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Friday, December 31, 2010

This Season's OWA Rankings

Earlier this month I laid out the logic of the One Win Away approach to the college football post-season. Tournaments are great for giving every deserving team a chance, but tournaments can weaken the regular season by admitting undeserving teams. The One Win Away approach is the perfect balance - only deserving teams are admitted into the season-ending tournament. Deserving teams are those that, if they were to beat the top-ranked team in a head-to-head, would then be ranked higher than that team - e.g. if Oregon beat Auburn, Oregon would then be ranked higher than Auburn. Therefore, by deduction, the team that wins the OWA tournament is also the team that had the strongest overall season. With the OWA approach, the size of the field will vary from year to year depending on the number of deserving teams, but there will typically be between 2 and 6 entrants.

I also suggested that the OWA field be selected using the BPR. Below is an analysis of this year's results and the OWA participants. The left column is the BPR rating, the right column is the OWA rating - the rating if the team were to beat Auburn. To qualify, a team's OWA rating must be higher than Auburn's OWA- rating in parentheses (Auburn's rating if it were to lose an additional game). Four teams would make the field this season - Auburn, Oregon, TCU, and Stanford. We would then have a 4 team tournament, with Auburn getting Stanford and Oregon getting TCU is the semi-finals. The WAC and Big 10 one loss teams might feel a little peeved for getting left out, but even with a win over Auburn they would still have faced a much softer schedule and have the same number of losses - admitting them into the OWA field would erase that.

CFBTN in the Seattle Times

Its a little late now that the game is over, but check out Bob Condotta's piece in the Seattle Times. Definitely a different game last night than Huskies vs. Huskers I.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Testing Matchup Myth #2: the Rivalry

Myth #2: You can throw out the records for a rivalry game

Beck to Harline, 2006
BYU beats Utah 33-31
Most college football fans and experts seem to accept at face value the notion that the outcome of a rivalry game is more random than other games - you can throw out the records. Why might this be? First, to be rivals the programs must be on relatively equal footing. Therefore, the gap in talent on the sidelines is generally not as large as the gap in records between the two teams. For example, Auburn may have had the better rank and record going in to the 2010 Iron Bowl but no one doubted that Alabama had as much physical talent as Auburn. 

Second, the underdog in a rivalry game is not going to be intimidated. Like I said before, the two programs have a lot in common. The two teams know each other intimately. The opposing players and coaches are humans, not ubermensch in fancy uniforms. And every rivalry highlights upsets from past seasons that coaches can draw on to inspire their team.

On the other hand, rivalries seem to erase the one potential advantage underdogs have. A team can only circle so many games on its schedule. Bad teams circle games against good teams; good teams circles games against better teams. But better teams will circle a game against a bad team if that team is a rival. The underdog can pull off the upset if they are preparing for the super bowl but their opponent is just preparing for another game, but both teams should be looking forward to rivalry games. 

Hall to Collie on 4th and 18, 2007
BYU beats Utah 17-10
What do the numbers say? I've picked 36 rivalry games, games with names like the Red River Shootout and the Duel in the Desert, the Apple Cup and Egg Bowl, the Backyard Brawl, Bedlam, Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, the Civil War, the Holy War, the Game and the Big Game. These 36 pairings have played 1052 times since 1950. I have established expected results using scores from the rest of the season - the method I have used is well-tested and the results relatively reliable.

In these rivalry games, favorites have won 73% of the time; they have won 98% of games when favored by 21 or more, 81% when favored by 7 to 21, and 54% when favored by less than 7. This last result is notable, because in all 13,800 or so games since 1950, teams favored by less than 7 points have won 60% of the time. In all, underdogs have won about 25 more games (of 1,052) than expected.

Hall to George in overtime, 2009
BYU beats Utah 26-23
On average, underdogs do about 3/4 of a point better than expected, but almost 2 points better when they are expected to lose by less than 7. To offset that, they do 1.5 points worse on average when 21 point dogs or more. I would guess this is because players find it easier to keep the motor running when blowing out a rivalry than in a typical blowout.

The two charts below show the performance of teams in rivalry games compared to all games by the odds/expected score margin. The first chart, the x-axis (moving right to left) is the odds of teams winning and the y-axis (moving up and down) is the winning percentage of teams with those odds. With all games, you see that as the odds of winning increase, the winning percentage increases in a straight line. In rivalry games the relationship isn't exactly linear. When one team is favored by a lot of points, the results are as expected (that 1.5 points worse than average for the underdog doesn't dramatically affect their odds of winning when they are 30 point dogs). But when the odds are tight, the underdogs win more games than expected and, conversely, favorites lose more games than expected. 

In the second chart, the x-axis is the expected score margin and the y-axis is the difference between the actual margin and the expected margin. Consistent with the first chart, slight underdogs outperformed expectations, but big underdogs underperformed expectations.

Can we throw out records in rivalry games? Of course not. Better teams still win the majority of the time, and heavy favorites almost always win. But when the teams are close, the results are more random than we would otherwise expect.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Testing Matchup Myth #1: the Rematch

Myth #1: It's hard to beat the same team twice in one season
Myth #2: You can throw out the records for a rivalry game

In this first edition of the two part series, I will be taking on myth #1.

Billy Sims and the Sooners would
get revenge and redemption
The principal idea seems to be that the winner of the first game has less to prove in round 2, is overconfident entering the game, and therefore does not prepare as well or play as hard. The game 1 loser is looking for revenge or redemption.

In modern-era college football, teams play a second time in a bowl game or conference championship game. This is important for two reasons: first, it means that the teams are relatively evenly matched; second, it means that there is a whole new set of motivational variables (e.g. if the team is happy or disappointed to be in that particular bowl game) that will dilute the importance of seeking revenge or redemption for the loser.

