Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Cover Up: Overall Conference Strength

This is the second part of the BCS Bash series. For part one, click here.

Once the Bowl Coalition and its successors adopted a platform that would use conference champions as a means to its end, and then gave automatic qualifying status to the champions of the participating conferences, these entities needed to justify that platform. Justifying this platform was easy to defend in the beginning. Few criticized them and most just glossed over the automatic qualifying element. As time has passed and very good teams from the other conferences were overtly excluded from playing in one of the bowls, greater scrutiny has been given to the automatic qualifying status for six conferences.

The automatic qualifying provision has been exposed as a bad cover up. The conferences with automatic qualifying status needed some incentive to join this pact, and the automatic qualifying status for their champion was the incentive. Of course, if you are going to extend privileges you need to justify those privileges. To justify this privilege and to try and keep the hidden agendas safe, the battle cry became “overall conference strength.” The overall conference strength of these six conferences is so much better than the rest of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences that these six conference champions earned, by play on the field, one of the ten (formerly 8) slots in the participating bowl games. The other conference champions were relegated to parading themselves for style points from the voters and computers in a competition with the second and third place teams from conferences with automatically qualifying champions for the four (formerly 2) remaining slots.

Overall conference strength!!! Are you serious? How do you quantify that? Do you compare the last place teams in each conference? Do you look at each team’s non-conference record? Do you look at the end of the year rankings? While each of these can appear reasonable on the surface, the truth is they are all ridiculous.

Last Place Teams
This overall conference strength argument tells me that the powers that be must have done something to evaluate and compare the last place teams in each conference. Maybe they conducted 10,000 computer simulations of Vanderbilt vs. Tulane, Duke vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, Iowa State vs. UTEP, Indiana vs. Kent State, Rutgers vs. Northern Illinois, and Oregon State vs. New Mexico State (in the early to mid 1990s these were the perennial losers). The results of these computer simulations must have been so compelling that any reasonable person would look at them and say, “You know, if the WAC champion had to play Iowa State instead of UTEP, then I would support automatic qualifying status for the WAC champion. I mean look at last year (1994). A win over Iowa State (0-10-1) was much more impressive than a win over UTEP (3-7-1).” Reality check: The competitiveness of the worst team in the conferences was never discussed and it had no bearing on handing out the automatic qualifying status for conference champions. Reality check #2: A last place team is a last place team, and two wins in a season is two wins. There is no way to sugar coat bad teams.

Non-Conference Record
Since it wasn’t head-to-head competition between the last place teams, it must have been the better non-conference record by those bottom-of-the-bucket teams that made the overall conference strength so great. It is quite logical that in 1994 Wake Forest was only 1-7 in conference games because the ACC was so strong top to bottom. Look at the Demon Deacon’s 2-1 non-conference record. However, in 1994 Hawaii was 0-8 in the WAC because Hawaii was awful, never mind that Hawaii was 3-0-1 in non-conference games. Sorry, but that logic is grossly flawed! The facts reveal that Wake Forest beat Appalachian State 12-10, beat Army 33-27, and lost to Vanderbilt 35-14. Hawaii beat Pac-10 champion Oregon 36-16, Cal 21-7, and Southeast Missouri State 34-0, and tied Missouri 32-32.

The overall records at face value for the worst teams in the automatic qualifying conferences often do look better than their non-automatic qualifying conference counterparts. When you start to compare, it is evident that this difference can be attributed to the bad AQ teams playing more Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams or other bad FBS teams than the bad non-AQ teams. Am I the only one that cringes when a team that was 2-6 or 3-5 in league play goes to a bowl game because they were 4-0 or 3-1 against terrible non-conference opponents (case in point: Auburn, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and UCLA in 2009)? Any ground that is gained by playing in a conference with greater “overall conference strength” is lost by playing much softer non-conference schedules. In other words, the season schedule as a whole is usually comparable.

We were wrong about comparing the worst teams from each conference, and we were wrong about the non-conference records. Therefore, the answer to the overall conference strength mystery must be those hallowed national rankings. Sadly, the rankings have lost their integrity and now have a decided BCS bias. In 1994, Utah was 10-2, second place in the WAC, and ranked number 10 in the final Associated Press poll. Every other team in the top ten had one loss or less, except one other two loss team, so I have to say the number 10 ranking was fair. Fast forward 10 years and let’s track how the Mountain West Conference (MWC) champion finished in the final BCS standings (Note: The MWC is comprised of virtually the same teams as the WAC was in 1994.)

2004: Utah was 11-0 and ranked number 6, behind one-loss Texas and one-loss California; teams that finished second in their conferences.
2005: TCU was 10-1 and ranked number 14. A 10-1 record for a conference champion from an automatic qualifying conference garnered a no. 3 and no. 11 ranking that year, while two-loss Georgia was no. 7, two-loss Ohio State was no. 4, and two-loss Notre Dame was no. 6.
2006: BYU was 10-2 and ranked number 20. However, the AQ conference champions with two losses were ranked numbers 5, 10, and 14, while two-loss LSU was no. 4 and two-loss Notre Dame was no. 11.
2007: BYU was 10-2 and ranked number 17. The AQ conference champions with 2 losses were ranked numbers 2, 3, 4, 7, and 9, while the teams ranked numbers 12 through 16 all had three or four losses.
2008: Utah was 12-0 and ranked number 6. Every team ahead of Utah had one loss, including its Sugar Bowl opponent Alabama. Utah won that game convincingly, 31-17.
2009: TCU was 12-0 and ranked number four. Every team ahead of TCU was undefeated as well. However, all season long, TCU was ahead of Cincinnati, an AQ conference champion, until the final standings when the Bearcats leapfrogged TCU.

