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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ten+ Boring Predictions for 2011

Now an annual tradition, it is time for ten boring predictions for the upcoming college football season.

1) A quarterback or running back will win the Heisman Trophy . . . if a wide receiver or kick-returning corner does not. In fact, I will take that one step further. The Heisman Trophy winner will come from a team with a winning record and, going out on a limb here, will play in a BCS conference. I'd even go so far as to say that this team will be ranked in the top 25. They will not necessarily be the best, most impactful or most valuable player in college football, but they will put up some gaudy numbers while playing a prominent position for a contender.

And this player will have "andr" in his first name. And he will wear #12.

2) The national champion will not come from the SEC
East. And I will even rule out everyone but Alabama from the West.

3) Jake Heaps will become something of a national phenomenon. And we will all be learning how to "Heaper" before the season is over. But he does not have "andr" in his first name, and he cannot consistently drain jumpers from 700 feet.

4) Boise St. and TCU will both take big steps backwards. TCU can look to Texas for an example of what happens when you lose your team leader/QB, and Boise St. just has some bad karma coming their way. Sell outs.

5) The Big East will be an embarrassment to the BCS once again. The Big East champ will go to a BCS bowl game and again be totally overmatched. And the Big East will announce that it has started adding high school football programs from California to try to enhance its status.

6) Beano will finally get one right after many years of futility and Notre Dame will go undefeated. Their starting QB, whoever that ends up being, will take on the nickname "Golden Boy" as they reset the record books - and take the lead in the upcoming presidential election - but niether Dayne nor Tommy have "andr" in them, so a Heisman is out of the question. And in real life, I think the Domers and Seminoles will again be quite pedestrian.

7) People will still fail to realize that Landry Jones is a run-of-the-mill quarterback unworthy of picking Sam Bradford's nose, who enters every game with superior talent around him, and that none of these characteristics qualify him for a Heisman Trophy. But he will not win a national championship or a conference championship in 2011.

8) Most of us will forget that the ACC exists, because 1) there are so very few true ACC fans, 2) they aren't any good (the fans or the teams), and 3) they aren't as bad as the Big East and their eventual champion will not have lost a few weeks ago to an FCS team. Really, name three players from the ACC this season with real national name recognition. I'm serious. Who cares about the ACC?

9) A lot of games will be played in the Big 10, most of which will be mind-numbingly boring, and in the end, as the ultimate of gentlemen's clubs, they will still figure out a way for half the conference to share the title despite theoretically ending conference play in a championship game.

10) The BCS title game this season will host two teams that have not played for a BCS title in the last decade. And, once again, no one in college football will win a national championship. There will be a lot of moaning and groaning, with some political posturing, about the format of FBS postseason play, and a lot of people will regurgitate the same old arguments on both sides of the debate for the 100th time.

Bonus: Denard Robinson will rush for fewer yards this season than he did in the first half against Indiana last year (I think that was about 800 yards). And Bo Pelini's head will explode and seriously injure Joe Pa when they meet in Beaver Stadium. Carl will suffer a similar violent cranial eruption minutes later as he grieves. It will become increasingly apparent that Mike Leach is a better football coach than Tommy Tubberville and Randy Edsall combined. The intelligent contigent within the college football crowd will continue to marvel, in the most negative of ways, at the coaching hires that have been made in Los Angeles over the last few years. I will find more reasons to put Miami and Oregon at the top of my least favorite programs list. ESPN will release a statement that it has a man-crush on Mack Brown and will seek to legalize television network/college football program unions. And college football will continue to be slowly undone as television networks hop into bed with specific programs and conferences.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Can the Aggies Reach the Pinnacle in 2011?

As the Aggies try to climb to the top of college football in just two seasons, there is plenty of precedent for such a rapid rise.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders recently presented an analysis on in which he identified "it" teams that he believes will fall short of expectations. First on his list is Texas A&M. Essentially, the argument is that A&M and other programs lack the program depth, measured by his 5 season FEI, to achieve such lofty goals.  Specifically, he notes that no team outside of the top 20 PFEI in the last 10 years has played for a national title. And while the Aggies' 56th ranked PFEI does not overwhelm with confidence, Brian's condemnation of the Aggies is premature.