There is a second countervailing logic: the winner of the first game already divined a game plan that wins. The loser will need to reevaluate its game plan, and faces a degree of uncertainty that the game plan will be effective. In other words, if the two teams are otherwise evenly matched, the team that won the first game has a better chance of winning the second game precisely because it won the first game.

The Choke at Doak: 31-3 to 31-31; The 5th quarter
in the French Quarter was no better for Florida
So, let's look at the numbers. Since 1950, there have been 49 rematches in college football. (Florida State tied in game 1 in 1994 - the infamous Choke at Doak.) The average score in game 1 has been 29.5-16.4, and in game 2, 31.0-17.7. Home teams were 31-16-1 in game 1. Most game 2s were played on neutral fields; home teams were only 4-6.

Game 1 winners were 29-18 in second games (62%). Simplistically, 62% is less than 100%, so game 1 losers did better in game 2, but 62% is also more than 50%, so game 1 winners were still more likely to win game 2.

Thinking about this logically, the team that won the first game was probably the better team, and so we would expect them to win the second game more often than not. Based on their performance throughout the season, we would have expected game 1 winners to win 61% of game 2s. In reality, they won 62%. In other words, game 1 winners improved their chances of winning the rematch by 1 percentage point.

On average, game 1 winners won the rematch 26.4 to 22.5. We would have expected game 1 winners to win 26.6 to 22.0 on average. That means game 1 losers outplayed game 2 expectations by .79 points. Based on game 2 scores and a pythagorean-style win/loss adjustment, game 1 losers should have won 45% of game 2s, but they only won 38%. Game 2 losers played slightly better by the scoreboard, but they were unlucky when it came to actually winning games.

In conclusion, it is not hard to beat a team twice in the same season - winning or losing game 1 has no effect on winning or losing game 2. But it is hard to blow a team out twice in the same season. So Nebraska/Washington Part II might be closer than 55-21, but don't expect Washington to pull off the upset just because they lost the first time around.

Friday, December 17, 2010

One Win Away: The Perfect Compromise between Tournament and BCS

Should we BCS or should we Tournament? That is the question.

Beyond the Senator, the Presidents of universities and one large country, the billionaire NBA owner, the anti-trust lawsuit, the books and articles, what we really have are two competing logics. The debate is heated precisely because both sides are (mostly) right.

The BCS Supporters are Right
Tournaments, especially large tournaments, make the regular season less important. Look at it this way: when the selection show ends, the typical team in college basketball's NCAA tournament has a 1.6% chance of winning a national championship; the best team has a 20-25% chance. This means that, over the course of the tournament, the best team (if it wins) improves its chances from 25% to 100% over six games, an average of 15% per game. That best team entered the season with a 15% chance of winning the national championship based on talent alone. Over the course of a 30 game regular season it improves its chances by 10%, or about .33% per game. (With a tournament invite almost guaranteed, its chances improve as it earns a better seed). A typical team improves its chances from, say, .1% to 1.6% over 30 games, or .05% per game. I don’t think many coaches are going to motivate their guys by emphasizing that today they can win 1/300th, or 1/2000th, of a national championship. And the fans don’t get that excited about it either. They wait until March, when the games are 45 times (for the best team) or several thousand times (for a typical team) more important.*

And college basketball is not the worst case of meaningless regular season games. The best pro baseball teams have a 35% chance of taking home a World Series ring when the playoffs start and a 10% chance at the beginning of the season. That means each game, even for the best team, is worth about 1/663rd of a World Series title – and the most important thing they do in each regular season game is avoid season-ending injury. NBA regular season games are worth 1/280th of a world championship for the best team, and the best NFL team looks to earn 1/92nd of a Super Bowl in each regular season game.

In college football, the best team can earn 2.5% or 1/40th of a national championship per regular season game on average. Even if other leagues only played 12 regular season games, college football would still have the most important games. Literally, every game counts.

93-81 does not a champion make
Unimportant regular season games are a problem for a couple reasons. First, fans and players don’t care as much. Second, and more pertinent to this discussion, the championship poorly reflects a team's performance over the course of the season. That, to me, is a serious problem. The '87 Twins were actually outscored in their run to an 85-77 regular season record. They would have finished 5th in the AL East, but they won their pennant and the World Series. The definition of a champion is subjective, but if you are happy putting a ring on the '87 Twins because they won 8 of 12 games after being significantly outplayed by several teams over a 162 game season, you're crazy. I support Cinderellas, but a real Cinderella goes to work from day one, not moments before midnight.

Tournament Supporters are Right
With a 64, or 65, or 68 team tournament, everyone has a shot at winning the national championship. That regular season game may only be worth 1/2000th of a national championship, but for Auburn and Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006 and 2009, and TCU this year, every regular season game was worthless. I would rather crown the '87 Twins than completely dismiss half of a league from consideration.

This is not a touchdown
I was there when Kellen Moore led Boise State for a last minute score and win against Virginia Tech. Boise fans felt like they were a step closer to a national championship. I was not there when Brotzman missed a couple of field goals against Nevada, but I’m sure Boise fans felt like their national title hopes took a huge step back. In reality, the two games had the same effect on Boise State’s claim on a national championship: no effect whatsoever. As far as the race for the national championship is concerned, it never happened. An undefeated Boise team would have been passed over for a spot in the title game just the same as a two loss Boise team.

So, the solution is not as simple as a single national championship game or a tournament. You can leave out the ’04 Auburns and '08 Utahs, or you can crown the ’87 Twins, ’09 Fresno States, '85 Villanovas and ’95 Rockets.Good news? I have found a way to screen out the '87 Twins while letting in the '04 Auburns.

