in aura, tradition, attendance, and television ratings.)

A BigEast vs non-BCS championship is definitely more possible nowadays than it was even a few years ago. And if that happened, there would be a huge uproar from all corners of the college football globe - but not necessarily from the suits in charge of the BCS. If the money and ratings were still good, it'd wouldn't even be a blip on their radar. Even if the ratings tanked, I don't think they'd have a knee-jerk reaction to go with a playoff because the possibility that such a matchup occurring, while higher than it was, is still pretty low. They'd chalk it up to a one-year anomaly. You've gotta figure that in order to get a BigEast vs non-BCS title game, the coaches would have to rank them ahead of all the other teams. And if the coaches feel that way, the suits can always point to that as a defense.

As far as the Cotton Bowl in the BCS idea, stay tuned for an upcoming post...

PeteP said...

With the Big Ten and Pac-10 both opening considering expanding to 12, I think the era of having an 8, 9, 10, or 11 team BCS conference will soon be passing.

Already there is a lot of concern that the Big East has too few teams and needs to expand.

As to the MWC, it will be near impossible for the BCS to keep them out, especially given the way the conference has been going the last couple of years.

Of course, given college football history, it was a travesty that the MWC teams (then in the WAC) were left out of the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance, and BCS, given that the WAC was a full member of the CFA from 1978 and considered "Big Time" back then. This has been the fundamental flaw since the beginning of this system.

Of course, the system developed to give power to the conferences (versus the independents and outsiders), so I am sure that Roy Kramer has been extremely happy with the results of his efforts, given that the SEC went from being almost an after thought conference for much of the 80s to being the powerhouse it is today.

By giving the MWC the requirement that it takes Boise and a couple more teams, the BCS could effectively corral and control the largest possible threats to the system. Moreover, a MtnWest 10 or a MWC-12 would not likely have an undefeated team, thereby removing a threat for a national title contender.

Morgan Wick said...

I'd put the Sun Belt a full tier below the other three non-BCS non-Mountain West conferences, even though most people don't think about any of them much. Like you once said, they're the gateway to I-A.

Ed Gunther said...

Yeah, I tend to agree about the SunBelt, Morgan. I'm working on an updated look at the conferences for the offseason that'll probably put them there...