First, the Aggies don't need to play for a national championship to live up to expectations. Instead, let's focus on a top 10 finish. Consistently ranked at the bottom end of the top 10 in preseason polls, the nation's coaches and media, and Aggieland with them, seem to agree that a top 10 finish is a reasonable expectation for these Aggies. Coming from the Big 12 with OOC games against Arkansas and SMU, 2 losses shouldn't be enough to keep A&M out of the top 10. Only 3 teams from BCS conferences have finished outside of the AP top 10 after losing 2 or fewer games in a season since 2005, and 1of those was Rutgers, which barely counts.

So, how many teams have been able to make the jump from 56th FPEI to 2 or fewer losses. While I have plenty of fancy metrics myself, I've decided to keep it simple and look only at win/loss records - because my dependent variable is measured in losses, a win/loss metric is internally controlled for SOS. So, how many teams have managed to jump from a winning percentage worse than the Aggies over the past five seasons (54.6%) to a 2- (2 or fewer) loss season.

Since 1980, 391 teams have lost 2- games in a season (36 undefeated, 127 one-loss and 228 two-loss seasons). These teams won about 2/3 of their games in the 5 seasons before that season (66.3%), a mark not drastically, but substantially, better than the Aggies 54.6% winning percentage between 2006 and 2010.

But many teams have been able to make the jump to 2- after worse runs than the Aggies. Almost 1/3 of the 228 two-loss teams had worse winning percentages than the Aggies in the 5 previous seasons. The Aggies have already made the jump in 1985, and Alabama made the jump in 2005 in the run up to a national championship.

Nineteen teams managed one-loss seasons after underperforming the Aggies over the previous 5 seasons. Four of the 19 went from losing records to a one loss season in the last decade (Oregon St. 2000; Stanford 2010; Kansas 2007; and Penn St. 2005). Texas A&M's football program is infrastucturally superior to all of these programs, and Aggieland would rejoice after a one-loss season that ends in a BCS bowl game.

And, finally, 4 teams (about 10% of all undefeated teams since 1980) have managed to turn around a losing record over 5 seasons to an undefeated season. Two, Oklahoma in 2000 and Georgia Tech in 1990, won national championships, and the other two, Syracuse 1987 and Tulane 1997, finished in the top 10.

What does this all mean? It means that the Aggies' poor performance is in no way a hindrance to them making a jump into the top 10 this season. And what do many of these teams that make the big jump have in common? A relatively recent coaching change, something the Aggies are now enjoying.

Texas A&M, Florida, and the Cumulative Win/Loss

Here is more evidence that myopia is a serious problem in college football (as is major sports news networks buying massive interest stakes in particular conferences).

The cumulative win/loss has become one of my favorite toys. Basically, a team gets a point for each win and loses a point for each loss, and then I add those up over time. I've noticed that Texas A&M and Florida share a strikingly similar pattern in their cumulative win/loss histories. The correlation for the three decades of football between 1970 and 2000 is .9795 - for those unfamiliar with correlations, this essentially means the two track each other perfectly. And remember, Florida won a national championship during that period.

In other words, if we discount the Aggies' lost decade, the unfortunate product of a coach A&M stole from Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M have been more or less identical in the modern era of college football.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Putting Crappy Football in Perspective

My team has sucked, but so has yours. It is the nature of college football, and sports in general, that even good programs (and franchises) have bad seasons. Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas and Nebraska have all had losing seasons in the last 4 years. Oklahoma had three straight losing seasons from 1996 to 1998. The Yankees lost 95 games in 1990. Even River Plate, the Red Sox of Argentine soccer, was recently relegated to the second division.

The real difference between good programs and bad programs is that good programs rebound. LSU had 8 losing seasons between 1989 and 1999, but would return to national championship form in less than 5 years. Oklahoma needed only two seasons to go from losing more than winning to a national title. A program should not be evaluated by where it is at any one moment, but where it goes during its highest highs and lowest lows.