The One Win Away Approach 
Tournament logic asserts that because team A beat team B in a tournament game, team A is a more deserving champion. But that logic ignores a season of previous results. Georgetown beat Villanova twice during the season. A few days before the NCAA tournament, Georgetown won the Big East tournament and Villanova was eliminated in the semi-finals. Villanova (25-10), Georgetown (35-3); Georgetown won 2 of 3 head-to-head matchups. Villanova wasn't the better team and it didn't have the better season, but Villanova was two points better than Georgetown for 48 minutes (.042 points/minute), so they are your national champs.

In the One Win Away approach, Villanova isn't invited to dance. An invitation is offered, instead, only to those teams that are One Win Away. One Win Away generally means that if team B beat team A, we would then say that team B had the better season. Using the One Win Away Approach, we start by inviting the #1 team in the country. We then invite only those teams that, if they were to beat the #1 team, could then claim to have had a stronger season then the team they just beat**. In a typical college football season, you would have between 3 and 6 teams that meet that criterion. We would also invite any undefeated teams. The invitees would then be organized in an 8 team tournament. If there are fewer than 8 teams with invitations, the top seeds get byes.

By inviting only One Win Away teams to our tournament, it logically follows that the team that wins the tournament is also the team that has had the strongest overall season. It is, therefore, the perfect compromise.

What would a One Win Away tournament look like? In 2004, USC, Oklahoma and Auburn would be the top 3 seeds. California, Utah and Texas would also get an invite. Louisville would probably be left to watch from the comfort of their own homes, already having 1 loss and a significantly weaker schedule than the top teams. USC and Oklahoma would get byes, Auburn would play Texas and California would play Utah. The winners would get Oklahoma and USC, respectively, in the semi-finals.

Why it works: Every team in the country has a shot. We get a tournament, and the winner of the tournament will also be the team that has had the most complete season-when team A beats team B, that really does mean it is the more deserving champion. This would make the regular season slightly less important for those two teams that control their own destiny, but it would be infinitely more important for everyone else - overall, regular season college football games would be more, not less, influential in awarding the national championship.

Why it might not work: We need some way of finding the “One Win Away” teams. This is relatively easy to find using the BPR, but rankings are, inherently, somewhat subjective – especially rankings that must account for hypothetical wins. Also, the “One Win Away” approach requires a flexible postseason which makes planning and marketing much more difficult. A lot of rich and powerful people are deeply invested financially, emotionally, and intellectual in the existing system.

The "One Win Away" approach is, at least logically, the perfect compromise between a single national championship game and a tournament. Unfortunately, I have never known the sports world to be motivated by logic.

* These are, admittedly, back of the envelope calculations, but the logic is sound and the estimates lean towards the conservative.
** This does not mean they would, themselves, become the #1 team in the country, but they would, at least, be One Win Away from the new #1.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Best Possible Ranking

The Best Possible Ranking ranks teams exclusively on the teams they have faced, where they have faced them, and the number of wins and losses. Essentially, a team's record is compared against the expected records of thousands of computer simulated teams. (Click here for a more in-depth explanation).

This Guy Never Got a Heisman Invite?

Who am I?

This season, I will top 3,000 yards passing on 350 attempts. I have already accounted for 40 touchdowns, 20 passing and 20 rushing. I am 16 rushing yards short of 1,200, and no team in college football won more regular season games than my team. 

Before this season is over, I will have throw for more than 10,000 yards in my career. I have accounted for 120 total TDs while throwing only 33 interceptions on 1,238 attempts. I've rushed for 1,000 yards and thrown for 2,000 for three straight seasons, putting me in pretty elite company, and I'm closing in on 2.5 rushing miles (4,090 yards to date). And the program has dramatically improved in my 4 years, reaching new heights in my senior season.

Through it all, I've kept my nose clean. 

But if you don't know who I am, don't worry. Even my own fans don't always recognize me.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Best Possible Ranking

The Best Possible Ranking ranks teams exclusively on the teams they have faced, where they have faced them, and the number of wins and losses. Essentially, a team's record is compared against the expected records of thousands of computer simulated teams. (Click here for a more in-depth explanation).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Best Possible Ranking

The Best Possible Ranking ranks teams exclusively on the teams they have faced, where they have faced them, and the number of wins and losses. Essentially, a team's record is compared against the expected records of thousands of computer simulated teams. (Click here for a more in-depth explanation). In this case, Auburn outperformed those computer simulated teams against its own schedule more than any other team in the country.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rating FCS wins in Week 1

We all learned an important lesson on Sep 1, 2007. Not all FCS teams are created equal. Michigan, on that day, learned that Appalachian State was much favored in the eyes of the football gods.

But we still do not know enough about those FCS opponents to understand what it means when they are painfully dismantled on the football field, when they put up a good fight and fall short, or in those rare occasions when the previously anonymous FCS opponent pulls out the stunner. In an effort to help us glean as much information as we can from this first week of football, I have statistically rated the performances of the 29 teams that faced FCS opponents this weekend.

Offense: To put it in perspective, Samford's 31.2 defensive rating puts it just above San Diego St and Nevada. Villanova actually comes in higher than Temple by .1 points. This is why Temple's 31 points rates out higher than Tennessee's 50. No surprise the Florida State and Houston had two of the best offensive performances, but Air Force were surprisingly productive on offense this weekend.

Defense: Kansas did not lose because their defense did not play well. The Big 12 generally represented itself well, giving up only 16 points in 3 games to 3 relatively accomplished offenses.

Total: It didn't catch many eyes, but the best performance against an FCS opponent this weekend, statistically, was Texas A&M over SFA. That being said, no fan base should be happier about their team's performance than Wahoos of Virginia. Richmond is a class act in FCS football, which is a big reason that Virginia stole their coach.