The last six years the BCS standings have shown a clear bias towards teams from conferences labeled as automatic qualifiers. (If we looked at the first six years of the BCS the bias would be even more apparent.) A similar pattern is reflected in the individual polls—human and computer. The examples cited above only look at conference champions, but it has a trickle down effect on the overall conference. If voters are going to rank a non-AQ conference champion lower than the AQ conference champions, they will also rank the second and third place teams lower. A second place team cannot be in the top 10 if the conference champion isn’t even in the top 10. The third place team won’t even be ranked if the second place team is stuck in the 20s.

Although I love the rankings, they are very flawed because they are largely influenced by opinion. At present, the human voters’ opinions and the computer formulas are biased by the two misconceptions previously addressed, and other subjective elements like unreliable recruiting class ranks, theoretical strength of schedule ranks, and the historical success of a team. The BCS has caused the voters and computer programmers to draw a line of demarcation between schools in AQ conferences and schools in non-AQ conferences. If you happen to be in one of those six AQ conferences you are given the benefit of the doubt, but if you are on the outside you are handicapped. The outsiders have to repeatedly prove themselves to be considered legitimate, but if they slip up once along the way the voters and computer matrices hastily slam the outsider schools back to ground zero. An outsider must finish a season undefeated to play in a BCS game, while an AQ team can expect a spot in the national championship game if it finishes undefeated.

(NOTE: I used 1994 for many of my arguments because that is the last year before the Bowl Coalition morphed into the Bowl Alliance, and it is the time frame that would have been used when analyzing conference strength and weighing the merits of the decision to have automatic qualifying conferences.)

The SEC is currently considered the gold standard for football conferences. Interestingly, Chris Low, the blogger for the SEC compiled the record of each SEC team against teams in the final Associated Press and USA Today top 25 over the last five years. Here are the results:

• Florida – 14-9 (.609)
• LSU – 13-11 (.542)
• Alabama – 10-12 (.455)
• Auburn – 8-12 (.400)
• Georgia – 8-12 (.400)
• Tennessee – 5-17 (.227)
• Ole Miss – 4-14 (.222)
• South Carolina – 5-19 (.208)
• Arkansas – 3-20 (.130)
• Kentucky – 2-17 (.105)
• Vanderbilt – 2-17 (.105)
• Mississippi State 2-20 (.091)

Two SEC teams have a winning record. Seven teams (over half of the conference) average one or fewer wins per year against a top 25 team. The winning percentage for each of those seven teams is below 0.250 (1 out of 4). Thank you, Mr. Low, for providing more numbers to expose the fallacy that is “overall conference strength.”

At this point, we still have no evidence supporting the overall conference strength argument. The fact is that each conference has three or four teams at the bottom that are "easy" victories, and each conference has four or five teams that pose a legitimate threat to the eventual conference champion. All these arguments that one team had a harder conference schedule are not compelling arguments.

Proponents of the BCS and its predecessors use the cover up that the overall conference strength is so much better in certain conferences that the champions from those conferences merit preferential treatment (automatic qualifying status). As we can see, that cover up is full of holes, and the situation only gets bleaker when you look at the evidence against those supposed merits. The evidence will be on display tomorrow.

Part 3: The Evidence: Performance on the Field
Part 4: The Solution: It's About Conference Champions



  1. Don't forget the advantage BCS schools have by playing at home in most OOC games. Of course that means the non-aq are playing on the road 7-8 times per year in many cases.

    Also, check the FCS opponents, I bet BCS teams play more on average than non AQ teams.

    Add to that the coaching carousel of non AQ teams and I don't just mean head coaches.

    Despite all this and the ever widening revenue differences, the non AQ are still competing although with great difficulty.

  2. Wow. Pass me what you are smoking bro.

    Chris Low really should only go back 2 years if he wants to know the current state of programs in the SEC. I am posting this after the lesser ranked Alabama Crimson Tide team demolished the higher ranking Michigan State team. Just looking on the TV an Auburn friend remarked that the linemen of Alabama's arms look like tree trunks compared the the sticks on the other side.

    He went on to ask if they were going to open a mobile ER on Michigan State's sideline

    Like it or not this is the current reality: The SEC is the toughest conference to play in. Alabama would have just as easily manhandled the Number 5 Stanford Indians/Trees.

    Rather than passing me your bong take the bong away from the BSC ranking system. Those cats are high and delusional.

  3. Not sure why you think I am smoking something.

    Not sure what your comments have to do with this article either.

    What exactly does the no. 4 SEC team beating the no. 3 Big Ten team prove? Even if it was 49-7. Lower ranked teams beat higher ranked teams all the time--even in BCS bowls.

    My point is comparing confernces top to bottom does not lead to any solid conclusions. You cannot justify handing one conference a BCS AQ bid because "top to bottom" that conference is so good.

    The SEC has its weaknesses just like every other conference. Just look at the following:

    Tennessee lost to Wyoming in Knoxville very recently.

    Ole Miss lost to 1-AA Jacksonville State this year.

    Florida needed 5 interceptions to beat Penn State New year's day.

    South Carolina (the team that took it to Alabama this year) looked horrible against the ACC runner up.