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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. Playing a lot of top 20 teams does not hurt a team's chances of winning, and may actually help them win. Its like RockBand. When I move from Hard to Expert, the change of pace always messes me up. The same is true when Kellen Moore or Matt Barkley are reading a defense. But having a little time in between showdowns does seem to help, and since injuries are not the issue, we can only assume that time helps for game planning and emotionally preparing for big games.

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 start 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.