Meet your FCS opponents:

Quick Observations from Boise St/VT

I got a last minute chance to go to the Boise St/Virginia Tech game as a neutral observer last night. Here's what I saw.

1) Ryan Williams and Tyrod Taylor are scary explosive, but not more so than Titus Young. All three made me hold my breath every time they tucked it under and took off. Titus Young is fearless. Ryan Williams started soft, got rolling in the middle of the game, but didn't finish well. And he beat my fantasy team.

2) Tyrod Taylor has made a lot of progress and will be very good this season, but he's still not a passing quarterback. He made good decisions and really gave Boise headaches. He also made a lot of good throws, but he throws a soft ball. He rarely tried to zip a ball through a seam, and when he did try, he failed.

3) This game was not about a national championship for Boise St fans. I got the tickets from a friend of a friend of a guy from Idaho, so I was in the Boise section, and not once did I hear anyone mention a national championship. Two BCS bowls wins later, it was still about getting some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

4) Boise fans travel. Boise St averages 33,000 or so for home games. I estimated 15,000+ folks in blue and orange in FedEx field last night. And I can't imagine Boise has a ton of transplants now living in DC. Very impressive. Of course, if I were Boise born and raised, I would have sold the family potato farm to be there.

5) Virginia Tech has the widest distribution in the quality of their fans. A guy a few spots down from me got urinated on in the bathroom, he had beer thrown on him (I was able to enjoy the alcoholic shower as well), and had at least a dozen VT fans after the game shake his hand and congratulate him for a good win. Completely despicable on one end and very respectable on the other. The only other time I've seen so many fans congratulate opposing fans was Nebraska, and they had a couple recent national championships at the time.

6) I can live with what VT did with the unis, but whoever's responsible for putting Boise in those monstrosities should be fired very quickly. My understanding is that these are the new Nike unis. Hideous and stupid. First, the Bronco logo on the helmet looks Arena League. Second, orange on blue is a very distinctive color scheme that Boise wears well. What advantage does it give you, in appearance, in recruiting, in merchandise sales, to abandon that?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tough Games Only Make You Stronger

I have a ton of respect for what Chris Petersen has accomplished with that program, and the Broncos have proved they can beat just about anybody in a one-game situation. But playing in the WAC simply doesn’t compare to playing in the SEC. It’s apples and oranges. It’s like asking where are you most likely to be attacked by a Great White Shark: Swimming in your neighbor’s pool or swimming off the coast of South Africa? - Chris Low, ESPN
Raise your hand if you've heard it before. Yeah, BYU beats Oklahoma, Utah beats Alabama, Boise St beats Oregon ONCE, but they don't have the NFL caliber athletes and depth to do it week in and week out. The argument makes sense, but its garbage. And I can prove it.

The first part of this argument is that playing a tougher schedule wears down players, leading to injuries and missed starts. False. Pac-10 teams led the nation in 2009 by missing an average of 23.3 starts, driven largely by Washingtson St.'s 67 (#1 in the nation by 23 missed starts)*. The SEC is second, but then come the MAC, Sunbelt, MWC and C-USA at 3, 4, 7, and 8, respectively. Big Ten and Big 12 teams missed the fewest games. Three of the 4 conferences to miss the most offensive players were non-AQs. BCS conference teams missed 6.6% of starts to 6.4% of starts for non-BCS teams. If we throw out Washington St., which only masquerades as a Div I football program, non-BCS teams were more injury prone.

Using regression, we have another method for measuring the effect of strength of schedule (SOS) on missed starts. In the model above**, we see that as SOS increases by 1 ( = the average opponent is 1 point better), teams miss 1 more start every 5 games (.18) on average. To put this in context, Alabama missed 29 starts in 2009 and TCU missed 12. Of the 17 extra missed starts for Alabama, one of them can be explained by Alabama's tougher schedule. More importantly, SOS does not significantly effect injuries (p=.419). In other words, its also possible that a tougher schedule reduces injuries, but last season teams with tougher schedules just happened to have more injuries. The same is true of missed starts on offense with a tougher defense SOS and vice versa (not shown).

We can also measure the effect of playing ranked teams. The regression results suggest that teams miss an extra start on average for every 2 games they play against top 25 teams. When we consider that most teams have 286 starts, missing 1 just doesn't seem like that big of a deal. And again, the variable is not significant. While ranked opponents may have produced a handful of injuries in 2009, it is also very possible that playing ranked teams protects teams against injuries.

But the effect of a tough schedule is more than injuries, right? Turns out, we can also measure the effect of a tough schedule one wins and losses. The logistic regression model below looks at all non-bowl games between 1980 and now in which teams played a top 20 team. After controlling for the quality of the team (TRate) the opponent (ORate) and the location of the game (Home), we look at the effect of having played games against other top 20 teams. Seq is the number of games against top 20 teams the team has played before the current game, and Sep is the number of weeks since that game.

There is a good chance that having time between tough games is an advantage - having an extra week between top 20 teams helps a team win as much as playing the game at home instead of at a neutral site (about 3 points of advantage). But their is a large standard error (Std. Err.) for this effect, meaning that while on average it is probably good, it could be very good or not important at all. Having played more games against top 20 teams before the current game has no effect on a team's chances of winning (p=.794, Seq is not significant). On the other hand, playing more games against top 20 teams over the entire season actually increases a teams chances of winning any one of those games (below).

What does this mean? A tough schedule does not, on average, lead to injured teams. Injuries are pretty evenly split between BCS and non-BCS teams, and considering BCS teams should have more depth, injuries over the course of the season are undoubtedly more damaging to non-BCS teams. Having a little time in between showdowns does seem to help. The break between games allows players to emotionally reset and recover from non-debilitating bumps and bruises.