Here I focus on college football's lowest lows. Specifically, I am looking at each programs' worst 5 and 10 year slumps since 1970. The chart below lists 116 college football programs by their worst seasons. Higher ranked teams are those whose lowest lows just aren't as low as others. (Ties count as 1/2 a win.)

Ohio State is the clear winner here. While they might not be able to beat the SEC in a bowl game without cheating, they have the luxury of playing the majority of their games against the Big 10. Nebraska, Michigan, Georgia, and Notre Dame join Ohio State as college football's best at not being bad (though Michigan is one non-spectacular season from dropping off this list). No program has managed a sub-60% 5 year slump, and only 7 have managed to avoid a losing record over any 5 year period.

Northwestern, Kent State, Kansas State, and New Mexico State have each managed 5 year slumps of historic proportions, losing more than 90% of their games. These, clearly, are not elite college football programs.

But my real interest here is to put Texas A&M's 21st century struggles in perspective. In yellow are those slumps that are still better than Texas A&M's worst 21st century slumps (2005-2009 and 2000-2009). Again, only 7 programs have avoided slumps worse than Texas A&M's recent 5 year slump. Among the schools that have experienced worse 5 year slumps are Oklahoma (1994-1998),  Alabama (2000-2004), Florida (1977-1981), LSU (1990-1994), Florida State (1972-1976), and Miami (1975-1979), all of whom have won national championships in the last dozen years (USC (1997-2001) and Texas (1985-1989) were both 1 loss away from joining this list). Seventeen programs have avoided worse 10 year slumps than the Aggies between 2000 and 2009.

So, are the Aggies going to win a national championship some time in the next 5 years? I think so, but that's not really the point here. Instead, the point here is that just because the Aggies have struggled recently does not mean they will continue to struggle indefinitely, no more than Oklahoma, LSU, or Alabama have continued to struggle. And when you consider the heights Texas A&M has achieved over the last 30 years, you have to believe that brighter days are ahead, and probably not that far in the future.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

SEC Expansion and Past Performance

With all the talk of Texas A&M moving to the SEC, SEC homers and others around the country have used it as another opportunity to make more absurd claims about the competitiveness of the SEC. Yes, the SEC is the best conference in the country (now), but the conference still has bad teams and even the good teams lose games from time to time. Last year, the SEC was lucky that Auburn survived early (against Clemson, Kentucky and Mississippi State) and peaked at the right time to finish the season, because the conference otherwise lacked a true national title contender. The most myopic observers overlook A&M's pen-elite infrastructure and history to argue that A&M would not be able to compete in the SEC.

I am responding in particular to a post by David Ubben. He argues, based on A&M's all-time record against the SEC that A&M will be ill-suited to compete in the SEC. And yes, the Aggies of the 1960s would not compete for an SEC title, but this is missing the point. Instead, I have built a more appropriate sample from the 20 seasons between 1990 and 2010. The graph below shows the cumulative win/loss records of 9 teams that have been or could be in the SEC expansion discussion since 1990 (Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Florida State). A team's line moves up when they beat a (current) SEC team and drops when they lose to an SEC team, so moving up the y-axis equates with a stronger performance against SEC opponents. So, which of these teams has performed best against SEC opponents over the last two decades (line #4)?

1=Oklahoma, 2=Virginia Tech, 3=Texas, 4=Texas A&M, 5=Oklahoma State, 6=Clemson, 7=Georgia Tech, 8=Baylor, 9=Florida State

Yes, that's right, Texas A&M has outperformed all other teams on this list by at least two games. Tied for second are Oklahoma and Baylor (who has achieved this mark by playing only two games against SEC opponents). Only Georgia Tech has lost a higher percentage of games than Texas on this list.

In other words, when we break it down by the numbers, Texas A&M is as suited for play in the SEC as any team in the country.

Below: Texas A&M's all-time cumulative win/loss against the current SEC.