Could Boise St. survive in the SEC? Well, I don't see any reason why they couldn't. If you can do it once, you can do it a million times.

*Missed starts data comes from
**I have removed Washington St. because it is an outlier that unfairly influences the results without substantially changing them.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

MWC, Realignment, and the Search for AQ Status

When the year is listed as 2009, read 2010. Sorry.

April 22, 2009 - The BCS releases its formula for evaluating conferences for AQ status. The formula uses three standards. The first ranks the conference's top teams, the second measures overall strength, and the third standard, a tie breaker of sorts, gives points for ranked teams. If a conference meets the most stringent standards, it automatically qualifies for AQ status. If it meets a set of softer standards, the conference can appeal. I am completely convinced that the committee drew up this formula to create the appearance of objectivity while retaining complete control in the hands of the appeals committee. More on that later.

To clear the air a little, I've run my own calculations. The released BCS formula is a little unclear on a few points, but I found that jiggling with the actual approach did not change the results. I also added in a projections based on expected performance in 2010 and (to a lesser degree) 2011. Again, these projections did not substantially change the results.

Teams are evaluated on their performances from 2008 to 2011 based on conference affiliation on Dec 4, 2011, so the recent realignments could potentially impact a conference's AQ future. Particularly, I wanted to see how realignment affected the MWC and where the MWC stands today.

We start on Feb 1, 2009, pre-shakeup. The MWC is in good shape by the first method with high finishes from TCU and Utah and another high finish expected from TCU in 2010. There is little doubt that the conference will be able to hold on to a top 6 spot. The MWC looks solid coming in 7th in the 2nd method. In fact, the conference was on its own little island, with very little chance of catching #6, but very little chance of being caught by #8. At #7, the conference could not qualify automatically. To qualify for an appeal, the MWC needed to finish in the top 5 in method 1 and have 33% of the points of the top dog in method 3. As of Feb 2, 2009, I would have given the MWC a 5% chance of gaining AQ status automatically, but an 85% chance of qualifying for an appeal.

Things start looking up for the MWC on June 2, 2009 when they add Boise St. The high finish in 2009 and projected high finish in 2010 moves the conference up to #3 by method 1 and within spitting distance of #6 in method 2. Now, the MWC can expect to certainly qualify for an appeal, and has a 10% chance of earning AQ status outright.

Then it hits the fan. Nebraska heads for the Big Ten on June 9th and Utah says its heading west a week later. The second move affects the MWC most directly, but Nebraska's move was deceptively important. Nebraska strengthens the Big Ten in method 2, making it almost impossible that the MWC moves into the 6th slot. The chances of the MWC getting the automatic upgrade drop back below 5%, but the conference's odds of staying in the top 5 in method 1, and qualifying for an appeal, are still around 90%.

It is leaked that BYU might be going independent, and the MWC strikes preemptively, snagging Fresno St and Nevada. While Fresno offers something to the conference, the Nevada grab could only be an attempt to kill the WAC and thwart BYU's plan to join them in all other sports. The move did nothing to improve the conference's BCS hopes (although it definitely put the WAC in the cellar). This, of course, depends on the two schools ability to leave the WAC for 2011, which is still undetermined. The MWC's chances at an automatic AQ upgrade worsen because it is harder to move an average of 11 teams than 9, and their odds of retaining appeal status change very little.

Then, on the last day of August, BYU makes it official that it will be independent on Dec 4, 2011. This, in fact, does very little to the MWC's official chances of gaining AQ status. The conference will still be dependent on an appeal.

So, the real issue is this - will a MWC appeal for AQ status be granted? Based on the way the system has been structured, there is no doubt in my mind that this is where the BCS wanted to be leading up to 2012. By creating the appearance of opportunity, they are hoping to get the legal bloodhounds off their trail while delaying any real decisions. I think the result of the appeal is still TBD. It will depend in large part on the legal environment at the time. But I don't think Utah's and BYU's departure helped anything. Though not more successful on the field than TCU and Boise St, these two programs have a broader, and would make it easier for the BCS bowls to stomach letting in a MWC champion. BYU especially has the longest tradition of success, which would increase the odds that the MWC representative would always be competitive. 

On a related side note, the Big East had better be very careful. While it is currently holds a contract for the next several years, the Big East is less qualified than the MWC for AQ status, regardless of the conference alignments. While the MWC may be out in the cold in 2012 and 2013, it will be hard to leave them out while including the Big East after the current contract expires.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ten+ Boring Predictions for 2010

Everyone that's writes about college football will have a "Bold Predictions" moment this season. They pick a few darkhorses to win their conferences, another one to win the Heisman, claim something new that has never happened before will happen, and do it all to generate a little discussion and get attention.

I want to make predictions that will endure the test of time. I want predictions that are rational, reasonable and, perhaps to some, just plain boring. I, too, will be completely wrong, but at least I actually try to be right. So hold on to your seats - here we go.

Prediction #1: Jake Locker will complete 61% of his passes, throw for 3,200 yards, rush for 600 and be dropped from the Heisman discussion before mid-October. How can you foresee anything but modest improvement for a guy heading into his final college campaign? Even if the kid is heroic, with their schedule he'd have to be Herculean to win 8 games, and he's not a Heisman candidate if his team is floating around .500. On the other had, if UW skates in with 9 or 10 wins, Mr. Locker will take home more hardware than Michael Phelps.

Prediction #2: Garrett Gilbert will be just as successful as Colt McCoy in his first (and second) go as a Longhorn. This means 9-3 regular season, 5-3 in conference, and a relatively prestiguous, non-BCS bowl game. I think the world underestimated the contributions of 3rd rounders Jordan Shipley and Jamaal Charles to Colt's success, and the Texas D took some heavy losses in 2009 as well.

Prediction #3: Have you guys seen the helmets Virginia Tech was wearing in the early 70s? Talk about hideous. I predict that no team in college football has helmets so ugly. And the Hokies will reign over the ACC again. Deep competition in the Coastal just gives Beamer room for error.

Prediction #4: One team from Alabama will be conference champions. That is, the Other Men of Troy. I was going to go with MTSU for the Sunbelt crown until Dasher ran into some troubles with Big Brother. I also predict that all of 10 people will watch a Sunbelt conference game this season, and they will all be next-of-kin.

Prediction #5: Someone will win the MAC, and nobody will care. The same goes for the Pac-10.

Prediction #6: Michigan loses another home opener. Like the other home openers (App State and Utah) Michigan loses this one because the Wolverines are not actually very good at football. And Rich Rod keeps his job because the state of Michigan is economically on par with Zimbabwe right now.

Prediction #7: Alabama's Greg McElroy will get more Heisman love than teammate Mark Ingram. But they'll both get left out in the cold because . . . (see Prediction #8). Kellen Moore will run away with the Heisman if Boise can beat Virginia Tech (See Prediction #9). Landry Jones would be able to turn a Big 12 championship into more hardware except he decides to sport the 'stache. In the end, the Heisman goes to . . .  (see Bonus Prediction).

Prediction #8: Florida wins the SEC. 'Bama will win Redneck Rumble III, but Florida will get revenge in the SEC championship game (RRIV). This will then cause the universe to implode (see Prediction #9).

Prediction #9: Boise State will . . . . not beat Virginia Tech. TCU will be the nation's only undefeated team, winning every game by 400 points. Both Florida and Alabama will claim a spot in the national championship game, and will have a legitimate argument. Oklahoma will be disqualified for the 'stache and the Pac-10 champion will be disqualified because they will officially become a professional franchise, trading places with the Raiders. The Big Ten champ will also have less claim to the title game than the SEC runner up (see Prediction #10).

Prediction #10: Ohio State will win the Big Ten. And Terrelle Pryor will again be quite pedestrian - because the guy has pedestrian talent. Sure he's fast, but he's not at all quick and he doesn't have good vision. Yes he can throw a spiral, but that's the only compliment I can bestow on his passing potential with a straight face. He seems like a good kid, but all hype. Ohio State loses two on its way to its last conference championship in Joe Pa's lifetime.

Bonus Prediction: The Heisman trophy goes to . . . .(Drumroll) . . .  Dion Lewis. Pitt wins 10 games and the Big East. Lewis puts up huge numbers - and he's a sophomore, which has been Heisman gold recently.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Distance Matters - Travel and HFA

In recent posts, I've shown that crowd size doesn't matter in home field advantage, and I've traveled around college football conferences to show that the teams with the large, historic stadiums are not the ones that enjoy the best home field advantage. In fact, the award for best home field advantage in the country probably goes to Texas Tech's Jones Stadium. Arizona St. got +10 points in the Pac-10 playing at home versus on the road, and Indiana got +9 in the Big Ten.

But if crowd size doesn't matter, why do home teams tend to play better? One answer is travel. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, the legs weaker, the body dehydrated, the sleep patterns disrupted, the equipment misplaced or forgotten, the preparation time cut short, the players distracted, and the visiting teams loser. And I can prove it.

Using game results from 2006 to 2009, we can measure the effect of travel on performance. The first model below uses basic linear regression. We use three variables - DOffense, DDefense and Distance. DOffense and DDefense measure how good the road team's offense and defense are compared to the home team's. Distance is the distance traveled in thousands of miles.

The "Coef." for DOffense and DDefense are about 1. This makes sense. A team that is 1 point better than its opponent on offense or defense will win, on average, by 1 point. If it is 14 points better on offense and 28 points better on defense it will win, on average, by 42 points (28+14=42).

For every 1,000 miles a team travels, it loses 1.68 points. So, when Georgia Tech travels 600 miles to play Miami, it loses a point, but gains a point when the U comes calling. That might not seem like much, but about one out of every 13 games, or almost one game a season for the average team, is decided by 2 points or less - the price in points a team pays for traveling 600 miles instead of receiving a team from 600 miles away.

We then add the "_cons", or the home field advantage not explained by distance, and consider the average distance traveled for a game is about 500 miles, to get a net average home field advantage just under 1/2 a touchdown.

The logistic regression measures the effect of these variables on the probability that the road team will win. An "Odds Ratio" greater than 1 means that, as that variable increases, the odds of winning increase. If the Odds Ratio is less than 1, as that variable increases, the odds of winning decrease. Therefore, being 1 point better increases a team's odds by 1.13 and 1.15 for offense and defense, respectively. Traveling 1,000 miles decreases a team's odds of winning by more than a quarter (.694). So, for example, if Duke and North Carolina were evenly matched when UNC traveled to Duke (odds of UNC win = 1 to 2), the odds of a UNC victory drop to .818 to 2 if they had to travel 1,000 miles for that same game. In this scenario, 1 out or every 5 games is determined by travel.

What does this amount to? About 1 game in every 11 games has a different outcome because of where the game was played. 38% of that influence is a product of the distance that teams travel to play their road games. That, to me, is a pretty big deal.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Toughest Places to Play: Big Ten

No conference in the country has bigger stadiums than the Big Ten and, if we exclude Northwestern's diminutive and sparsely population Ryan Field, the Big Ten tops all conferences in average attendance. (Otherwise, the SEC averages about 5,000 more in attendance per game.)

But even in the Big Ten, where average attendance ranges from over 100,000 to less than 30,000, more fans in the stands doesn't seem to help teams win. In conference games since 1994, home teams in the Big Ten have won 56.8% of conference games and have been about one touchdown better per game. Ohio St. has won 81% of their home games in this stretch, but this has little to do with a home field advantage - the Buckeyes also won 75% of road games. The Buckeyes were 6.25 points better at home than on the road, meaning the Buckeyes enjoyed less of a home field advantage than the conference average. Michigan, college football's attendance leader, got less of a boost at home - only 5.42 points per game.

The toughest place to play in the Big Ten has been Indiana's Memorial Stadium, capacity 52,000. The Hoosiers have been 9 points better and 2.5 times more likely to win at home. On the other hand, Illinois has seen no advantage to playing in their own Memorial Stadium (62,000 capacity). Illinois team's since 1994 have been 2.27 points better at home than on the road, but they actually have won more road games than home games in that period.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Boise St vs. Virginia Tech

More information will be available in the expected box score as the season progresses.
Click Here to see a complete expected box score
Click here for an explanation

America Wants a non-AQ Champion

Dear BCS ranking gods,

Brevity is the soul of wit, so I'll be brief. Americans want to see Boise St. or TCU in the national championship game this year. And I don't mean a few Americans. I mean all Americans. Every single resident of this country (except Colin Cowherd).

Let me demonstrate.

1) Boise St. and TCU - true by definition

2) WAC and MWC - That which is good for one is good for all. Attention, exposure, revenue, and new opportunities. C-USA, MAC, Sunbelt have less to gain, but nothing to lose.

3) Alabama, Florida, Texas, OU, Ohio St. - The contenders want to see Boise St or TCU in the title game as well. Think about it. If you could choose the WAC champ or SEC champ, which would you want to see in January?

4) The rest of the BCS - If you're not going to be playing in January, don't you want Boise to get in, get stomped, and put the debate to rest? Get Orin Hatch off your back a little? Nothing was sweeter for the Cowherd's of the world than watching Georgia slam Hawaii in 2007.

5) Everyone else - Independents love Boise. The blue turf. Ian Johnson scoring on the Statue of Liberty and with the cheerleader. They mistakingly see Boise as the Pistol Pete of college football. And this isn't just my opinion. According to a recent ESPN poll, about half the country would prefer Boise St win the championship over any of the top-ranked traditional powers. Not just play for the championship, but actually win it all.

6) The media - Boise or TCU would draw huge ratings and interest. They don't have huge individual followings. They are more like the bearded lady - I'm not a fan in any sense, but you know I'm going to look.

Of course, TCU and Boise have to get the job done on the field. But one of the two will be undefeated 12 games from now, and when that happens, I hope you're ready to bestow your divine benevolence upon these lowly programs.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sun Devil > Autzen? HFA in the Pac-10

Whenever I talk about home field advantage in the Pac-10, people love to bring up Oregon's Autzen Stadium.

And so the stories are told. How UCLA quarterback Pat Cowan lost his voice shouting audibles above the din in 2006 (Oregon 30, UCLA 20).
How Dennis Erickson, when he returned to the Pac-10 at Oregon State in 1999, didn't realize how Autzen had changed since his time at Washington State in the 1980s and neglected to create hand signals for audibles (Oregon 25, Oregon State 14).
And how USC sophomore Mark Sanchez, making only the third start of his career, threw two interceptions in 2007 (Oregon 24, USC 17). The Trojans are back, this time with an even younger quarterback, freshman Matt Barkley.

Oregon won that game 47-20.

Oregon performs better and wins more at home. Since 1994, they've won 74% of conference games at home and only 58% on the road. In fact, every team in the Pac-10 has a better win% at home than on the road in conference play, but the margin is relatively slim. Home teams have won 56% of games and outscored opponents by 5.5 points in the last 16 years, significantly less than the 7 point national average.

And Oregon does not stand out in its own conference. In fact, the only team in the Pac-10 to really differentiate itself with a strong home field advantage is Arizona St - they have been almost 10 points better and 50% more likely to win when playing at Sun Devil Stadium. Cal and UCLA also make a strong showing.

The easiest place to play in the Pac-10 is next door at Arizona Stadium. In fact, Arizona gets very little advantage whatsoever from playing at home.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Where's the 12th Man - HFA in the Big 12

October 10, 1998. I called in to work, put on my best sick voice, and explained to my boss I wouldn't be able to make it in. I was needed in Kyle Field.

#18 Texas A&M jumped out to a 21-7 lead against #2 Nebraska, but Nebraska made a 4th quarter run and cut the lead to 7. With time running out, the Huskers had the ball and the momentum, but the Aggies' Sedrick Curry cut in front of a receiver and picked off the Bobby Newcombe pass.

Rarely has a college football stadium been louder. Aggies take pride in a tradition that hearkens back to E King Gill and Centre College. Where King was prepared to be the 11th man on the field, Aggie fans today are supposed to be a 12th Man, influencing the outcome of the game from the sidelines. Sedrick Curry was the beneficiary of a miscommunication between Newcombe and an inexperienced receiver - the 12th Man had done its job. Or so I thought.

It turns out that crowd size, and with that, crowd noise, do not affect the outcome of games on average. Of course, a game here or there might have ended differently in a vacuum, but home fans are as hurtful as helpful. For every interception "caused" by crowd noise, there is an interception thrown because the quarterback tries to impress the home fans. Crowds may encourage the home team, but silencing a hostile stadium can be just as inspiring for some athletes. Every 1,000 fans in your stadium is worth .02 points, or 18 inches of field position.

This means that the stadiums that get the most attention for being big and rowdy are not necessarily the most helpful to their teams. And we can test this. Using only conference games, we can look at the average difference between how teams did on the road versus at home. Because their home and road opponents are equal on average, most of the difference between teams performance at home and on the road should be driven by home field advantage.

We begin with the Big 12. Since it was formed in 1994, 1,453 Big 12 conference games have been played in non-neutral sites. (Most significantly, this excludes Texas/OU games, but that will not affect the final results). In those games, home teams have won 58% of the time, outscoring their opponents by almost 9 points per game. Few conferences exceed a home/road difference of 7, so home field is a very big deal in the Big 12.

The team with the largest differential is Texas Tech. When looking at this subject a couple of years ago, I then concluded that Jones Stadium is the toughest place in the country to play. Tech is, on average, two touchdowns better at home than on the road. They've won 73.3% of their 60 home games, but only 41.7% of 60 road games when playing Big 12 opponents.

And the easiest place to play? That would be Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium. Apparently, giving your stadium a very long name does not help you win football games. The Longhorns are less than 5 points better at home than on the road. In terms of win/loss record, Missouri and Oklahoma St. are at the bottom of the barrel. By playing at home, these two schools only improve their odds of winning by 1.7 (or odds of winning on road*1.7 = odds of winning at home). The conference as a whole averages an odds ratio of about 2. Baylor and Texas Tech top the list with odds ratios over 3.5.

Ranking the teams from top to bottom in home field advantage based on point differential and winning odds ratio, we come up with the following list. Going back to an earlier argument that home field advantage is primarily about travel, we see that the teams with the biggest HFA are not the power programs with large stadiums, but the programs in isolated locations. Because the Big 12 has more isolated destinations than the other major conferences, home field is more important.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rankings High: Scientific Proof that Preseason Polls Matter

This is a re-posting. Given today's AP poll, it seemed appropriate.

This post will be a bit technical, but bare with me. I have argued before (rather convincingly, I think) that preseason polls are somewhat effective at predicting the eventual national champ.1 This then begs the question--do preseason polls just predict or do they actually influence the final rankings?

Those who argue that preseason and postseason polls are independent say that any correlation between the two shows that pollsters made some good guesses about which teams will be good and which won't. Florida might not finish #1 in 2009, but I can guarantee that they'll finish in the top 10. It's also possible that the relationship is spurious-voters put Notre Dame too high and Utah too low at all times, be it pre-, post-, or mid-season.

There is another camp that argues that preseason polls influence final rankings. They point to the stepwise fashion in which teams move in the polls. It is usually controversial for a team to jump another team unless the second team lost that week, and therefore those teams that start on top have an advantage over those that need to jump them. It can also be hard to get noticed if you start outside of the top 25. Consequently, preseason polling gives some teams a head start.

I also think we should not underestimate the importance of the pernicious disease I call Neuheiselitus. Much like Eli Manning or Mall Cop, people can't seem to figure out that Rick Neuheisel isn't actually any good at what he does. It often takes a while for pundits to realize that some talented teams with high expectations aren't any good. On the other end of the spectrum is Applewhiteocious-just because they couldn't find a helmet that didn't cover his eyes didn't mean Major Applewhite wasn't twice the quarterback that Chris Simms could ever hope to be, and yet he had a hard time staying on the field. This is disease is alternatively called Flutiecoccus and is now plaguing Hyundai and Canadian bacon.

Whose right? To answer that question, I used regression to estimate the importance of different factors-win/loss record, strength of schedule, national prestige, and, of course, preseason ranking. Basically, by taking into account other factors that can influence a team's final ranking, I can isolate the unique influence of preseason polls on postseason results.

I've used data from 1994 to 2008 from AP Poll Archive. I first used regression to predict the final rankings using only the win/loss records and the strength of schedule. In the blue box, you see the R-squared is .78-this means that just using these four factors we can very accurately predict the final rankings. The green box shows the strength of the effects. Each win moves a team up the polls (closer to number 1) by 1.6 on average and a loss moves you down 3.4. That should seem about right. A tougher schedule also moves a team up in the polls-no surprise there.
Next, I add prestige factors-total wins for the program, national champions and whether or not they are in a BCS conference. Of these, only being in a BCS conference really matters (if the number below P>|t| is above .05 the factor is not significant). On average, a team in a BCS conference will finish about 5 spots higher than another team not in a BCS conference with the same record and strength of schedule. Figures.
Next, I add general measures of the team's performance. the PerfRating is based on margin of victory and EloRating just on win/loss record (like those used for the BCS computer rankings). The EloRating is not significant because it measures the same thing as the win/loss record and strength of schedule, but the PerfRating is important. Finally, I add the preseason rankings. You will notice that the P>|t| value is below .05, which means that preseason polls have a real influence on postseason polls. In other words, the results in the final rankings would be different if we didn't do preseason polling. But before we get too excited, it is important to also look at the coefficient (=.0539). One spot in the preseason poll moves a team up .05 spots in the final poll. Or, being ranked 5th instead of 25th will move a team up one spot in the final rankings. So, while preseason polls do inappropriately influence final rankings, the effect is not large. It is marginal at best compared to conference affiliation, for example, which can be worth 4 spots in the final rankings.
One group does benefit more than others. The table below lists the biggest benefactors of preseason polling. The Pred. is where the team should have finished, but they all finished between 2 and 5 spots too high even after accounting for performance, wins and losses, SOS, conference affiliation, etc. They also have some other commonalities. They are major programs from BCS conferences. They were ranked between 2 and 5 before the season started and finished between 9 and 28 - in other words, they were thought to be national title contenders, but were, in fact, major duds. Classic cases of Neuheiselitus
In summary, preseason polls do influence final results in a way they are not supposed to, but not enough to really worry about. And teams in BCS conferences can lose one more game than an otherwise equal non-BCS team and still finish higher in the polls. Non-BCS conspiracy theorists have been right all along.